1. Introduction

Over the last decade, unrest in Europe’s periphery has risen to the top of the Dutch security agenda. Indeed, it was listed as the number one security issue in the recently adopted Integrated International Security Strategy (GBVS, in Dutch), highlighting a preventative approach.[1] While the fallout from crises and wars of the past remained by and large confined to the conflict zones themselves,[2] the conflicts that were set in motion in the MENA region in late 2010 reverberated across the Mediterranean, leading to waves of migrants, an increased threat (and materialization) of terrorism, and economic disruption. On Europe’s eastern flank, long-simmering tensions as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union led to armed conflict when Russia attacked and occupied part of Ukraine in 2014.

Insecurity in the periphery of Europe has profound consequences for the Netherlands. It affects our economic security, as the conflict in Ukraine produced ramifications for energy supplies to Europe from Russia. It affects our physical security, with the downing of flight MH-17 over Ukraine by a Russian-made missile serving as the most dramatic example. It affects our societal security, as the need to host refugees from Syria and flows of migrants to Europe requires communities across the country to adjust and adapt. This same development sees jihadists returning to Dutch soil, which could lead to an increase in ideological polarization. It affects our state security, in that the current standoff with Russia seems to lead to more malign intelligence-related activities on our territory. It affects our values-based patchwork of international relations, in that countries such as Egypt and some European allies are seeing the retrenchment of authoritarianism. And finally, it affects our geopolitical security, in that for instance our relationship with Turkey, a key NATO ally, has deteriorated in the wake of the political turmoil in the country since 2015.

2. Purpose and Scope

The purpose of this paper is to understand the varieties and sources of political violence and how they evolve and potentially affect security in Europe and the Netherlands. The definition of political violence adopted here follows the definition of politics framed by Harold Lasswell, namely violence resulting from the issue of “who gets what, when and how.”[3] By ‘political violence’ we mean the use of force in a harmful way perpetrated by a state or non-state actor for the sake of effecting changes in the distribution of power or resources within a given polity or community.[4] Political violence can take place at different levels and can involve a variety of actors. Practically speaking, political violence comprises armed conflict waged by one country in another (e.g. Saudi Arabia in Yemen, or Russia in Ukraine); fighting within a country between state and non-state actors (e.g. Tuareg against the central government in Mali); violent protests, for instance by citizens in Tunisia; state repression, such as the Egyptian state security apparatus clamping down on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood; or attacks by elements of al-Qaeda against the Free Syrian Army inside Syria. These are all examples in which control over territory, population, and natural or economic resources is at stake, or where a battle of ideas is being waged.

Figure 1
Division of regions in the European Periphery
Division of regions in the European Periphery

Geographically speaking, this paper separates Europe’s periphery into four different regions: the Sahel, North Africa, the Middle East, and the post-Soviet space (see Figure 1). In the first section, trends in political violence are analyzed for each of these regions. A second section focuses on trends relating to the international order, and the extent to which basic norms and rules are being adhered to.

4. Implications for the Netherlands and Outlook

This paper has analyzed trends in political violence by examining conflict and protest data over time, along with data for four relevant structural factors which drive conflict. The primary conclusion highlighted by this study is that current levels of political violence in the European periphery will remain high but stable, at least for the coming few years. More specifically, non-state groups will continue to prevail in committing violent acts towards states, civilians, and other non-state groups. In response, it is highly likely that state-based campaigns against these groups will continue to violently enforce stability and reinforce their control. Although most casualties of political violence in the regions surveyed are the result of state-based violence, non-state violence is increasing both in terms of the number of conflicts and the lethality of violence. Indeed, even when the frequency of conflicts declines, fatalities generally remain stable as confrontations become more deadly on average. Despite reductions in the civilian death toll since 2015, elevated trends in the fatality rates of non-combatants are set to endure, meaning everyday people will continue to fall victim to violence perpetrated by both state and non-state actors.

Figure 18
The Year Ahead: 2019 Political Violence Projections for the European Periphery[55]
The New Political Violence Monitor 2019 Projections (still to be converted to House Style)

Some general conclusions can be drawn concerning the root causes of political violence. While youth as a percentage of the overall population in the MENA region will remain high for the foreseeable future — and higher than in most other parts of the world — there are some slow downward trends visible, particularly in North Africa. Secondly, youth unemployment, which is closely related to demographic developments, is especially worrisome in North Africa and the Middle East. Levels of dissatisfaction and persisting high levels of unemployment in most areas in the periphery of Europe can provide added ammunition for terrorist groups such as ISIS to recruit adherents and to survive. This is particularly a risk in parts of Libya and Mali, but also in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, food prices continue to rise in every region and, once again, we find that trends in North Africa and Middle East are of the biggest concern. Finally, the quality of governance remains deficient across the periphery and has seen little improvement, albeit with some limited exceptions in the post-Soviet space. Despite a few recent positive developments in relation to levels of violence in the Sahel region and the Middle East (particularly with regard to the conflict in Syria), there is little prospect that situations of grave instability such as in Libya and Syria, or in Ukraine, will improve anytime soon. A country such as Tunisia could also experience a relapse.

What are the consequences of these trends for Europe? The key finding is that for the foreseeable future, Europe will see persisting instability on its doorstep. On average, levels of political violence have increased over the past ten years in every region examined here. The trends in political violence also underscore that in all regions except the Sahel, state-based actors predominate in lethal and protest-related events. At the same time, in all regions except in eastern Europe, the number of conflicts involving non-state actors has also increased over the past five to ten years, despite the past two years exhibiting a small downward trend in the Middle East and North Africa. This longer-term trend could point to the fact that state authority (‘sovereignty’) will continue to be challenged across Europe’s periphery. The countries with ab all-but-certain risk of continued violence in the coming year include Syria, Iraq, Mali, and Libya.[56]

These developments have various societal, economic, territorial, physical, and ethical consequences, as they affect the security outlook for Europe and the Netherlands in the coming five years. Firstly, from the point of view of societal security, the continuation of instability in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Sahel region will likely sustain a flow of migrants to Europe in the coming five years, even if the numbers seen in 2018 are dramatically lower than what they were in 2015. In turn, these trends are set to continue to impact social cohesion in Europe and the Netherlands, with the possibility for protests, increased friction between social groups, and sustained support for parties on the fringes of the political spectrum.

As Europe’s 3D and border security initiatives are pushed further south across the Sahara, it is likely that the demand for aid allocation, as well as funding for peace and security operations, will increase. These selfsame developments will also put more pressure on the territorial boundaries of the Netherlands and Europe due to flows of refugees fleeing political violence in the periphery, and territorial tensions in the post-Soviet space between Ukraine and Russia.

Thirdly, trends of political violence in the periphery will likely impact physical security. The resilience of non-state groups and persisting environments of instability mean that terrorist organizations will continue to (attempt to) carry out attacks in and around Europe. Despite ISIS’ recent territorial losses, both their ideology and their number of combatants remain strong. As a consequence, we can expect losses of human life, especially in view of the fact that during 2017, there were thirty-nine non-state conflicts in the European periphery and a surge of new groups forming from the splinters of more established ones. Physical security in the Netherlands specifically may also be impacted through military engagement in conflict or through peacekeeping operations, as we have seen in Mali.

Finally, conflicts in the periphery also continue to challenge our values-based diplomacy. Grave human rights violations regularly occur on a large scale, and the indication that this will continue or worsen challenges to the international law and norms that the Netherlands actively and purposefully supports.

The Netherlands is not an island and our fate is inextricably entwined with that of Europe. Accordingly, it should be reiterated that the security threats outlined above assume that a threat to Europe is also a threat to the Netherlands, and vice versa. Hence, even if the actual impact and/or probability of these various threats to materialize may be low for the Netherlands itself, the fact that they are more likely in other parts of Europe — and especially in those part in proximity of conflict zones — means that they concern the Netherlands just as much in terms of readiness and ability to provide for safety and security.


Reviewed by Rob de Wijk and Tim Sweijs. Edited by Esther Chavannes. Project set-up feedback provided by Joost Hiltermann, Robert Blecher (International Crisis Group) and Dr. Laila al-Zwaini (independent Middle East researcher). The authors are solely responsible for the views expressed in this paper.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Integrated International Security Strategy 2018-2022” (Government of the Netherlands, May 14, 2018), 26, link.
Examples are the second Gulf War (1990–91), the war in Lebanon (2006), and the Gaza wars (2008–09, 2014).
Harold D. Lasswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. (New York, NY: Whittlesey House, 1936).
This description also includes violence which is ostensibly motivated by ideological or religious commitments. Ideology, however, is considered instrumental in this context, as ideology is in essence nothing but holding a specific view about how a polity ought to be governed, and thus concerns a desire to bring about a change in how power or resources are distributed (i.e., “who gets what, when and how”). It also corresponds to definitions such as that of the Heidelberg Conflict Barometer, which speaks about political conflict as “a contradiction, adequately represented by the concept of a positional difference [being] a perceived incompatibility of ideas and beliefs.” See Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK), “Methodology of the Heidelberg Conflict Research,” Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK), accessed October 17, 2018, link. This description also reflects the UCDP definition of ‘violence’ whereby violence is described as “[an] attack [that] can be symbolic and does not have to result in deaths.” See Department of Peace and Conflict Research, “UCDP Definitions,” Uppsala University, Sweden, accessed October 17, 2018, link.
A state-based armed conflict is a contested incompatibility that concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in one calendar year. This includes government forces versus non-state armed group(s), as well as government versus government (within a country or between countries). For example, Actor A: The Government of Libya versus Actor B: Islamic State.
A non-state conflict is the use of armed force between two organized armed groups, neither of which is the government of a state, which results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in a year. For example Actor A: al Qaida versus Actor B: Free Syrian Army (FSA).
One-sided violence is the use of armed force by the government of a state or by a formally organized group against civilians which results in at least 25 deaths in a year. This includes repression by government forces and terrorism. For example Actor A: Government of Egypt versus Actor B: civilians.
According to the GDELT Codebook classification protests cover all civilian demonstrations and other collective actions carried out as protests against a target actor. Specifically, CAMEO codes 140, 141, 1411, 1412, 1413, 1414, 145, 1451, 1452, 1453, and 1454 were included in the data analysis to focus on violent and non-violent demonstrations. Philip A. Schrodt, “CAMEO: Conflict and Mediation Event Observations Event and Actor Codebook” (The GDELT Project, 2012), 66–72, link.
For the purposes of this section, defined as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey.
See e.g. Alexandre Marc, “Conflict and Violence in the 21st Century Current Trends as Observed in Empirical Research and Statistics” (World Bank Group, 2016), link.
These calculations are made by the author(s) based on the relevant data and are rounded figures.
24,931 due to state-based violence, 7,491 due to non-state violence and 622 due to one-sided violence.
Data until December 31, 2016. See Debarati Guha-Sapir et al., “Patterns of Civilian and Child Deaths Due to War-Related Violence in Syria: A Comparative Analysis from the Violation Documentation Center Dataset, 2011–16,” The Lancet, December 6, 2017, link.
Kieran Corcoran, “21 People Are Dead and 450 under Arrest in Iran’s Bloody Week of Protests,” Business Insider, January 2, 2018, link.
See also described in a more comprehensive fashion, in Maarten Gehem et al., Balancing on the Brink: Vulnerability of States in the Middle East and North Africa, vol. 3 (The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, 2014).
See Kari Paasonen and Henrik Urdal, “Youth Bulges, Exclusion and Instability: The Role of Youth in the Arab Spring,” Conflict Trends (Oslo: PRIO, March 2016), link; M. Chloe Mulderig, “An Uncertain Future: Youth Frustration and the Arab Spring,” 2013; Dan Miodownik and Omer Yair, “Youth Bulge and Civil War: Why a Country’s Share of Young Adults Explains Only Non-Ethnic Wars,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 33, no. 1 (February 1, 2016): 25–44.
Lionel Beenher, “The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 13, 2007, link.
Musa McKee et al., “Demographic and Economic Material Factors in the Mena Region,” EU MENARA Project, October 2017, 9, link.
According to youth (under 24) unemployment data from the World Bank.
Joost Hiltermann, “Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts,” International Crisis Group, February 13, 2018, 7, link.
Based on data compiled by HCSS’s New Political Violence Monitor (see Figure 18 under ‘scoring and conclusions’).
See e.g., Uri Friedman, “Syria’s War Has Never Been More International,” The Atlantic, February 14, 2018, link.
See e.g., Willem Th Oosterveld et al., The Rise and Fall of ISIS: From Evitability to Inevitability (The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, 2017).
Bradon Wallace and Jennifer Cafarella, “ISW Blog: ISIS’s Second Resurgence,” Institute for the Study of War, October 2, 2018, link.
AIV, “Security and Stability in Northern Africa” (Advisory Council on International Affairs, May 2016), link.
Ulf Laessing, “Moroccan Protesters Clash with Police in Poor Mining Town and ‘Set Cars on Fire,’” The Independent, March 15, 2018, link. and Claire Spencer, “Across North Africa and the Middle East, 2018 Looks to Be a Year of Civil Unrest,” Chatham House, January 25, 2018, link.
See e.g., Iffat Idris, “Analysis of the Arab Spring” (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report. London: Department for International Development, link, last accessed 06/06, 2016); Cullen Hendrix and Hendrik-Jan Brinkman, “Food Insecurity and Conflict Dynamics: Causal Linkages and Complex Feedbacks,” Stability Journal, June 17, 2013, link; Michael Gordon, “Forecasting Instability: The Case of the Arab Spring and the Limitations of Socioeconomic Data,” The Wilson Center, February 8, 2018, link.
Rabah Arezki and Markus Bruckner, “Food Prices and Political Instability,” International Monetary Fund, March 1, 2011, link.
Ishan Thakore, “Deficit Pushes Morocco to Cut Subsidies,” Al Jazeera, May 2, 2014, link.
In democratic theory, regimes in transition between autocracy and democracy are more vulnerable to instability and violence than either autocracies and democracies. See e.g., Jennifer Gandhi and James Vreeland, “Political Institutions and Civil War: Unpacking Anocracy,” Journal of Conflict Solutions 52, no. 3 (June 2008): 401–25; AIV, “Security and Stability in Northern Africa.”
BBC, “How Libya Holds the Key to Solving Europe’s Migration Crisis,” BBC News, July 7, 2018, link.
AIV, “Security and Stability in Northern Africa.”
Fatma Naib, “Slavery in Libya: Life inside a Container,” Al Jazeera, January 26, 2018, link.
For example, the conflict in Mali feeding the current instability in Libya.
Olivier Walther, “The Blurred Boundaries of Political Violence in the Sahel-Sahara,” OECD - Development Matters, September 29, 2017, link.
Rukmini Callimachi, “Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror,” The New York Times, July 29, 2014, link.
For example the violent clashes between the Ma'aliyah and Rizeigat Baggara and also the Misseriya and the Rizeigat Abbala.
Ketil Hansen, “Petrol, Price Protests and Police Brutality in Chad - Chad,” ReliefWeb, April 21, 2015, link; “Sudan: Stop Abuse of Peaceful Demonstrators,” Human Rights Watch, January 29, 2018, link; “UN Calls for Calm as Dozens Injured in Mali Protests,” France 24, June 3, 2018, link; Annie Kelly, “Anti-Slavery Activists in Mauritania Face Violent Clampdown, Rights Groups Warn,” The Guardian, January 20, 2016, link.
“Protesters Face ‘zero Tolerance’ in Chad as 17 Sentenced,” Agence France Presse, February 15, 2018, link.
Emma Graham-Harrison, “Niger Rioters Torch Churches and Attack French Firms in Charlie Hebdo Protest,” The Guardian, January 17, 2015, link.
Justin Yifu Lin, “Youth Bulge: A Demographic Dividend or a Demographic Bomb in Developing Countries?,” The World Bank - Let’s Talk Development, May 1, 2012, link.
Beenher, “The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts.”
See Ernest Harsch, “The New Face of the Sahel,” Africa Renewal, August 2017, link.
“The Sahara Desert Is Expanding: New Study Finds That the World’s Largest Desert Grew by 10 Percent since 1920, Due in Part to Climate Change,” ScienceDaily, March 29, 2018, link.
Andre-Michel Essoungo, “The Sahel: One Region, Many Crises,” Africa Renewal, December 2013, link.
Chris Arsenault, “‘Population Growth Far Outpaces Food Supply’ in Conflict-Ravaged Sahel,” The Guardian, October 22, 2014, link.
See Tor Benjaminsen, “Does Climate Change Cause Conflicts in the Sahel?,” Oxford Research Group, July 19, 2016, link.
“Russia’s Dagestan: Conflict Causes,” International Crisis Group, June 3, 2008, link.
See Yuri Shevda and Joung Ho Park, “Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity: The Dynamics of Euromaidan,” Journal of Eurasian Studies 7, no. 1 (January 2016): 85–91.
See e.g. Kadri Liik, “Winning the Normative War with Russia: An EU-Russia Power Audit” (European Council on Foreign Relations, May 21, 2018), link; Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith, “Russia and Hybrid Warfare - Going Beyond the Label,” NATO Stratcom - Centre of Excellence, January 2016, link; Andreas Kappeler, “Ukraine and Russia: Legacies of the Imperial Past and Competing Memories,” Journal of Eurasian Studies 5, no. 2 (July 2014): 107–15; Paul Stronski and Richard Sokolsky, “The Return of Global Russia: An Analytical Framework,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 14, 2017, link; Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, “Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union” (RAND Corporation, 2018).
See e.g. Marek Dabrowski, “The Systemic Roots of Russia’s Recession” (Bruegel Policy Contribution, 2015), link.
Samuel Osborne, “Russia Protests: More than 1,000 Detained at Demonstrations over Retirement Age Increase,” The Independent, September 10, 2018, link.
Lauren Goodrich, “Russia Falls Into Old Habits,” Stratfor, October 25, 2016, link.
See e.g. Migacheva and Frederick, “China’s Foreign Aid and Government-Sponsored Investment Activities.”
HCSS Political Violence Model. The risk assessment shows the likelihood of at least one fatality from either state-based, one-sided, or non-state conflict in of one of regions of the country. More than 1,400 indicators relating to conflict history; events on the ground and types of actors active; political, social, economic, demographic, environmental development and status were used to produce the risk assessment. Advanced analytical tools — Random Forest, Artificial Neural Networks, Gradient Boosted Machine, and XGBoost — from a supervised learning branch of machine learning were utilized. The models were tested on the basis of samples, with very high predictive power and accuracy.
According to HCSS New Political Violence Monitor’s 2019 risk projections.