Ayoub El Khazzani, David Ali Sonboly, Riaz Khan Ahmadzai, Medhi Nemmouche, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel. The connection between these jihadists – who waged terror and destruction this summer – becomes vague as we dismiss the tenuous claims from ISIS that they, in fact, were part of a coherent network loyal to the caliphate. No, instead these attackers were isolationists in the purest sense: disillusioned, bitter young men metamorphosed into ‘lone wolves’.
Not that the aforementioned attackers wanted to escape their isolation, or indeed, were deeply interested in the religious doctrine of the Caliphate in the first place. They wished to stew in personal bitterness, and contemplated the rudimentary methods that could be employed to murder as many innocents as possible. Axe or truck; Kalashnikov or machete. It does not matter in the blood-red haze of a massacre, and so long as they remained an instrument of violence, their inner psychology was of no concern to the broader aims of Islamic extremism.
Yet it is the concern of security forces across Europe, whose promise of protection rests on their ability to anticipate the moves of terror suspects – and neutralise the threat. This summer has shown that they have floundered, and the application of terror is radically changing before our very eyes; an adaptation that produces a more fluid brand of violence and a practical step by the modern terrorist to avoid wider detection.
Axe or truck; Kalashnikov or machete. It does not matter in the blood-red haze of a massacre
The sheer unprecedented volume and randomness of attacks has made the job of the security forces fiendishly difficult, and trying to contain these unpredictable actors mirrors the comments made by a senior security chief, who said, in no exaggerated terms, that it was “like shaking a bag full of fleas”.
One defence and security commentator adds: “[this] mode of terror is unlike what we have seen with Al Qaeda and other Islamist organizations. With Al Qaeda, the focus was very much on carefully plotted, almost surgical operations that identified a target and went for them. [Daesh] in comparison, has really stamped its hallmark on the ‘lone wolf model’. But sometimes these are individuals who are acting out of personal animus or even madness”.
In the case of Bouhlel, this meant ploughing a truck through bystanders down the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, abruptly ending the enjoyment of Bastille day fanfares and fireworks by injuring hundreds and killing 84. Their “bodies flying like bowling pins along its route”. We must recognise that the use of a 19-tonne truck as a terrorist weapon is atypical; the fact that he presented a mentally deranged figure is not.
Clichéd interviews with shocked neighbours can only reveal so much, other than Bouhlel was “quiet and moody”, and seemingly “more into women than religion”. But as with the other extremists, this premeditated attack was thought up weeks before Bouhlel actually declared his allegiance to Isis. The nature of the anger was deeply personal, rather than one shared with his Islamist brothers towards the West. Such is this new wave of terror that sweeps Europe and beyond. Rather than operating as an organized sect, the ‘lone wolf’ – now recurrent in the security studies lexicon – preys upon panicked nations experiencing as many attacks in a month than they had seen for years.
But before we look back to the more infrequent terrorist attacks of yesteryear with a perverted rose-tinted view, another caveat is that the deranged and random nature of these perpetrators make them far more dangerous terrorist actors than we have ever witnessed. In light of this, we may even absolve the shortcomings of our security forces; for politicians, however, they become the necessary scapegoat. Months ago, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls positioned himself as the most hawkish European politician following the shootings in the Bataclan, and across the city of Paris. Now after Nice, the defiant figure still faces boos and calls to resign.
Disunity and xenophobic fervour cannot solve the biggest security threat Europe has witnessed this century
Nations traversing the second stage of grief: anger, need to express this emotion towards proximate individuals. Yet this can only offer temporary respite before the inevitable pivot towards blaming European migration policies, forcing Syrian refugees residing in communities still reeling from extremist violence to fear themselves. The mounting instances of tragedy can only play into the narrative of the Front Nationale, Alternative für Deutschland and other such detritus.
Disunity and xenophobic fervour cannot solve the biggest security threat Europe has witnessed this century. France has been the western nation where most blood has been shed in the struggle against ISIS, and despite calls of ‘aux armes, citoyens’, Salafi extremism continues to spill into Germany, with alienated refugees succumbing to the extremist teachings of Islam, as attacks in Munich and Würzburg have demonstrated.
For intelligence and security services, there should now be no hesitation to connect petty crimes and mental instability to the potential for the individual in question to incite terror. The recognition that the terrorism of the present and future is determined more by ‘personal animus’ than religious fundamentalism is inescapable.
The recent efforts to recapture Mosul are encouraging; but destroying mere physical bastions of extremism is not enough to eliminate the threat of terror towards the free peoples of our world. Everyday moments and routines will be corrupted by such awful crimes, and in lieu of meaningful action by security forces, chance and the bravery of bystanders may be the only hope against such ferocity; the only thing that stands between peace and the sounding of the death-knell.