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7 November 2020updated 11 Nov 2020 7:45pm

How terror returned to the streets of Europe

Recidivist jihadi prisoners show the enduring threat of Islamic State ideas.

By Shiraz Maher

Terror is back on the streets of Europe with a string of attacks in Paris, Nice and Vienna. The most recent of these, on 2 November, involved a 20-year-old man killing four people in a marauding gun assault in the Austrian capital.

The story is a familiar one. The gunman, Kujtim Fejzulai, had previously tried to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria in 2018, but only made it as far as Turkey before local authorities stopped him. Fejzulai, who has Austrian and Macedonian citizenship, was subsequently sent back to Austria, where he was arrested as a “foreign fighter” and sentenced to 22 months in prison. On 5 December 2019 he was released early on parole. Speaking after the attack, Fejzulai’s lawyer said: “Nobody would have thought him capable of something like this.” But it is clear that he had deceived prison authorities into believing he was repentant.

Fejzulai is not the only terrorist to have duped prison officials. A similar story emerged after a prisoner was released in December 2018 from Belmarsh in south-east London. Less than a year after leaving prison, he launched an attack at Fishmongers’ Hall near London Bridge, killing two Cambridge University graduates, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones. The extent of his deceit was so extreme that he had featured in an academic case study as a model offender who had disavowed extremist beliefs. The Home Secretary Priti Patel announced terrorism sentences would be toughened following the 2019 attack. Under the previous rules, prisoners were eligible for early release after serving just half of their sentence. In the aftermath, Boris Johnson revealed there were another 74 terrorist offenders in the UK who had been released early and whose cases would have to be reviewed. A similar problem now confronts the Austrian government.

Prison services are in an unenviable position. They are forced to make difficult decisions with respect to a growing and increasingly complex community of inmates. Austria, for example, had no terrorist prisoners in 2013. As of March 2019 it had 39, including two women and 11 “young adults”.

This steep rise in prisoners, and the diversity of their profiles, is forcing countries across Europe to develop greater expertise in managing terrorist offenders.

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[See also: The Vienna attack and shifts in Jihadist terror]

The situation is complicated by the fact that inmates such as Fejzulai voluntarily engage with deradicalisation initiatives in prison. They have successfully convinced authorities that they regret their previous actions, such as trying to join IS, and have reformed.

These acts of deception were exemplified in Normandy in 2016, when a terrorist prisoner assured the judge that he was repentant after having tried to join IS in Syria. “I am a Muslim who believes in mercy, in doing good, I’m not an extremist,” he said. “I want to get my life back, see my friends, get married.” Within months of his release he, along with an accomplice, attacked a Catholic mass, taking several people hostage and killing the 85-year-old priest Jacques Hamel

The latest terrorist attacks began in France with the murder of Samuel Paty, a Parisian schoolteacher who was beheaded by an extremist after he showed his civics class satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The repercussions have reverberated across France and throughout the Muslim world. Less than two weeks after the terrorist attack in Paris another took place in Nice, where three people were killed in the Notre-Dame basilica. One of the victims, a 60-year-old woman, was attacked so brutally that she was almost beheaded.

Although the French attacks were not ascribed to any terrorist group, the Austrian attacker is known to have pledged allegiance to IS. In all cases, the men are believed to have acted alone.

There is a common thread that links them all: the new and dangerously innovative ways IS now identifies its targets. From its earliest days, around 2014-15, the group advised members to select targets that would cause maximum offence and outrage. Within Syria and Iraq, for example, the group regularly desecrated churches and other religious and cultural heritage sites, such as the ancient city of Palmyra.

[See also: Syria’s war without end]

All of this informs its broader strategic view – that there is a cosmic battle between Islam and everyone else; between “truth” and “falsehood”.

The group’s own literature, including a ten-page editorial in IS’s online magazine Dabiq in 2015, has described the need to “destroy” what it calls the “grey zone”.

For the ordinary person, the grey zone means the multiple and messy ways we often describe ourselves – “British-Muslim” or “African-American” – and the emotional bonds and loyalties we share with others, such as our football team, our career or our friends and family.

These are the shades of grey that define an ordinary life of nuance, measure, scepticism and uncertainty. But they also represent an existential threat to an extremist dogma that preaches a Manichean world of dark and light, good and bad, Muslim and infidel.

Attacks such as those we have seen in France and Austria are designed to eradicate the grey zone. Their aim is to polarise populations, undermine any sense of the common good and hasten a civilisational crisis.

In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, it is commonly asked by the public if IS coordinated or directed the atrocities. The primary concern is whether an attack is emblematic of the group’s resurgence and military reach. These questions miss the broader point. Groups such as IS are, for now, beaten and in retreat. Their territorial control in the Middle East and ability to command support on the ground in foreign capitals is severely degraded.

But what endures is the power of their ideas to entice young, disaffected Muslim men, and the terrible chaos that ensues from that. Driving IS from its Middle Eastern redoubts has largely been a success. But as the recidivist jihadi prisoners have shown, containing that threat of ideas is an altogether more challenging affair.

[See also: What Macron’s clash with Islamism means for his presidency]

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This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump