Ilkka Salmi has served as the European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator since October 2021. He previously served as the Director of the Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Directorate at the European Commission between January 2020 and September 2021. Prior to that, he was Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior in Finland, between 2018-2020. He served as Director of Security at the European Commission from 2016-2018 and as Director of the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre between 2011 and 2015. Between 2007-2011, Salmi served as the Director of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO).

CTC: In the wake of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack against Israel and the Israeli offensive in Gaza, there is a lot of concern about what it could mean for the terrorist threat in the West. In Europe, we’ve already seen deadly attacks in France1 and Belgium.2 What is your assessment of the threat picture in Europe in light of the events in Israel and Gaza?

Salmi: Tensions have been mounting since October 7. On the eve of that attack jihadism was still the main terrorism threat in the E.U. With Israel and Gaza, the proximity to Europe is always an issue, geographically but also in the sentiments that we see in different groups: for instance, among the Palestinian diaspora and the Muslim population in Europe, but also among Jewish citizens. Given the tensions the conflict in Gaza is producing here in Europe, I’m concerned that there could be more polarization between different groups within the E.U. Member States, which could then, in turn, have an impact on terrorism and the overall security situation.

You were referring to these two attacks, the one in Arras, France [on October 13], and then the one here in Brussels on October 16. There are still ongoing investigations in France and Belgium. So we are still looking into and waiting for the results. One thing which seems to be clear—at least in the attack in Arras—[is that the] motivation of the perpetration seems to be linked, in part, to the crisis in Israel, in Gaza. That’s definitely a concerning issue. The motives of the attacker here in Brussels seem to be more linked to the Qur’an burning issue in Sweden and to conspiracy theories that have been circulating for years in the Islamist extremist online sphere, which claim that the Swedish authorities would take custody of Muslim children, for example, and try to somehow separate or kidnap these kids from their parents.

What has happened in Israel will have an impact on the security situation also within Europe. We have to stay vigilant.

CTC: There is also concern about Hezbollah. In 2012, the group was responsible for a deadly attack against Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria.3 What is the level of concern in your assessment about possible Hezbollah action in Europe against Israeli and Jewish targets?

Salmi: The terrorist threat posed by Hezbollah within the E.U. is currently assessed as limited, as the organization is likely to view the negative repercussions of an attack in the E.U. as greater than the potential benefits. However, Hezbollah is believed to have support networks in various parts of the world, including in the E.U.

This said, I am very concerned about acts of terrorism against Jewish targets in Europe perpetrated by individuals or groups who sympathise with Hezbollah or Hamas or who are inspired by them but have no direct connection with them. I also think that there is a possibility that pro-Palestinian demonstrations, notably unauthorised ones, could give rise to violence against real or perceived supporters of Israel, including Jewish citizens and their institutions. E.U. Member States governments should do all they can to protect European Jews from such violence.

CTC: To broaden this out, what’s your assessment of the terrorism threat picture in Europe heading into 2024 from all the different ideologies?

Salmi: Firstly, as I said, the main threat towards Europe is jihadism, but the threat level varies from one Member State to another.

Secondly, I’m concerned about violent right-wing extremism and right-wing terrorism, which is also on the rise. That’s specifically an issue which is of concern to certain E.U. Member States. Even In Finland, the Member State that I know best, there are ongoing terrorism-related court cases linked to violent right-wing extremism, notably the Siege4-related culture.

A third category of concern is what I would call anti-system extremism, which is a trend just to oppose so-called elites—be it the governments or journalists or what have you. This could be linked to the anti-vax movement; it could be linked to energy prices. We haven’t really seen any major terrorist plots yet. But it could contribute to the polarization of our societies and violent incidents have happened and been prevented.

We also look into violent left-wing extremism and anarchism. Having said that, even if attacks linked to this part of the ideological spectrum are quite numerous, they are often far less lethal. But it’s obviously an issue that we have to still pay attention to.

I see an upward curve in trends for jihadism and violent right-wing extremism. That’s why they are at the top of my agenda.

CTC: On the issue of left-wing terrorism, according to Europol’s most recent Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) report, in 2022 “16 attacks were completed, of which the majority were attributed to left-wing and anarchist terrorism (13), two to jihadist terrorism, and one to right-wing terrorism.”5 What is striking about these numbers is that over 80 percent of completed terrorist attacks were carried out by left-wing and anarchist actors. Now, you made an important point that this threat vector has not recently been as deadly as some of the other ideologies, but even so, what are your concerns about the evolving threat posed by left-wing and anarchist terrorism and what can be done at the E.U. level to protect against it?

Salmi: Violent left-wing and anarchist terrorism has been present in the E.U. for many decades. It currently constitutes a much lower threat than it did in the 1970s and 1980s, but it has not disappeared altogether. Figures collected by Europol show a high number of attacks motivated by violent left-wing extremism and anarchism, as well as a high number of arrests of left-wing and anarchist terrorist suspects, although these figures tend to fluctuate a great deal. In its latest TE-SAT report, Europol foresees a rise in the threat of right-wing as well as left-wing terrorism in the near future.

Currently, violent left-wing and anarchist terrorism in the E.U. is more geographically concentrated than jihadist terrorism and right-wing terrorism. Left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks are generally far less lethal than jihadist and right-wing terrorist attacks. Their aim is often to cause material damage or to intimidate (perceived) political opponents, not to kill. I am concerned about an increasing willingness among left-wing extremists to commit large-scale violence against law enforcement personnel. Some left-wing perpetrators of sabotage, such as the extremists plotting the derailment of a high-speed train, deliberately accepted the possibility of mass casualties.

E.U. policies to fight terrorism are generally ‘color blind’—they address all forms of terrorism irrespective of motivation. Our CT cooperation already encompasses left-wing and anarchist terrorism. In my view, the E.U. should urge social media companies to remove instances of ‘doxing,’ that is, the publication of personal details of (perceived) political opponents in order to scare them or even to provoke attacks against them. This tactic is used by violent extremists of all stripes, but it is particularly popular among violent left-wing extremists.

CTC: What are your priorities as the E.U. Counter-Terrorism Coordinator? What does the role entail?

Salmi: I always underline the fact that the office, my position does not involve any operational activity. So we do not coordinate what’s done by frontline responders and operational colleagues. The office was established after the Madrid bombings in 2004 to bring strategic coherence in E.U. policies in countering terrorism. [As] such, my office connects the external and the internal dimension of countering terrorism. We keep track of dynamics outside the European Union, be they in Israel, Africa, Central Asia, Afghanistan etcetera, as well as obviously understanding what the impact could be on the E.U. With regard to the internal dimension, one aspect, for example, is the impact of new technologies for law enforcement agencies so that they would still be capable of carrying out their tasks in the future and hopefully also benefit from these new technologies.

It’s important to emphasize that the office has an external and an intra-E.U. function, if I may put it that way, because many of these threats actually originate outside the E.U. but will have an impact within the E.U. So we try to connect the dots so that we don’t work in silos with the external colleagues on one hand and the internal ones on the other.

When it comes to our priorities, if I start geographically, we do have concerns—it goes without saying—now in the Middle East in how the situation in Israel and Gaza will evolve. We traditionally have been following very closely the developments in Syria and Iraq; that dates back to those days of the Daesh caliphate over there. And then Africa is of concern, especially Sahel, but also East Africa, including the threat posed by al-Shabaab, in Somalia. An issue which if of growing concern to us is how do things evolve in Afghanistan and the degree to which there might be a spillover effect into Central Asia and Pakistan. We are focused on the question on whether the dynamics we are seeing in Central Asia and Pakistan will have an impact directly or indirectly towards the security situation in Europe as well.

Internally, I already mentioned the rise of violent right-wing extremism in the Member States. Of course, this is also a global issue. There are contacts with actors in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Another thing we focus on is new technologies, disruptive [tech]. First, what does this mean for all the terrorist actors? How could they use new technologies? And secondly, how could law enforcement take advantage? What legal changes might we need? It’s always—especially for us good guys, if I may put it that way—a challenge that technological developments happen very, very quickly. We also have to make sure that our legislation then allows us to use all these technologies, keeping in mind privacy and other concerns linked to fundamental rights. To me, security is also a fundamental right, but nevertheless, we just have to strike the right balance.

Ilkka Salmi

CTC: One of the concerns, as you were just alluding to, is the threat from Central Asia: the threat from Afghanistan in particular, the threat from Islamic State Khorasan, the Islamic State branch over there (known by the acronyms ISK, ISIL-K, and ISKP). According to the U.N., there is growing concern about the ability of Islamic State Khorasan to project a threat into Europe.6 In April 2020, German police arrested a terrorist cell plotting attacks against U.S. and NATO bases in Germany that had allegedly received instructions from a high-ranking Islamic State figure in Afghanistan.7 According to the UN, “on 5 January [2023], 15 individuals, reportedly inspired by ISIL-K instructions to carry out attacks against the Swedish and Dutch Consulates in Istanbul and Christian and Jewish places of worship, were arrested in Türkiye.”8 In March 2023, U.S. CENTCOM Commander General Kurilla testified that his command assessed that the Islamic State Khorasan group “can do an external operation against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months, with little to no warning,” including in Europe.9 The Washington Post subsequently reported that Islamic State leaders in Afghanistan had coordinated 15 plots across Asia and Europe as of February 2023.10 What is your current concern about the threat to Europe from Islamic State Khorasan?

Salmi: I agree that ISKP is a threat to watch, no question about that. At the same time, of course, I do believe that we have to keep an eye on what al-Qa`ida does in Afghanistan. My concerns about ISKP are twofold.

Firstly, we have the regional threat from Afghanistan posed by ISKP to Pakistan and Central Asian countries. We have to also keep in mind that in some Daesh-, but also al-Qa`ida-related organizations, we see Central Asian citizens having quite prominent roles. We also need to look at how porous the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan is.

Secondly, there might be individuals who already could be in Europe, who could travel to Europe—through Central Asia or elsewhere—who could be inspired by ISKP. I don’t have bullet-proof evidence that there would be a strict control and command relationship between any individuals and the ISKP leadership in Afghanistan. I fear that there could be an attack by lone actors or a group of lone actors in Europe, inspired by ISKP, with a lower impact than a directed attack.

CTC: In mid-October, we saw al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent call for attacks—in light of the events in Israel and Gaza—on the nationals of certain Western countries, which is obviously very concerning for all of us in the CT enterprise.11 What is your degree of concern that groups such as al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State are going to exploit what is going on in the Middle East to make some kind of comeback?

Salmi: These calls to attack or to engage in some terrorist activity spread extremely quickly on social media and that’s why they could have a rapid and serious impact on the security situation. It reminds me of the days back in 2014-2016 when Daesh propaganda was at its high peak. The situation in Israel, combined with that sort of propaganda, could change the security situation in the E.U. quite drastically. That’s why I also believe it’s important to build on lessons learned from two recent attacks in Europe: one in France and one here in Brussels. What kind of contacts have been established? How were these people inspired by Daesh? And as Daesh is taking responsibility for the attack in Brussels,12 is that really true or is it simply claiming an attack in which it had no real involvement? That’s why we are looking forward to the outcome of the investigation into the background of the attack.

CTC: One of the geographic areas that you mentioned as one that you were focused on intently is the Sahel region of western Africa. The jihadi threat has been on the rise there. There’s been concern that some of the governments could be destabilized. The Wagner Group has played a very problematic role in the region, undermining the effort against terrorism over there.13 What’s your concern that there could be some spillover effects from Sahel into Europe, especially if jihadi terrorists operating in the Sahel could carve out some kind of territorial control in the region, which they haven’t really done yet. Can you talk a little bit about that part of the problem set?

Salmi: The successive military coups in the Sahel and West Africa region are indeed very worrying for the stability of the region, but also for the security. Since 2020, there have been six coups in total, the last in Niger has pushed the region further into political unrest and insecurity. The military juntas in command are less willing to cooperate with some Member States and they shift alliances. Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are facing a serious security crisis that is being exploited by the juntas to justify their take-over vis-à-vis their population. However, the juntas have not proved that they are more capable of fighting terrorist groups in the region. On the contrary, over 1,800 terrorist attacks were recorded in the region for the first semester of 2023, resulting in nearly 4,600 deaths according to ECOWAS.14

This situation is a real concern as it could trigger increased security threats. All signals were already red: persistent insecurity in the region, terrorist groups gaining territory, including towards West Africa, the spread of the influence of fundamentalist Islam as well as the lack of basic services for the population. The risk of another terrorist self-proclaimed caliphate cannot be ignored, especially in Mali and in Burkina Faso, in the tri-border area. However, I fear that al-Qa`ida and Daesh will take advantage of the current political instability in the Sahel countries to expand in the coming months. The coup in Niger has already hamper international cooperation efforts across the Sahel to combat terrorist groups, allowing them to extend their territories and influence. I am also afraid that if they manage to control more territory, they will begin to have the capacity to plan and project attacks towards Europe, as we saw from Iraq and Syria in 2015.

We need to be fully aware of this possibility and continue to support the countries that wish to do so, in order to curb the spread of the terrorist threat which primarily affects the African populations. The E.U. will continue to encourage the promotion of the civilian approach of the fight against terrorism, in addition to military action in the region. [These efforts were advanced by] a regional conference we jointly organized in May in Niamey with the official Nigerien authorities. The European Council also decided to establish a new joint civil-military mission in the Gulf of Guinea to support Benin, Ghana, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire.

CTC: I want to talk about something your predecessor Gilles de Kerchove mentioned in a 2020 interview with us. He described the Al-Hol camp in Syria housing the families of Islamic State-linked individuals as “a time bomb for radicalization.”15 There’s been some progress for repatriation since he did the interview, but there are still European passport-holders who are being held there.16 Do you have a sense of how many European Union women and children are still assessed to be detained in northeastern Syria and what is the European Union doing to address the problem set?

Salmi: For me personally, if there’s one thing that I would need to single out from my two and a half years in office, Al-Hol in Syria is definitely at the top of that list. I share the concern of my predecessor, Gilles. And I have to say the situation in Al-Hol and the other camps in the region is indeed an issue that we have to take extremely seriously. Because I do see that those camps could definitely be an incubator for the next generation of Daesh or other terrorist actors unless we get it solved.

To your question, since Gilles gave the interview more than three years ago, the situation has changed in this respect: Many E.U. Member States have returned or repatriated their citizens from those camps for different reasons. We still have a limited number of women and children in the camps. We’re probably talking about—I don’t have the exact number, but a couple of hundred E.U. nationals and their children in the camps—that gives the scope of where we stand today. One of the challenges, as you well know, is that no one knows for sure the identity of all the individuals who are in those camps. But this gives you an idea of the magnitude.

The main exercise that we have been trying to do, as the E.U., the E.U. institutions, is to support the Iraqi government to repatriate and reintegrate the Iraqis from these camps. And the reason for that is if you look at Al-Hol, for example, you still have around 50,000 individuals over there.17 Half of them are Iraqis. So if we could assist the Iraqi government to repatriate their nationals then the resulting decongestion of these camps would have immediate, in my understanding, impact first, on the security situation in the camps and in the region, and then secondly, of course, [on] the humanitarian situation in those camps. I have visited the region several times, and the conditions the inhabitants of the camps live in are appalling.

On my suggestion, the European Commission commissioned a study at the end of last year which was finalized in mid-March this year on concrete measures we could take to assist the Iraqis. One such measure is technical assistance for providing ID documents for those in the camps. We have lots of newborn babies over there, we have young children without any IDs. How can that be resolved so they can be repatriated? Because you can’t do that before they have some sort of IDs available. The second question is, how could we support these so-called Jeddah camps,18 sort of halfway houses from Al-Hol back to the local community? What sort of psycho-social help, what sort of educational assistance might be needed there to help the U.N. or IOM [International Organization for Migration] in their activities with this? And then finally, how to support the U.N. in their reintegration exercises to take place in different parts of Iraq.

And of course, the question is also how could we help the Syrians in northeast Syria because the situation is probably even worse over there. I hope that would be the next phase that we could address as soon as the influx from Al-Hol and the other camps towards Iraq is moving forward. And the Iraqis are really committed in doing that now, which I’m very grateful for. The Iraqi Government do see the need to address this question.

CTC: So it’s clearly a top priority for your office. Going back to that interview that Gilles de Kerchove did with us back in 2020, he stated that one cause for concern was the “hundreds of prison leavers convicted for terrorism-related offenses but who have served short sentences.”19 How does your office see the threat of terrorist recidivism, and what work is being done to mitigate it?

Salmi: Again, this is a major concern that I share. Now, three years after that interview, it’s a very timely question because we are now seeing, within the next 12 to 24 months, lots of individuals leaving prisons in Europe who have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses. The threat of terrorist recidivism is low compared to other forms of criminal recidivism, but any act of terrorism has such sweeping consequences that we should still make [every] effort we can to prevent former prison inmates from committing terrorist attacks. In this context, we should also bear in mind that many terrorists released from prison may not re-offend, but could still return to their old social circles, spreading violent extremist ideology and inspiring others to commit acts of violence. Moreover, there are also radicalized prison inmates who were convicted for offences other than terrorism and who pose a threat of terrorism either in prison or after their release. Under the Spanish E.U. Presidency, the E.U. is looking into this issue again.

Over the last 10 years, the E.U. has provided extensive funding to civil society organizations working on exchange of information and best practices among practitioners working with prison inmates and former detainees. This includes the Radicalisation Awareness Network20 and EuroPris, the European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services. The E.U. has also funded the development of evidence-based tools that help prison and probation staff to assess the risk that a radicalized (ex-)inmate will use violence in the future.

But in my view, we need to do much more still. We have good examples from several Member States, places such [as] Denmark, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium; they have really paid attention to this. We need to intensify exchange of data among our Member States regarding inmates who are being released from prison but are still assessed to pose a threat. For this purpose, Member States need to use the E.U.’s automated databases, such as the Schengen Information System (SIS), to the fullest extent possible. Some Member States are currently much more likely than others to upload data into the SIS, which is a cause for concern.

On a much more positive note, I have to say the message that I hear from across the Member States is that until now, [while] there are issues definitely, [there are] not many former detainees who have re-offended. But as the numbers of those leaving prison will go up—it’s mathematics—the likelihood of terrorist recidivism will go up. So we have to follow this very closely.

CTC: And obviously in periods of raised tensions like we’re going through now, that only increases the concerns about this part of the problem set, given the events in the Middle East right now. Another thing that Gilles de Kerchove talked about in his 2020 interview was the importance of the security community devoting more attention to disruptive tech. You mentioned your focus on this area. One area that’s seen ultra-rapid advances is generative artificial intelligence, including deep learning models such as Chat GPT. There is concern this could be used for nefarious purposes with the Australian government eSafety Commissioner recently warning that “terrorist groups could use models to raise money, disseminate pro-terror content or generate instructions on making bombs or weapons.”21 How do you see this issue (the terror threat posed by generative artificial intelligence), and what is being done at the E.U. level and by your office to address it?

Salmi: Firstly, I fully share that assessment by our Australian colleagues. In 2022, we wrote a paper on the Metaverse,22 just to understand what that would mean for the terrorist actors: How could they use the metaverse in the future for training activities, radicalization activities, or recruiting activities. AI is the driving force behind the Metaverse and it shows how the new technologies could be used in very unfortunate ways. For the time being, I don’t think that we have really seen AI being directly used for terrorism purposes, but it can and will be, and it probably already is used in information-gathering efforts. It is already used for the dissemination of radical views, hate speech as well as terrorist and violent extremism content online through AI-powered algorithms. Also, generative-AI, like Chat GPT, can be used for generating disinformation in order to spread extremist and terrorist ideologies. Using language-model[s] to generate encrypted messages can also be a mean of communication for terrorists and extremists.

What we have been trying to do in the E.U. is to set a precedent with a new framework [through] the [proposed] AI Act23 and by trying to regulate issues such as the digital services. We have the relatively new Digital Services Act in place to address the dissemination of illegal content and the role play[ed] by algorithms. And based on the DSA, the E.U. is now investigating X’s, Meta’s, TikTok’s and YouTube’s activities on disseminating dis- and misinformation concerning the conflict in Gaza, for example. So we are trying to come up with tools where we could address some of these challenges.

We have the Terrorist Content Online Regulation, which obliges tech companies to remove terrorist content on the internet within one hour after receiving a removal order from E.U. Member States’ national competent authority. The evaluation on the functioning of the TCO [Terrorist Content Online] Regulation has proven to have [had] a positive impact to counter the dissemination of terrorist content so far.

I have basically three concerns when it comes to the social media platforms. My first concern is algorithmic amplification. How do these algorithms work? A new European Center for Algorithmic Transparency,24 which comes from the DSA, has been established to see how that works. I fully understand that these algorithms are trade and business secrets of these different companies, but at the same time, we have to understand how to tackle this issue of the amplification of terrorist or violent extremist content or hate speech for that matter, which would often violate the terms and conditions of the service providers themselves.

The second issue that I’m also concerned about is content moderation. How well is that done? I know that AI is used to a significant degree in order to do that. Can we enhance that? I come from a country with a very small language group, namely Finnish. You could ask, how well are the Finnish messages moderated? I don’t think that that’s done to [the same] extent as English.

And then thirdly, when it comes to social media, especially social media platforms, the big ones, they do cooperate. We have the EU Internet Forum, for example.a I think they are very receptive and they really want to sort these issues out. The concern that I have is some of the smaller actors, who a) do not want to work with us, or b) who just don’t have the resources to do that. So we also have to look into that.

For some time now, the question of cryptocurrencies and other transfer of funds using crypto-assets used by terrorist actors has been a new technologies-related topic that we have to pay attention to. Having said that, cryptocurrencies have been used by terrorist actors, but not at a scale that probably all of us were concerned or worried about a couple of years ago. At least, not until now, but we need to anticipate these risks, which is why the E.U. is currently in the process of strengthening its legislative framework on Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing Terrorism (AML/CFT), notably with the adoption in May of E.U. Transfer of Funds regulation with specific obligations on crypto-assets.

CTC: In the August 2020 issue of CTC Sentinel, West Point scientists assessed that advances in synthetic biology and widening access to the technologies involved “is leading to a revolution in science affecting the threat landscape that can be rivaled only by the development of the atomic bomb.”25 In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is your view of the potential future threat posed by terrorist actors deploying biological weapons, and what is being done to protect against this threat at the European Union level?

Salmi: I see the threat of terrorists using biological weapons as limited, mainly because other attack means are more readily available to terrorists, but also because terrorists know that the spread of pathogens could lead to mass casualties among their own in-group and not just among the out-groups that they despise. That said, we still need to prepare for biological attacks due to the very extensive consequences such an attack will have on our society if it occurs.

E.U. policies on biological risks are aimed at prevention of, and preparedness for, accidents as well as deliberate release of pathogens. They include both threats from non-state and from state actors. They are multi-disciplinary, involving a range of policy departments and executive agencies.

In 2017, the E.U. adopted an Action Plan to enhance preparedness against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear security risks, focusing on increasing awareness of CBRN risks, preparedness for CBRN security incidents, reducing the accessibility of CBRN materials, and cooperation with international partners. The E.U. has set up the CBRN Centres of Excellence (CBRN CoE), a capacity building and cooperation mechanism with third countries on CBRN issues. In addition, the European Commission funds various projects on CBRN, notably to equip security practitioners with the expertise and means to counter biological threats, including for instance detectors to identify dangerous biological substances.

It’s good that we already looked into this seven, eight, nine years ago, and we do have a toolbox available should a CBRN attack take place.

CTC: Between 2007 and 2011, you served as the director of Finland’s Security Intelligence Service (SUPO). I imagine you did a lot of thinking about Russia in that role. Given the huge tensions between Moscow and Western capitals caused by the war in Ukraine, what’s your concern that the Kremlin could provide support to far-right terrorist groups or other violent actors in Europe?

Salmi: The situation in Ukraine, even if it’s not strictly speaking a terrorism issue, of course is an issue which has an impact on our security. Now the question is, what sort of a role would the Russians play directly in this? I think the answer is two-fold. Anything that would cause disruption or havoc in the E.U. is something that the Russians would not shy away from. Would they directly support such actors? Such actors within Europe have long had links with Russia—not the Russian government, but also like-minded individuals in Russia—and that could definitely play a role.

Some of the misinformation campaigns that have taken place in Europe originated in Russia as well, contributing to polarization of our societies. Back in 2016, there was this fake story about a girl named Lisa in Germany who had allegedly been raped by migrants and that message was amplified by different actors and most likely also disinformation coming from Russia.b So, we definitely need to keep a very close eye on any sort of foreign influence and manipulation exercises that that could take place linked to violent right-wing extremism or otherwise.

CTC: A group with connections to Russia’s military establishment is the Russian Imperial Movement.26 According to the U.S. listing of the Russian Imperial Movement as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, “in 2016, two Swedish individuals attended RIM’s training course; thereafter, they committed a series of bombings in Gothenburg, Sweden, targeting a refugee shelter, a shelter for asylum seekers, and a café, for which they were convicted in Sweden.” The RIM has been gaining military skills and experience in the conflict in Ukraine.27 What is your assessment of the possible future threat posed by the Russian Imperial Movement and its paramilitary arm the Russian Imperial Legion?

Salmi: The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) is a white supremacist organization that spreads hatred against the West and other perceived enemies of Russia. We know of examples of E.U.-based white supremacists that were trained by the RIM and went on to commit serious acts of violence. As such, I see the RIM as a threat to the E.U.’s security. I am particularly concerned about recruitment activities undertaken by the RIM in the Western Balkans.

The extent of the threat posed by RIM to the E.U. in the future will depend on various factors, such as the outcome of the war in Ukraine, room for maneuver allowed to RIM militants by the Kremlin, and the degree of connectivity between Russia and the E.U. in the future.

CTC: Turning to another Russian actor, on September 15, 2023, the United Kingdom proscribed the Wagner Group as a terrorist group.28 The French parliament has adopted a resolution calling for the European Union to designate Wagner as a terrorist group.29 What is your view on the European Union designating the Wagner Group and what are the prospects for this?

Salmi: The European Parliament has called on the Council of the E.U. to designate Wagner as a terrorist organization. We should analyze whether some of the atrocities committed by Wagner could be classified as a form of terrorism and examine whether there is a solid legal basis for designating Wagner as a terrorist organization. Under E.U. law, designation requires a unanimous decision of the E.U. Council, consisting of the Member States, based on a decision of a national competent authority that meets the E.U.’s criteria for an act of terrorism.

Then of course, one question that we need to analyze is what additional tools would that bring into our toolbox? This is definitely something which is now discussed. Also looking into what the U.S. has been doing; it’s listed or designated as an international organized crime group by the U.S.,30 which gives them particular measures to use. We don’t have a similar legislation in place in the E.U., so we can’t go down that path.

The Wagner group is ultranationalist and poses a clear challenge to our values and our interests. That is why the E.U. has sanctioned Wagner under its Human Rights, Mali, and Russia sanctions regimes.

CTC: Going back to the issue of Ukraine, there has been some concern over the years about extreme far-right foreign fighter mobilization. But since the 2021 Russian invasion this was described by one assessment in CTC Sentinel as “a trickle, not a flood.”31 What is your assessment of the challenge posed by the extreme far-right individuals from Europe who have developed military skills while fighting in Ukraine?

Salmi: First, on [the] Ukraine issue, it’s not illegal in most of the E.U. Member States to travel to Ukraine to fight especially on the Ukrainian side of the frontline. It’s very difficult to say exactly how many people have left and joined the ranks of armed forces.

I would say that it’s an issue to be followed. Theoretically, it could be a very toxic combination to have someone who has links with violent right-wing extremism, for example, who gains combat experience, who might get traumatized. This is not only for the law enforcement to look into, but also for other actors in our societies once these people return from Ukraine.

CTC: Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?

Salmi: Just as a final remark, what we have been discussing for an hour or so underlines the necessity also to keep these counterterrorism-related topics high on the agenda of political decision-makers, be it in Washington or Brussels, London, Kampala, or Australia.

Since October 7, we have received a stark reminder that events overseas can impact the threat level in Europe. We have to keep an eye on those crises that might take place relatively far away from our capitals because they could have this sort of an impact directly or indirectly on our security.

We can’t really draw any line between the internal and external dimensions. Everything is linked, and it’s really global threats that we see these days. Anything that could take place somewhere in Australia could just as well happen here in Europe, be it a threat posed by jihadism, violent right-wing extremism etcetera. That also underlines the necessity for very good and enhanced cooperation by the security community, not only within Europe, but globally. We should make sure that we share a common threat picture and situational awareness of the challenges we collectively face.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: “The EU Internet Forum (EUIF) launched by the Commission in December 2015, addresses the misuse of the internet for terrorist purposes through two main strands of action: reducing accessibility to terrorist content online [and] increasing the volume of effective alternative narratives online.” “European Union Internet Forum (EUIF),” European Union Commission website, n.d.

[b] Editor’s Note: “The media storm surrounding a fake story about a Russian-German girl, who had reportedly been raped by Arab migrants, was a wake up call for German political elites [in 2016]. For the first time, they clearly saw the links between Russian domestic and foreign media campaigns against Germany and Russian politics at the highest level. The German government promptly advised the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) in coordination with the Foreign Office to check Russian sources of manipulation of German public opinion.” Stefan Meister, “The ‘Lisa case’: Germany as a target of Russian disinformation,” July 25, 2016.

[1] Catherine Porter and Aurelien Breeden, “Killing of Teacher and Hamas Assault Set a Jittery France on Edge,” New York Times, October 17, 2023.

[2] Sylvain Plazy, Raf Casert, and Lorne Cook, “Belgian police kill Tunisian man suspected of shooting 3 Swedish soccer fans, killing 2 of them,” Associated Press, October 17, 2023.

[3] Angel Krasimirov, “Bulgaria says clear signs Hezbollah behind Burgas bombing,” Reuters, July 18, 2013.

[4] “James Mason’s Siege: Ties to Extremists,” Counter Extremism Project, n.d.

[5] “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2023,” Europol, June 14, 2023 (updated October 26, 2023).

[6] “Thirty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 25, 2023.

[7] Nodirbek Soliev, “The April 2020 Islamic State Terror Plot Against U.S. and NATO Military Bases in Germany: The Tajik Connection,” CTC Sentinel 14:1 (2021).

[8] “Thirty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”

[9] “Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Posture of USCENTCOM and USAFRICOM in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for FY24 and the Future Years Defense Program,” U.S. Central Command, March 17, 2023.

[10] Dan Lamothe and Joby Warrick, “Afghanistan has become a terrorism staging ground again, leak reveals,” Washington Post, April 22, 2023.

[11] Ken Dilanian, Julia Ainsley, Tom Winter, and Jonathan Dienst, “Pro-Hamas extremists and neo-Nazis flood social media with calls for violence,” NBC News, October 18, 2023.

[12] “Islamic state claims responsibility for Brussels attack -group’s channel on Telegram,” Reuters, October 17, 2023; “Killer of French school teacher claims attack for Islamic State group,” France24, October 17, 2023.

[13] Wassim Nasr, “How the Wagner Group Is Aggravating the Jihadi Threat in the Sahel,” CTC Sentinel 15:11 (2022).

[14] “Over 1,800 ‘terrorist attacks’ in West Africa in 2023: ECOWAS,” Al Jazeera, July 26, 2023; “More than 1,800 terror attacks recorded in West Africa thus far in 2023, ECOWAS says,” France24, July 26, 2023.

[15] Raffaello Pantucci, “A View From the CT Foxhole: Gilles de Kerchove, European Union (EU) Counter-Terrorism Coordinator,” CTC Sentinel 13:8 (2020).

[16] Lisa Bryant, “Europe Starts New Chapter in Repatriations of IS-linked Citizens,” Voice of America, July 6, 2022.

[17] Editor’s Note: See Mina Aldroubi, “Syria’s Al Hol camp holds lost generation, says ICRC, as thousands remain in limbo,” National News, May 26, 2023.

[18] Editor’s Note: For a recent report on the Jeddah-1 camp in northern Iraq, see Simona Foltyn, “‘The people don’t want us’: inside a camp for Iraqis returned from Syrian detention,” Guardian, June 15, 2023.

[19] Pantucci; “Thirty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”

[20] Editor’s Note: The E.U. Commission funded-Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) is a “network of frontline practitioners who work daily with both those vulnerable to radicalisation and those who have already been radicalised.” “About RAN Practitioners,” European Commission website, n.d.

[21] “Tech Trends Position Statement Generative AI,” Australian Government, eSafety Commissioner, August 2023.

[22] Editor’s Note: EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, “The Metaverse in the context of the fight against terrorism,” Council of the European Union, June 2, 2022.

[23] Editor’s Note: “On 24 October 2023, the European Parliament and Member States concluded a fourth round of trilogue discussions on the draft Artificial Intelligence Regulation (AI Act). Policymakers agreed on provisions to classify high-risk AI systems and also developed general guidance for the use of ‘enhanced’ foundation models. … The next round of trilogue discussions will take place on 6 December 2023.” “EU Moving Closer to an AI Act?” Sidley, November 17, 2023.

[24] Editor’s Note: See “European Centre for Algorithmic Transparency,” European Union Commission website, n.d.

[25] J. Kenneth Wickiser, Kevin J. O’Donovan, Michael Washington, Stephen Hummel, F. John Burpo, “Engineered Pathogens and Unnatural Biological Weapons: The Future Threat of Synthetic Biology,” CTC Sentinel 13:8 (2020); See also the April 2022 and May 2022 issues of CTC Sentinel.

[26] Lucas Webber and Alec Bertina, “The Russian Imperial Movement in the Ukraine Wars: 2014-2023,” CTC Sentinel 16:8 (2023).

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Wagner Group proscribed,” U.K. Home Office, September 15, 2023.

[29] “French parliament calls on EU to list Wagner as ‘terrorist group,’” France24, May 10, 2023.

[30] Editor’s Note: See “Treasury Sanctions Russian Proxy Wagner Group as a Transnational Criminal Organization,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, January 26, 2023.

[31] Kacper Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood: The Limited 2022 Far-Right Foreign Fighter Mobilization to Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

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