PARIS (Reuters) - The terrorism threat in Europe remains elevated, with a quarter more attacks in the European Union in 2012 than in the previous year, pan-European police force Europol said on Thursday.
The annual terrorism report published by Europe's crime-fighting agency, coming less than two weeks after the bombings in Boston, identified 219 completed or failed attacks in 2012 in EU-member states, the majority in France and Spain.
That was a rise of 26 percent over 2011, when 174 such attacks were reported.
Europol defines a "terrorist" offence as an intentional act which may seriously damage a country or international organization when committed to intimidate a population, compel a government to act, or destabilize political, economic or social structures.
"The threat from terrorism ... remains strong in Europe. It also continues to evolve from structured groups and networks to smaller EU-based groups and solo terrorists or lone actors," the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report found.
Seventeen people died last year in such incidents, the deadliest being a series of three attacks by a lone gunman in France and a bombing at Bulgaria's Burgas airport, each of which killed seven.
Only two people died in such attacks in 2011.
As in years past, the majority of the attacks came from separatist groups in France and Spain. Basque separatist group ETA carried out none, having declared a ceasefire in October 2011.
But the threat from religiously-inspired lone actors is strong, the report found. France's Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old of French-Algerian origin, shot three soldiers, three Jewish children and a Jewish teacher in March 2012 before being killed by police.
The report found a continued reliance on the Internet for smaller groups and lone actors who use it to collaborate with like-minded individuals and plan attacks.
In 2012, more EU citizens travelled to conflict zones around the world, such as Syria and the Sahel, to engage in fighting.
"Syria emerged as the destination of choice for foreign fighters in 2012," the report found, citing the risk of EU citizens, upon their return, using their new training and knowledge for activities in Europe.
EU citizens have also been detected in Somalia, where they are believed to be affiliated with al Qaeda, and northern Mali, where France has been striving to drive out insurgents linked to al Qaeda since January.
"The developments in the Sahel region are of major interest to the security situation of the EU," wrote Europol Director Rob Wainwright.
Representing less of a threat last year were left-wing and anarchist groups, which committed 18 reported attacks compared with 37 last year and 45 in 2010. The number of such attacks increased in Italy in 2012, however.
Following the killing of 77 people in Norway in 2011 by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, EU governments stepped up their surveillance of right-wing groups. Such groups staged two attacks in 2012, in Bulgaria and Poland.
(Reporting by Alexandria Sage; editing by Andrew Roche)