The Changing Face of European Terrorism

A plot to kill Poland's leadership shocks a nation with no history of terrorism.

Last week the Polish government announced the thwarting of a terrorism plot that is worrisome in its audacity and in who was behind it. In a country with minimal experience of terrorism, the discovery of a sophisticated homegrown bomber seeking to decapitate the government by blowing up the parliament and the president has caused shockwaves and introspection.

The would-be bomber, Dr. Brunon Kwiecień, a forty-five year old research scientist at Krakow’s Agricultural University, fits few currently fashionable profiles. Neither a jihadist nor marginally employed or socially bereft, Kwiecień is married with two children, has a respectable income, and is reported to have been exceptionally interested in explosives since his youth. A skilled chemist popular with his students and considered unremarkable by his university colleagues, he came up with a truly audacious plot to blow up the Sejm, the Polish parliament in Warsaw, during a joint session where both houses, the president and the full cabinet would be present. As Kwiecień is reported to have conducted visits to Warsaw to select his targets, this appears to be more than the figment of a demented imagination.

The seriousness of the bomber’s intent was evidenced by the astonishing haul made by Polish police after Kwiecień’s arrest on November 9. Among the items seized were a dozen illegal firearms, some 1,100 rounds of ammunition, body armor of various types, several detonators (including cell phones triggers) and an amazing four tons of high-grade explosives—more than enough to flatten several city blocks—which the bomber had access to due to his job. There seems to be little doubt that Kwiecień had the technical competence to build the bomb, but his efforts to find collaborators fell short.

Of the four individuals he secretly recruited into his “armed group,” at least two are suspected of being government informants, which may explain why none of the co-conspirators have yet been arrested. It seems that Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ABW) began tracking Kwiecień last year, in the aftermath of Anders Breivik’s July 2011 attacks in Norway. Polish officials have hinted at a Breivik link to the case, which is plausible given that the self-styled counter-jihadist procured materials in Poland. Moreover, both men posted anti-government rants on far-right websites; Kwiecień termed the Polish government “foreigners” and poured online vitriol on Warsaw—so much so that the ABW took notice. The Polish scientist, who idolized Breivik, nevertheless felt that with his technical expertise he could outperform the Norwegian mass killer.

How close Poland came to the nightmare Kwiecień intended is not yet clear, since the ABW was watching for months before his arrest. There are also reports that Kwiecień’s wife, employed at the same university, became alarmed by his increasingly violent rhetoric and may have informed the police. The ABW maintains that it sought the professor’s arrest before this year’s November 11 independence day parade in Warsaw, which police feared might be a bombing target. It seems that, as in so many terrorism cases in the United States in recent years, the domestic intelligence service was deeply involved in the plot for some time.

That said, there is little room for celebration in the “Agrobomber” case, as the Polish media has termed it. Poland is a country with hardly any experience with terrorism. There are practically no jihadists, and the last high-profile attack was the assassination of a government minister by Ukrainian nationalists in 1931. But the country now has an internal threat that is deadly serious in intent, if not necessarily numbers. The security services performed creditably this time, but it ought to raise alarm bells far beyond Poland that Kwiecień, an amateurish yet technically skilled terrorist, planned an operation more audacious than anything attempted by Al Qaeda in Europe in years.

Moreover, the Breivik factor cannot be overlooked. Although the Norwegian is in prison, his reputation has only grown among far-rightists in Europe who view him as an idol and an inspiration. A generic hard-right Breivikism is rising among Europeans who feel deeply disaffected in the current climate.

Kwiecień is no exact analog for Breivik, not least because he professes traditional Polish nationalism that includes doses of anti-Semitism. And while the Norwegian “Knight Templar” is actively pro-Israel, the similarities in the ideology, not least its willingness to embrace mass violence against civilians, are disturbing.

Interestingly, it is not yet clear how far outside the Polish far right’s mainstream Kwiecień actually is, despite considerable dissection of his views in the Polish media. That Warsaw is run by corrupt politicos who are soft on foreigners is a staple among hardline Polish right wingers. Even Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Catholic priest and de facto leader of Poland’s religious right, who has been in hot water with the Vatican for his anti-Semitic comments, has stated that the country is in the hands of foreigners and has not been run by Poles since 1939. Not surprisingly, Polish rightists have charged that the bomb plot is really an ABW provocation to discredit rising opposition to an increasingly unpopular government.

There is no doubt that far-right opposition to the centrist government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk is rising for many reasons. In a strange irony, the November 11 independence day celebrations, which the ABW feared Kwiecień might blow up, were disrupted by as many as 20,000 nationalists who staged a protest march through the city, which resulted in brawling and police intervention.

Brunon Kwiecień was arrested before he could harm anyone, but this case is a reminder that jihadists are far from the only terrorism problem facing Europe—and offers the chilling prospect that Anders Breivik was the first of his kind, not the last.

John R. Schindler is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and is chair of the Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Combating Terrorism Working Group. A former National Security Agency official, he blogs at 20committee.com. The views expressed here are entirely his own.