It has been a depressingly busy week for lone actor terrorism with atrocities in numerous places. In the wake of the events in Orlando, I wrote the below for the Times and there should be more to come specifically about the far right next week. Less on the media front, though spoke to the Financial Times about how to counter terrorism in cities ahead of the EuroCup, The Times after the US raised it terror threat level in Europe, and did some longer discussions with BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed show, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs about radicalisation and jihadis more broadly, and my home institution RUSI about the spate of attacks in this past week.
Terror threat grows more random by the day
Recent Islamist attacks will renew calls for sweeping surveillance powers but the cure might be worse than the disease
The massacre of clubbers in Orlando at the weekend is not the first time that terrorists have targeted the gay community. In 1999, the right-wing extremist David Copeland left a nail bomb in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, London, that killed three people and injured about 70. In the weeks leading up to the attack, he had left devices targeting minorities in Brixton and Brick Lane that caused multiple injuries. Copeland, who had links to British far-right groups, said after his arrest that he wanted to spark a race war. His indiscriminate campaign showed how the ideology of the extreme right was aimed at the whole of society rather than any specific group.
There are similarities to be drawn with Islamic State. While the group has not yet taken concerted action against LGBT people in the West, it has executed dozens accused of homosexuality in Iraq and Syria. The fact that Orlando is the first attack of its kind outside the Middle East, therefore, is not for any lack of will on the part of Isis. It underlines the random way in which “lone actor” jihadists now pick their targets.
This approach was set out by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a senior Isis commander, in 2014. Calling for attacks on the movement’s foreign foes that would “turn their worldly life into fear and fire”, he said that there was no need to “ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.” This carte blanche electrified those drawn to Isis’s ideology. However, when your message is so omnidirectional, it will inspire not only hardened followers but also individuals with a range of motives — or illnesses. Take the case of Muhaydin Mire, who was convicted last week of trying to murder a man on the Underground while shouting that it was “for my brothers in Syria”. It emerged that he had been mentally unstable for some time and had been reading about Islamist ideology online.
When considering a response to such incidents, it is vital to remember that they can stem from a variety of motivations — from the personal to the ideological and all points in between — for which there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
It becomes harder still when the targets chosen by Isis and lone actors can be so diverse: from football stadia to music venues, as well as attempted attacks on churches, public transport networks and bars. In 2014, Isis acknowledged Man Haron Monis’s attack on a Sydney coffee shop that led to three deaths including his own, even though he turned up for his attack with the wrong banner. In contrast they failed to acknowledge Yassin Salhi, another troubled man with a history of links to extremist groups, who decapitated his boss last year before trying to cause an explosion at the gas factory in Lyon where he worked. French authorities said the attack bore the hallmarks of Isis, although no link with Salhi was ever uncovered. He hanged himself in prison before standing trial for murder.
This lack of clarity between terror groups and their foot soldiers is not actually as new as it might seem.
Al-Qaeda promoted the idea of lone wolves launching undirected attacks in its magazine Inspire, drawing on a methodology laid out by ideologue (and former London resident) Abu Musab al-Suri. And the far right has long called for lone wolves to rise up in their own societies and provoke race war by any means possible.
Other groups like the IRA, ETA or left-wing organisations during the 1970s were more structured but happy to use the broader community of radicals that were drawn by high-profile bomb attacks, assassinations or kidnappings.
There is, unfortunately, very little that can be done to counter the dissemination of terrorist ideology in our interconnected world.
Even countries with tight control of the internet such as China find it hard to prevent the spread of extremist messages to vulnerable or otherwise receptive minds.
And even if such control was possible, it is arguable that we would be doing the terrorists’ work for them by giving the state sweeping powers to monitor and control communications on a massive scale. While this is little comfort to those suffering in the wake of an attack such as Orlando, it is unclear that tightly-controlled societies are any better at dealing with terrorist threats than open ones. Instead, we should seek ways to distract those drawn to these messages in the first place (if they can be identified early enough), as well as continuing to attack the appeal of Isis and its ideology by degrading its capability on the ground.
European security agencies continue to worry about the possibility of an attack by Isis during the Euro 2016 tournament.
The only publicly disrupted plot was of a far-right Frenchman arrested coming back into his country from Ukraine, armed with guns and explosives intended for a series of attacks on synagogues, mosques, highways, bridges and football stadia. This underlines the increasingly random nature of terrorism. The goal is as much to sow shock and horror in the venues of everyday life as to bring attention to a specific cause.
Orlando joins the names on a long list of terrorist atrocities in the West since 9/11 and will, sadly, not be the last. Terrorist violence will continue to grow more indiscriminate.
Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)