Eriksen Søreide: European jihadism and its international backdrop

Minister of Defence Ine Eriksen Søreide held this opening remarks at the conference «European Jihadism in the ‘Caliphate’ Era», September 1st 2016.


Allow me first to welcome each and every one of you to this conference on European jihadism. Especially, I would like to thank our eminent people at FFI for organising this event. Our researchers at the TERRA project provide both Norway and a broader international audience with highly valuable insights into the challenges posed by terrorism and extremism.

Furthermore, I would like to thank all the panelists and experts for taking the time to be with us here today. The timeliness and relevance of this conference is striking. But perhaps even more so, the level of expertise gathered in this room is striking.

After the horrifying attacks in Paris last year and more recently in Brussels, it was broadly recognised that Europe had a problem with jihadi militancy. Since then, things have hardly turned for the better. This summer saw men, women, and children in Nice brutally mowed-down by an ISIL-inspired terrorist, killing 85 people and injuring many more, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Shortly after, Germany experienced a series of terror attacks, most notably the Munich shooting and the Ansbach suicide bomb.

These incidents are symptoms of larger forces that are at play. Such forces include geopolitical, technological, cultural, and economic factors. I will give you my analysis of the situation, and also outline some of the policies that Western nations are pursuing, and should be pursuing, in response to these challenges.

The international context

The international context is important here. The evolution of Islamist militancy in Europe is occurring against a complex international backdrop. The rise of new powers, and especially China, is today’s most defining theme in international politics. Behind this shift is 50 years of high economic growth in large parts of Asia.

Economic power will likely in time translate into greater strategic power and influence. With the rise of new powers, there is always the chance of new tensions arising, with the possibility of ensuing conflicts. How the rise of these powers is managed is crucial to preserving international stability. This is often portrayed as escaping the “Thucydides Trap”.

On Europe’s eastern flank, we see a more unpredictable Russia with greater military capabilities. With the unlawful annexation of Crimea, and the continuing destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, Russia has shown a willingness to use military power to uphold its interests in Europe and change international borders. We also see an increased Russian ambition in other geographical areas, such as in the Middle East.

And in the Middle East, the state system established by France and Britain in the early twentieth century, and upheld by the US after 1945, is crumbling. Terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaida and ISIL have attempted to fill the power vacuum left behind. The withdrawal of the US and European states, has led regional powers to strengthen their role and influence in the region – a region that is marred by the Shite-Sunni-divide. The Syrian civil war is in its sixth year, and the human tragedy is only growing. The situation is also severe in Yemen and Iraq, where governments amid civil war are only partially in control of their own territories. ISIL has taken advantage of the instability and warlordism in post-Gadaffi Libya to establish their presence. As the group is experiencing setbacks in Libya, its fighters are trickling into neighbouring countries. Nor is the situation in Mali, South Sudan, or Somalia reason for much comfort. Several high-profile terrorist attacks risk scaring away tourists and investors from Tunisia, the only successful democratic transition after the Arab Spring.

The situation in Europe

The state of the European project is also a cause for some concern. The economic crisis and some negative effects of globalisation are felt in parts of Europe. In some areas, people are experiencing wage stagnation, workplace insecurity, and falling or stagnant living standards. Little or no productivity growth contributes to poor long-term growth outlooks.

High public debt levels and record-low interest rates leave policy makers with few options to combat the next economic crisis. European politics is at risk of being seen as an elitist project. And we risk having to abandon the expectations of ever-growing prosperity. Parts of Europe’s population are on their way of being less well-off than the generation of their parents. And in addition to economic insecurity, I would highlight the political currents in parts of Europe: Anti-establishment, re-nationalisation and lack of trust in democratic institutions, coupled with fears of unregulated immigration.

Countering the jihadist threat

Terrorist organisations continue to exploit absence of effective state institutions. The organisations are evolving as a consequence of changing conditions on the ground and counter-terrorism efforts. The front-line in the terrorism battle is South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. But also countries such as Turkey, Bangladesh, and Egypt have recently seen an increase in terrorist attacks and activity.

Although not the most affected, the threat from terrorism in Europe is serious and complex. It has local, national, regional, and international dimensions. Even a defence minister would have to concede that the military is not the primary tool to solve these issues. But military forces and capabilities play an important supporting role. And any use of military force must be fully aligned and coordinated with political and economic measures.

In our local communities, efforts to prevent radicalisation are vital. Offering job and career opportunities to marginalised groups is important. Unequal societies are likely to be more polarised and present a more fertile breeding ground for radicalisation. The disbelief in and detachment from a common national identity are likely further radicalising factors. Technology supplants the need of potential homegrown terrorists and “lone wolfs” physically to meet with representatives of terrorist organisations. Many individuals become radicalised through online meetings or propaganda. We cannot allow the extremist narrative to be unopposed. This government launched in 2014, a comprehensive national plan to combat radicalisation and violent extremism. This was an important contribution in our efforts to secure important national values, such as democracy, human rights, and the safety of our citizens.

At the national level, intelligence and security agencies play an important role. Many European nations, including Norway, are increasing financing of agencies that have a role in detecting and preventing terrorist plots. But governments also need to find a way to balance necessary intelligence and surveillance activities with civil liberties and privacy concerns to prevent a “garrison state”. Particular attention must be given to foreign fighters, who represent a threat both in the conflict theater and potentially upon their return to Europe.

There is a clear need to increase cooperation between European border police and intelligence services. Furthermore, we will likely have to see more intra-European cooperation on military technology and capabilities.

Reinvigorating Europe’s economy is vital to prevent radicalisation.

Internationally, the most pressing issue is to stabilise and prop-up weak and failing states. A belt of instability stretches from the Sahel in the west to Afghanistan in the east. What matters the most is to establish good governance and build robust national security sectors. Governmental corruption and sectarianism are in many cases feeding terrorist and extremist propaganda and support.

In this brave new world, we need to realise the limits of military power alone. To solve today’s global security challenges we need a comprehensive approach, aligning political, developmental, and military measures. We need to boost our efforts to prevent trafficking and smuggling of personnel and equipment used by terrorist and insurgent organisations. We need to improve our understanding of their financial structures and cut off their economic lifelines. The EU possesses many of the soft-power tools; NATO most of the hard-power ones. Close cooperation between the EU and NATO is therefore necessary. To succeed, we also need to increase our cooperation with local partners and regional organisations, such as the African Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The recent NATO Summit in Warsaw made progress with regard to the challenges on the alliance’s southern flank. Nations agreed on a possible NATO-role in the EU operation Sophia, which aims to disrupt human smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. The anti-piracy operation Active Endeavour will successfully conclude by the end of 2016.

It will then be turned into a maritime security operation. NATO’s ‘Eye in the Sky’, the Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (AWACS) will be offered to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, in order to enhance to coalition’s situational awareness. Parts of NATO’s capacity building to strengthen Iraqi security forces will be moved from Jordan to Iraq. This will make it possible for the alliance to remain a long-term partner with Iraq, also after ISIL is defeated.

The increasingly interlinked security environment has obvious implications for the way we are conducting international operations, both in a NATO and UN context. Take Mali, for example. Mali and the Sahel region has become a hub for international terrorism, gun smuggling and human trafficking. During the nine months in 2012 to 2013, when Islamists extremists where in control of Northern Mali, music was forbidden, historical mausoleums were thorndown and libraries where burned down.

A young Malian girl was whipped 60 times in the streets of Timbuktu for speaking to boys. Today the combination of the UN peacekeeping operation (MINUSMA), where Norway has a large military contribution, the French counter-terrorism force (Barkane) and the EU training mission (EUTM) remain the most important factors to ensure that extremist groups will not regain a strong foothold in Northern Mali. The combined efforts makes a real difference on the ground and ensures that Mali will not become a safe haven for militant Islamists. We see that locally, the UN plays a vital role in contributing to stability and sustainable peace. At the same time, the mission is an important part of the fight against violent extremism internationally. This creates new synergies between our participation in UN operations, EU missions and our participation in coalitions of NATO countries.

The security problem pertaining to weak states is too great for Western troops to be deployed everywhere. Anyone familiar with Ancient Greece, knows that hubris – over-confidence in defiance of the gods – will be severely punished by nemesis, thus engendering the downfall of the perpetrator. That is why we have to work smarter. Western comparative advantages in technology and fighting experience, make a good foundation for training others and work as a force-multiplier. By enabling local governments to provide security, we are ensuring scalability.

Norway is participating in the broad Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, alongside approximately 65 other nations and organisations. The top priority of the coalition is to defeat ISIL and ISIL-affiliated groups. In doing so, we have to train and equip capable local forces. They are the only ones who can hold the territory after we leave.

Western intelligence services also play an important role in the counter-ISIL coalition. The analysis and understanding they are providing, are necessary for military forces to conduct effective intelligence-based operations.

The struggle against ISIL may be long, as the organisation has shown an ability to transform itself. The coalition’s efforts to counter ISIL are showing great signs of success. ISIL is already in decline, and their notion of being able to establish a successful caliphate remains illusive. The organisation has lost large parts of its territory in Syria and Iraq. At the same time they have lost many of the financing sources that used to be available to them. The numbers of foreign fighters joining them are steadily and drastically declining. Also online and in social media, the organisation is losing ground. Anti-ISIL statements and comments are now outnumbering pro-ISIL-statements in social media, and people are speaking up against ISIL, also in large parts of the Arabic-speaking world. New pro-ISIL accounts on social media have far fewer followers that before.


Today’s security environment is demanding to navigate in. Symmetric threats are returning, while asymmetric threats are on the rise. Europe is experiencing security challenges and instability both on its eastern and southern flanks. Through globalisation and internationalisation these threats and challenges are interconnected in a myriad of ways. “No man is an island, entire of itself.” That is certainly no less true of nations. The only feasible way to contain the threats facing us is through close cooperation within the Euro-Atlantic community. We are increasingly dependent on our partnerships around the world.

Understanding and knowledge is the foundation upon which we build our policy frameworks. This is no different with policies that deal with the threat of Islamist militancy. In this area, we as a society, and as a government, benefit greatly from the research that you are undertaking.

We need continuously to improve our understanding of the way terrorist and insurgent organisations are operating and recruiting. The personal motivations of would-be terrorists and the process of radicalisation are not well-understood. What makes certain individuals go from holding radical views to becoming terrorists? What role does technology and social media play? We need to understand these micro-mechanisms in order to better comprehend the larger picture.

I believe European politicians need to be bolder. We need to be able to address the plights and concerns of our populations. If established parties are unable to do this, the more radical and extreme forces in society are likely to get the upper hand. Foremost among these challenges is to provide for the security of our citizens.

Clear and bold action is better than muddling-through. But to be bolder, we are entirely dependent on well-founded analysis and robust knowledge. I am confident that this conference will further our understanding of the threat of jihadism in Europe. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Thank you for your attention.

Til toppen