It is an all too familiar story by now: a lone actor pops up somewhere and attacks ordinary people going about their business, often ascribing the carnage to some broader cause. That is precisely what happened on Saturday night, in Forbury Gardens in Reading, where three people were killed and three more were injured in a stabbing attack. A 25-year-old Libyan refugee, who was arrested within minutes of the attack, is being questioned by counter-terrorism officers.
A similar attack occurred in February, when a 20-year-old man stabbed three people on Streatham High Road in south London. Already under police surveillance, he was quickly stopped before he was able to kill anyone.
Attacks such as these have become almost commonplace, a sinister mood music that plays ubiquitously in the background of everyday life. It is precisely because they are so unsophisticated and lack any real planning that they are so hard to stop – but there is more to it. The truth is that almost two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we are still no closer to identifying a “typology” of those drawn to terrorist violence.
It has emerged that Saturday’s suspect had previous convictions for violence-related offences. One of those involved an altercation at a branch of Sainsbury’s, where a security guard stopped him for shoplifting a bottle of wine. Subsequent media reports reveal a variety of different, often contradictory statements about him. Some suggest he converted to Christianity three years ago and that even had a tattoo of a cross on his arm. Others say he was a failed traveller who had wanted to join militant groups fighting in Syria. “This can’t all be true?” tweeted Miqdaad Versi, spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain.
While the exact facts of his life remain unclear, what does emerge is a picture of a deeply confused and conflicted individual. This, more often than not, is the pattern with terrorists. The man who drove a truck into the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin in 2016, killing 12, was later shown by autopsy reports to have been a frequent and heavy user of both cocaine and cannabis.
These men are not atypical when it comes to jihadist terrorism, and their unpredictability makes it very hard for authorities to mitigate the threat they pose to the public. The Berlin attacker had even flashed up on the radar of German counter-terrorism authorities, who observed his petty criminality and drug habits. The conclusion was that this indicated he could not be a supporter of Islamic State – the group in whose name he later conducted the attack – before his case was handed over to drugs enforcement teams.
A sizeable proportion of the Europeans who have joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq had similar backgrounds to these men. In interviews with more than a hundred Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, a number of them told me they had convictions for drugs offences or violent disorder. For exampe, Choukri Ellekhlifi used a high-voltage stun gun to rob people in Belgravia, central London, before travelling to Syria, where he joined fighters aligned with al-Qaeda. Others from the same west London network were caught while planning atrocities here. Tarik Hassane and Suhaib Majeed used their connections to a criminal network known for cocaine smuggling to source a gun which they planned to use against police officers and soldiers in Shepherd’s Bush, west London.
The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said in response to the Reading stabbings that “if there are lessons that we need to learn about how we handle such cases, how we handle the events leading up to such cases, then we will learn those lessons and we will not hesitate to take action when necessary”.
Herein lies the problem with the search for those lessons. In the years since 9/11, policymakers have prioritised process, favouring deradicalisation or prevention models replete with “logframes”, flowcharts and stepladder diagrams. It’s as if there’s a hidden Larousse Gastronomique for terrorism, laying out the formulaic process by which a terrorist is made or broken.
Attempts to reduce terrorist radicalisation in this way miss the point.
We did not speak of Cold War defectors to the Soviet Union or of IRA members as being radicalised in sterile, ambient terms. Politicians instead thought of the longue durée, adopting an approach that considered long-term ideational trends over event-driven approaches.
What national story is there to sell the next lone actor? Our current approach speaks only of prevention, safeguarding and counter-narratives. By doing so, we are already on the back foot. It is the extremists who are on the ideological offensive, offering an alternative vision of life to which we then react. Theirs is a message of confidence and assurance, cast against a Western stasis characterised by insecurity and uncertainty.
David Cameron tried to address this when delivering his speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2011, in which he said the government would promote British values, the rule of law and our history when seeking to contain the terrorist threat. There was little done to follow this up, however.
Johnson is already better placed than his immediate predecessors to reshape policy in this area. For starters, he has assembled a radical team of special advisers inside Downing Street, who think differently about interlocking issues such as national security, social cohesion and integration. At a time when our own history is being re-examined with ever greater scrutiny, the time has never been riper for Johnson to capture the moment.