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
This article appears in the 20 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt