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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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”