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The Nice attack showed the threat posed by lone actors – we should brace ourselves for more

Terrorist organisations are strategically fluid, and deploying lone wolf attacks in the West allows them to extend their reach with limited resources.

Is this the new normal? That’s the question many people are asking after yet another deadly terrorist attack in France, this one on 14 July, the tenth such incident since 2014. Eight-four people were killed and more than 300 injured when a Tunisian resident of France drove a 19-tonne truck into crowds attending Bastille Day celebrations along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The massacre came a month after a lone gunman killed 49 revellers in an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Lone-actor terrorism has historically been far more limited in scope and effectiveness than plots that have direct connection to a terrorist movement. Examples of such attacks in the UK include the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in May 2013, and the attempted murder of the Labour MP Stephen Timms in 2010. As gruesome as these events were, they were aimed at politically sensitive targets: a soldier and a member of parliament. In both cases, the general public was spared.

A new study by the Royal United Services Institute, Leiden University, Chatham House and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has mapped the outcomes of 72 lone-actor attacks over the past 15 years. On average, these attacks resulted in 1.22 fatalities and 2.13 injuries. Compared to some of the biggest plots directed by al-Qaeda in Europe over the same period – such as the 7/7 attacks and the Madrid bombings – those figures are remarkably low.

This is now changing. The lone-actor ­attacks in Orlando and Nice demonstrate how a determined individual can still achieve high death tolls. They can also appear impossible to stop. After all, really, what can be done about a man who wishes to use a truck to kill and maim as many ­people as possible?

Strikes by single perpetrators are particularly effective for groups such as Islamic State, whose primary arena of activity is in the Levant, because such actions allow them to claim attacks in the West as their own – even when they are not.

Unlike Omar Mateen, the American security guard responsible for the mass shooting at the nightclub in Orlando, the Nice attacker did not officially declare allegiance to IS, nor is he known to have had any associations with other radical groups.

Following a preliminary investigation of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s computer, prosecutors in France have confirmed that he did not have any links to Islamic State and nor was he in contact with anyone from the group. All they have ascertained is that he had a passing interest in some of the group’s propaganda. (The idea of using a vehicle as a weapon to mow down civilians was promoted by al-Qaeda in its Inspire magazine in 2010.)

None of this has stopped IS from claiming responsibility for the slaughter in Nice. The group described Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as “an Islamic State soldier” in an audio statement released last weekend.

By deploying – or inspiring – individuals based in the West to commit acts of terror, IS has extended its war far beyond the Middle East, even as it comes under increasing pressure in Syria and Iraq.

Taking his last session of Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron told the House of Commons that the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq has dropped by 90 per cent from its high-water mark in 2013-2014. That assessment is confirmed by IS fighters, including one from High Wycombe who told me in February that the number of incoming fighters is dwindling.

This is due in part to increased security in Turkey, particularly along the border with Syria, the favoured crossing point for many would-be jihadis – but it is not the only reason. When IS recruitment was at its peak, the group had a compelling narrative and momentum. To sympathisers, it appeared to be a successful movement, one that was capable of redefining the contours of power in the Middle East.

When Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, defiantly appeared in the pulpit of the Great Mosque in Mosul and declared the birth of a new caliphate in June 2014, that sense of success was only strengthened. Scores of foreigners flooded in to what they regarded as the revival of God’s ideal state, including a family of 12 from Luton. In a statement released after their arrival in Syria, the family described Baghdadi’s caliphate as a “perfect and just” state.

Much of the gloss associated with IS has now faded. Its territory is under attack and the group is losing ground, although its grip over its most important fiefdoms – Raqqa and Mosul – remains powerful.

Military pressure on IS has nonetheless caused it to reorder its priorities. With fewer people attracted to its cause, it is telling those who are still seduced by its message to concentrate their attentions at home.

A statement by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, an IS spokesman, told followers abroad that they are “behind enemy lines” and advised them to use that opportunity to inflict the greatest possible damage on their own countries. In other words, more attacks in the West (and elsewhere) are inevitable.

Such are the mercurial challenges of fighting terrorism that when a group such as Islamic State is pushed back, it lashes out with greater anxiety and potency than before, either through inspiring lone-actor attacks in Europe and the United States or by masterminding more directed atrocities of the kind we have witnessed in recent months in Bangladesh, Turkey and Iraq. This is not to suggest we should not fight terrorism, but it explains the strategic fluidity of terrorist organisations – which is precisely why they are so hard to overcome.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His book “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea” is newly published by C Hurst & Co

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.