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Executive Summary: EMERGING THREAT OF LONE-ACTOR TERRORIST PLOTS TO EUROPEAN SECURITY

Updated: Nov 15

Pètra van de Gevel, Vanessa Coimbra, Iris Raith, EUCOM

Week of Monday, November 8, 2021


Member of Parliament Sir David Amess[1]


On Monday, October 18, 2021, members of the British Parliament paid tribute to Sir David Amess, a Conservative deputy, after he was fatally stabbed on Friday, October 15, 2021. Amess held an open meeting with constituents at a church in Leigh-on-Sea when a man identified as Ali Harbi Ali stabbed him multiple times with a knife.[2] Amess’ murder follows similar lone-actor incidents in the United Kingdom (UK), such as in 2010 when the British Labor Member of Parliament (MP) Stephen Timms was attacked in Beckton and in 2016 when British Labor MP Jo Cox was murdered in Birstall.[3] The EUCOM Team at the Counterterrorism Group (CTG) estimates that this particular attack represents a trend in security threats that Western Europe will face in the COVID-19 recovery era. The anti-establishment discourse and online propaganda disseminated by lone actors connected to extreme movements will likely promote the rise of similar attacks. Future related events will likely occur, not only within the UK but across Europe. The EUCOM Team predicts that attacks carried out by lone perpetrators will pose a significant threat to European security, as they will likely target important figures (symbolic terrorism). Despite the relatively low number of attacks on prominent individuals, the ongoing radicalization of European citizens against national governments almost certainly increases the likelihood of future attacks.


Lone-actor terrorism, meaning individuals are not directed by a group or collective ideology, very likely poses a growing threat to European security as it increases the likelihood of important figures becoming a target. Although lone-actor terrorism in Europe is relatively rare, there has been an overall increase in such attacks in the past 15 years.[4] Lone-actor terrorism will almost certainly increase as a result of extremist movements’ rapid growth. The increase in attacks by individuals operating without commands from a wider network almost certainly makes detection and disruption more challenging.


Religious and far-right lone-actor attacks are most prevalent in Europe; however, while religiously motivated attacks tend to be more deadly, nationalist and right-extremist lone-actor terrorist attacks are consistently more common.[5] That is likely because of a more widespread and embedded right-extremist subculture throughout Europe. Although there is no specific profile for a lone-actor attack, previous European cases show that these are likely to manifest in symbolic terrorism.[6] As intelligence and law enforcement largely focus on the detection and disruption of religious terrorist plots, it is very likely lone-actor far-right terrorists remain undetected due to their lack of a structured organization. Security officials are likely monitoring more right-wing lone-actor threats, and it is very likely that if policy-makers, practitioners, and the media do not shift their focus to this emerging threat, lone-actor terrorism will continue to be overlooked, likely resulting in a failure to detect right-wing plots.


The recent stabbing of MP Amess has reignited the discussion of the dangers posed by lone perpetrators attacking important figures, such as elected politicians.[7] The killing of Amess occurred only five years after the stabbing of British MP Jo Cox in 2016, who was also attacked by a lone actor in a public setting.[8] Both incidents have almost certainly weakened politicians’ perception of security in their public position, which makes them prone to death threats, office vandalism, and assassination attempts. This is true for the UK but likely also for other European countries, such as Germany, where Bürgergespräche (“citizen talks”) provide citizens with regular opportunities to talk with their representatives.[9] These regular fora of discussions very likely strengthen the bond and line of communication between the lawmaker and voters. However, it very likely makes politicians vulnerable to dissatisfied individuals, some of whom are likely to pose a threat if they aim to forcefully act on their disagreement. Politicians will very likely increase their security while likely feeling forced to reduce public appearances, endangering fundamental features of democracy, such as popular participation in politics or freedom of expression.


Given that terrorist attacks are aimed to convey disapproval, attackers will likely continue to target important personalities, as they often target things and figures they perceive as enemies. In cases like the killing of lawmakers in democracies, the attackers very likely want to highlight their dissatisfaction with democracy, and at a roughly even chance, with the figure’s political party. Freedom of expression is very likely at risk given that these attackers aim to forcefully silence symbolic people going against their world views. The 2020 killing of French teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen Muslim who did not approve of Paty showing depictions of the prophet Muhammad in class exemplifies this point.[10] Similar situations have also been observed in Germany, where teachers are regularly threatened by both students and parents when they attempt to discuss the Holocaust or conflict in the Middle East in class.[11] These instances are likely illustrating a trend of educational professionals becoming unable to perform their job due to fears of violent retaliation. This, in turn, can very likely compromise the freedom of education.


In light of increasingly polarized societies and the worldwide rise of extremist groups and parties, it is very likely individuals will show their disapproval through acts of violence.[12] These societal divisions, perpetrated through strong diverging opinions, have decreased the occurrence of constructive and peaceful discussions between opposing groups.[13] This phenomenon has very likely been strengthened by social media and its algorithms that promote highly-personalized one-sided content, which has almost certainly contributed to increased polarization and led to violence. People who are likely to be politically polarized due to negative experiences are likely to blame their problems on powerful political figures. This strongly increases the likelihood of politicians becoming the target of violent acts. As recently as this September, teachers in France have received death-threatening letters including photos of decapitated Paty.[14] This shows that symbolic terrorism is likely to remain a threat in Europe with figures such as lawmakers and teachers being the main targets given their public professions and regular promotion of freedom of expression.


During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, several protests in Europe featured demonstrations by QAnon supporters, leading to violent acts against specific targets such as law enforcement, medical staff, and journalists.[15] Conspiracy platforms such as QAnon very likely play a significant role in the rise of lone-actor terrorism, as far-right lone-actors almost certainly garner support for violent activities online. The QAnon movement's recent engagement in American politics is likely encouraging European individuals with far-right connections to carry out disinformation campaigns against their own governments. Propaganda platforms had previously come under scrutiny when an individual opened fire on a German synagogue in 2019, and another citizen murdered 10 people inside several Hanau’s hookah cafes in 2020.[16] According to the European Commission's latest survey, trust in Europe's governmental institutions decreased in recent years, likely explaining the infiltration of QAnon-related movements into Germany.[17] A connection between conspiracy theories and social unrest in Europe can likely be established. Similar events to Germany's attacks will likely occur more often in other European countries where digital literacy of citizens is not a priority in national policies. This trend allows CTG's EUCOM Team to assess the risk of future attacks in European countries as very likely.


The anti-regime discourses fueled by the anti-vaccine ideology that spread through Europe in 2021 were strongly influenced by the poor political management of the pandemic.[18] The misinformation that arose around COVID-19 likely promoted European citizens’ adherence to anti-government theories, increasing mistrust in the politicians in countries such as France, Italy, Germany, and the UK.[19] In Germany, conspiracist rhetoric based on claims the country should govern within pre-World War Two borders led by the far-right Reichsbürger movement advocated for federal election annulment.[20] Nationalistic allegations, such as Reichsbürger's, likely contributed to the political instability following the election's results, leading to the lack of a parliamentary majority and the rise of the far-right party Alternative for Germany. It is likely that far-right discourses in European political leadership, in combination with conspiracy platforms, will fuel the rise in lone-actor terrorism in Germany.


France's National Intelligence and Counterterrorism Coordinator, Laurent Nuñez, announced that conspiracy theories entered the French sphere through far-right movements.[21] Dealing with social unrest over pandemic restrictions resulted in French President Emmanuel Macron becoming the target of a conspiracy after calling for the vaccination of the young in August 2021. After President Macron wore a black t-shirt with an owl logo, conspiracists speculated the owl was the herald of death, and the message likely represented the future of French society.[22] Anti-government speeches and accusations of a secret political agenda are common in these movements; such rhetoric very likely contributed to France’s political instability since they intended to damage Macron’s credibility. Therefore, with the upcoming presidential election, Macron is unlikely to present an alternative for voters due to the discredit he suffered throughout his term. The unprecedented abstention rate in the 2021 elections almost certainly expressed French society’s discontent and far-right candidates, such as Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, will likely win the undecided voters in the presidential race.[23] If election results prove this trend, an increased influence of conspiracy theories on politics could be expected, likely causing a deeper distrust of political leaders. While politicians become more vulnerable to public criticism, the risk of future attacks fueled by conspiracy propaganda will likely grow. It is very likely the emerging far-right discourse in French politics and conspiracy platforms will fuel the rise in lone-actor terrorism in France.


Other European countries, such as Denmark and Lithuania, also began to experience a rise in conspiracists in anti-vaccine movements during the COVID-19 pandemic.[24] In Greece, the disbanded far-right Golden Dawn party resurged, likely linking Greek society’s increased insecurity sentiment to the growth of conspiracy-related content online. COVID-19 lockdowns likely accelerated the radicalization process of individuals who did not belong to an extremist organization but mistrusted the government. This self-indoctrination is likely a security risk for European countries due to an increase in attacks carried out by lone actors, which will almost certainly hinder counterterrorism efforts. Although the stabbing of MP Amess is the first deadly attack in 2021 carried out by a self-radicalized individual with no links to an organized group, violence aimed at political figures will likely grow as a result of conspiracy platforms.[25] European countries will likely recover from the pandemic at different rates. Countries with more urgent needs will almost certainly restore pre-COVID-19 norms later than others, and the differences between European recovery plans will almost certainly feed national anti-government platforms. Governments will likely face greater adversity due to a stronger opposition, seeded by heightened conspiracy narratives successfully introduced in anti-regime movements during the pandemic.[26] The predisposition for violent protests is likely escalating, as far-right movements, radicalized through conspiracy platforms, have sought physical confrontations several times inside European borders.[27] Politicians will likely continue to be attractive targets for attackers to highlight the governments' inability to solve the countries' problems.


The EUCOM Team at CTG continues to monitor and analyze the emerging threat of lone-actor attacks in the European region, paying close attention to far-right activities on social media to detect imminent threats. Through the Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.), CTG continuously tracks all events to provide current, fact-based analysis. Furthermore, the EUCOM Team continues to report violent situations and encounters across Europe, especially in France, Italy, Germany, and the UK, where increasing distrust in politicians could create further instability that can be taken advantage of by lone-actors.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is a subdivision of the global consulting firm Paladin 7. CTG has a developed business acumen that proactively identifies and counteracts the threat of terrorism through intelligence and investigative products. Business development resources can now be accessed via the Counter Threat Center (CTC), emerging Fall 2021. The CTG produces W.A.T.C.H resources using daily threat intelligence, also designed to complement CTG specialty reports which utilize analytical and scenario-based planning. Innovation must accommodate political, financial, and cyber threats to maintain a level of business continuity, regardless of unplanned incidents that may take critical systems offline. To find out more about our products and services visit us at counterterrorismgroup.com.

[1]Official portrait of Sir David Amess MP” by Richard Townshend licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Sir David Amess: Ali Harbi Ali charged with murder of MP, BBC News, October 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-5899759

[3] UK MP David Amess dies after stabbing attack, Politico, October 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-mp-david-amess-dies-in-stabbing-attack/

[4] Lone-Actor Terrorism, Royal United Services Institute, April 2016, http://icct.nl/app/uploads/2016/04/201604_CLAT_Final-Report.pdf

[5] Terrorism in Europe, Congressional Research Service, February 2021, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/terror/IF10561.pdf

[6] How to hunt a lone wolf: Countering terrorists who act on their own, Brookings Institute, February 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/how-to-hunt-a-lone-wolf-countering-terrorists-who-act-on-their-own/

[7] Sir David Amess: Conservative MP stabbed to death, BBC News, October 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-58930593

[8] Are we safe? Killing of UK lawmaker makes colleagues nervous, Reuters, October 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/are-we-safe-killing-uk-lawmaker-makes-colleagues-nervous-2021-10-21/

[9] Ziele der Sprachverwendung, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, July 2010, https://www.bpb.de/politik/grundfragen/sprache-und-politik/42691/ziele-der-sprachverwendung (translated by Iris Raith)

[10] Samuel Paty: French schoolgirl admits lying about murdered teacher, BBC News, March 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56325254

[11] Gewalt gegen Lehrer - Angefeindet im Klassenzimmer, ZDF, November 2020, https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/politik/verband-gewalt-lehrer-100.html (translated by Iris Raith)

[12] Do we have too much or too little polarisation? A Democracy Debate, European Partnership for Democracy, July 2021, https://epd.eu/2021/07/13/democracy-debate-polarisation/

[13] Ibid

[14] French teacher receives death threat containing photo of slain Samuel Paty, Euronews, October 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/19/french-teacher-receives-death-threat-containing-photo-of-slain-colleague-samuel-paty

[15] French teacher receives death threat containing photo of slain Samuel Paty, Euronews, October 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/19/french-teacher-receives-death-threat-containing-photo-of-slain-colleague-samuel-paty

[16] Hanau shooting: Has Germany done enough to tackle far-right terror threat?, BBC News, February 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51571177

[17] Standard Eurobarometer 95 - Spring 2021, European Commission, September 2021, https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2532

[18] Conspiracy epidemic, born in US, spreads in Europe, France 24, May 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210517-conspiracy-epidemic-born-in-us-spreads-in-europe

[19] Pandemic leaves Europeans more likely to believe conspiracy theories – study, The Guardian, February 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/22/covid-pandemic-leaves-europeans-more-likely-to-believe-conspiracy-theories-study

[20] Ibid

[21] U.S. Antigovernment Groups Are Influencing the French Far Right, The New York Times, October 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/13/us/politics/france-far-right-extremists-qanon.html

[22] Ibid

[23] Zemmour widens gap over Le Pen in race for French presidential runoff vote - poll, Reuters, November 2021,https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/zemmour-widens-gap-over-le-pen-race-french-presidential-runoff-vote-poll-2021-11-09/

[24] Conspiracy epidemic, born in US, spreads in Europe, France 24, May 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210517-conspiracy-epidemic-born-in-us-spreads-in-europe

[25] U.K. police charge man with lawmaker's murder, NBC News, October 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/david-amess-stabbing-lawmakers-uk-police-murder-charge-man-25-rcna3472

[26] Conspiracy epidemic, born in US, spreads in Europe, France 24, May 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210517-conspiracy-epidemic-born-in-us-spreads-in-europe

[27] German elections 2021: The conspiracy theories targeting voters, BBC, September 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-58655702

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