Chris Wilson: Are lone wolf attacks the new normal?
OPINION: It currently seems as if lone wolf terrorist attacks are here to stay. Incidents such as those in Nice are almost impossible to prevent. Increasingly, attackers are self-radicalising, developing plans in private or in very small groups and leaving no telltale communications or behaviour which can be detected by intelligence services or police.
They take inspiration from Isis, but in many cases, without having had contact with or been directed by the organisation. Most are not returned foreign fighters who provide a red flag to authorities when they cross international borders.
There are an almost infinite number of potential soft targets to defend. Heightening security around airports, train stations or other infrastructure will mean the terrorists focus on other places where people gather. And when weapons are not available, perpetrators can use easily obtainable and innocuous items like vehicles and knives to cause mass casualties.
In many cases, these people are not particularly devout Muslims, making it difficult to profile them as Islamist radicals. The Nice attacker has been described by acquaintances as a 'loose cannon' who ignored Islam. It's becoming increasingly apparent that the brutality of Isis appeals most strongly to those with mental health problems, violent criminal tendencies or personal grievances.
Therefore local Muslim communities – often the best provider of intelligence on those planning attacks – are as detached from the perpetrator as non-Muslims. Most counter terrorism experts now tell us that these issues of detection mean that this is now a problem that we must learn to accept, that this is our new reality. Even as the United States and its coalition militarily defeat Isis in Syria and Iraq, the Isis anti-Western rhetoric and exhortations to murder those in the West will resonate for years to come.
Yet there is some cause for optimism that this situation will not be with us forever. Although ideologies can seem impossible to combat, even ideas have exemplars. Ideologies have little power on their own; they require successful or charismatic actors and institutions to give them legitimacy and traction.
Consider the role of Hitler and the Nazis in the spread of fascism throughout Europe and beyond. As Eric Hobsbawn says in The Age of Extremes, without Hitler's rise to power and prominence in 1933, fascist movements elsewhere would have stagnated, lacking the confidence and drive to power that came from the Nazis' rise.
The Hungarian Arrow Cross, the Romanian Iron Guard, and the Croatian Ustase emerged in their own local contexts but were all inspired not only by the Nazis' ideology but above all, by their success. With the defeat of fascist regimes in 1945, these movements fell and the facist ideology was largely extinguished.
A similar parallel can be drawn with the communist insurgencies which proliferated during the Cold War but have largely disappeared since the fall of the Soviet Union. Numerous countries in every continent faced communist-inspired rebellions and terrorism in the 1960s and 70s. In the post-Cold War era, such violence remains in only a handful of locations.
The same dynamic will eventually occur when Isis is defeated, whether through alienating the Sunni population of Iraq and Syria or through military defeat by a coalition of neighbouring states and Western powers. When this occurs, its propaganda might live on online, but the inspiration will be gone. The ideology of killing innocent people in the name of the Islamic State will dissipate and finally disappear in the same way that anarchist, fascist and communist violence has largely evaporated.
Until then, the most important thing that people in countries facing Isis-inspired terrorism can do is to avoid the very thing that organisation wants: division. In The Management of Savagery, the strategic manual widely read by Isis's commanders, Abu Bakr Naji wrote of tactics of "vexation and exhaustion", constant attacks which undermine the West's economies and political systems.
Originally intended to weaken enemy forces in the battlefield, the tactic is now being transferred to their societies at home instead. The goal is not only to terrorise but to cause hatred and mistrust between Muslims and non-Muslims, leading to polarisation, disintegration and chaos. Those of us in places like New Zealand can't do much to fight Isis, but we can make sure it doesn't succeed in causing prejudice and violence in our own societies.
Dr Chris Wilson is a senior lecturer in Politics and International Relations in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland.
- The Dominion Post