Lone wolf attacks raise the tempo of terror in Europe
Young extremist recruits in Europe are successfully ramping up violence
French policemen in the Normandy village of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray after a priest was killed in the latest of a string of attacks against Western targets claimed by or blamed on the Islamic State jihadist group. Photograph: Matthieu Alexandre/AFP/Getty Images
Another day, another attack. Europe is reeling from a spate of deadly summer assaults – by gun, axe, knife, machete and truck – leaving citizens anxious and policymakers straining for a response.
There may be no easy answer. If interrupting networks of plotters has proved difficult for the continent’s security services, stopping lone wolves, or “wolf packs”, such as the pair who murdered a French priest in Normandy on Tuesday, is an even more difficult task.
There is a long history of jihadist lone wolf activity, beginning with the efforts of Anwar al-Awlaki, al-Qaeda’s charismatic cleric, to incite followers to take up whatever arms they could find and attack the West in the late 2000s.Islamic State (also known as Isis) picked up the same mantle.
“Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him,” exhorted Mohammed al-Adnani, the terrorist group’s propaganda chief, in 2014.
Recent violence – the Nice truck massacre, the Würzburg axe attack, the Ansbach bombing, the Reutlingen machete murder, and the Rouen church killing – form part of a continuum of Islamic State-linked lone-wolf activity stretching back two years.
“It seems fairly clear that it is speeding up,” says Rafaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at Rusi, a UK think tank. “We are seeing a greater number and a greater degree of frequency, though there is still a lot that is hard to know. It’s still a hard task to parse just what is pre-planned and what is spontaneous; what is directed by Isis or what is in between.”
There have been grim successes: the May 2014 Jewish museum shootings in Brussels; the Ottawa parliament attack in October 2014; the February 2015 Østerbro Copenhagen shootings; the June 2015 Lyon beheading; the June 2016 Mangnanville police stabbings; and the Orlando nightclub massacre.
And many other failures: the 2014 Riviera bomb plot by Ibrahim Boudina; the August 2014 Ziamani beheading plot in the UK; the November 2014 Creteil shooting plot in France; the February 2015 Nice Jewish centre stabbings; the Thalys train and Villejuif church attacks.
The barrier to entry as an Islamic State lone wolf is low. And the group is not picky about recruits. “Now you can go and shoot someone, shout about Isis and all of a sudden you are Isis,” notes Pantucci.
At the same time, the speed with which individuals have progressed from interest in radical Islam to becoming full-blown terrorists has increased dramatically, say counter-terrorism officials in Europe and the US.
Before Islamic State’s rise, studies of lone-actor terrorism failed to identify clear personality characteristics. But there were some commonalities: perpetrators were on average in their mid to late 30s, and the incidence of serious mental illness among them was high.
By contrast, while some of the Islamic State lone wolves have had histories of mental problems, most have not. The age of the perpetrators appears to be considerably lower.
In other words, Islamic State’s lone wolves are younger and saner.
That difference appears to reflect the nature of the jihadi group’s interaction with would-be terrorists and a longer-term shift in the way terrorist propaganda reaches people in a digital world, say analysts.
Islamic State’s appeals for lone-wolf attacks are transmitted through the same networks, social media and digital messaging channels that were once so effective at luring foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq.
Indeed, young, sympathetic extremists in Europe who were once potential foot soldiers in Syria are now regularly prevailed upon by Islamic State recruiters to “stay at home and commit murder”, says one senior British security official.
Their recruitment takes place in an atmosphere of intense propagandising and messaging, according to a senior European intelligence official. Social media means extremist networks have become ever-more effective echo chambers that peel off young recruits from old allegiances or sympathies – to family, home, school, country.
The pool of vulnerable radicals is large. In the UK, MI5 is watching at least 3,000 who are potential recruits.
Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in France, the ratio is greater. An added irony is that as Europe’s security agencies have become better at stopping the flow of their own citizens to the Middle East, they have also begun to swell these ranks.
Regardless of the paths individuals find to killing in Islamic State’s name, the process also has its own momentum.
“Successful attacks always seem to trigger more attacks,” says one British official. “Our worry would be that we get into some kind of cascade; attack after attack after attack.”
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)