Although it has come to the world as a shock, after attacks in recent years in Nice, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin, for many observers, a terrorist incident in the British capital was just a matter of time. Interestingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly – if, as was supposedly the case, it was conducted in the name of ISIS and inspired by Jihadi ideology – the attack coincides with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport last year. What we know so far is that yesterday afternoon the attacker – now named by Scotland Yard as British-born 52-year-old Khalid Masood – drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster bridge, then stabbed a police officer to death before being shot dead. With investigations underway, it is too soon to speculate about the motives of the perpetrator and whether or not he acted on his own.
While it remains unclear at this stage whether the perpetrator was self-radicalised and inspired by Islamist ideology, or whether he was part of a broader network with connections to other Islamists, it does not require deep analysis to note the similarities between yesterday’s incidents and attacks in Nice and Berlin, where perpetrators mowed down crowds using trucks. The use of vehicles and conventional weapons such as knives or guns for terrorist purposes has been discovered by Islamist militants as an effective tool for killing random civilians and spreading fear. This method is being openly promoted by ISIS in its online magazine, Rumiyah, released in English, which provides clear instructions on how to conduct attacks with rudimentary weapons. The use of simple weapons and random tactics allow terrorists to operate with ease, irrespective of the time and place – as these methods require neither long-term preparation nor specific knowledge, advanced training, or sophisticated technology – and allows them to operate individually, without the assistance of accomplices in the act itself. The use of low-tech terrorist tactics poses a severe challenge to counterterrorism methods, as the utility of technological means for preventive purposes, including surveillance, monitoring programmes, barricades, and detectors to prevent such attacks is severely restrained. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of “lone wolves” should not lead us to neglect the fact that individuals executing attacks on their own have connections with other Islamist militants. Previous attacks have shown that these “lone wolves” are usually part of a broader terrorist cell or network. Therefore, the need for tackling the problem of operational links between ISIS in the Middle East and self-radicalised European citizens will need to be further addressed.
The question arises of how robust societal resilience against this type of terrorism can be built, which aims at tackling the roots and motives of individual terrorists. Understanding the motives of individuals living in Western societies is key to counterterrorism strategies. This includes measures at the societal level, such as programmes countering (online) radicalisation and propaganda, as well as programmes addressing social problems which facilitate radicalisation. The use of the internet for jihadi recruitment and the spread of Islamist propaganda has proven to be a successful tool for terrorist groups, allowing them to reach individuals around the world, which poses a particular challenge to the combating of terrorism.
Yesterday’s incident also raises questions about the balance between individual freedom and enhanced security measures. Many Western societies regard individual freedoms as building blocks of their democracies. With terrorist attacks becoming more frequent, Western governments and societies will face the need to reconsider how to guarantee the security of individuals, while not restricting their liberties through increased security checks and video surveillance in public places.
Another point of concern is the wave of insecurity and fear instilled in societies by such a series of terrorist attacks. If not properly addressed, this could easily cause estrangement between Muslim and non-Muslim communities within Western societies, provoke hostility towards migrants in general, and provide fertile ground for the success of populist movements. The challenge is therefore not only to undertake counterterrorism measures that effectively and visibly tackle recruitment and radicalisation among Muslims, including legislation which addresses the operation of terrorist networks, but also to lead a constructive debate without giving in to neo-nationalism and undermining the notions of pluralism and diversity that many Western societies are based on.