Dear Manchester, your attacker fits a lone-actor profile
Since 2014 the Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks in more than 32 countries. Those attacks were varied — killing civilians in the streets, bombing airports, stadiums, museums, mosques, churches and transit stations. The terrorist attacks have been carried out almost weekly, taking 12,000 lives annually.
Terrorism ideology continues to spread. Not only have more than 27,000 foreign fighters travelled to Iraq and Syria in the last three years but numerous sleeper cells have been created in Europe and elsewhere.
Europe has been under attack for almost three years, with the latest being the attack in Manchester, England, that killed more than 20 people.
Every time an attack takes place in Europe, authorities announce that their major concern is whether the attack is planned by an individual attacker or a terrorist network. Police forces in Germany, France, Britain or any other European countries after most attacks expose terrorist cells and detain a large number of suspects. A few weeks later, another attack is committed.
A 2016 study by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) said there were three types of lone radicalised actors in Europe who plan attacks on behalf of ISIS.
First, the inspired lone-actor terrorist who is an extremist inspired by ISIS propaganda spread through social media but does not receive personal direction or instruction from the group.
The second is the remotely directed single actor. He is the same as the inspired attacker except he receives personal instruction from ISIS. Those attacks can be directed through end-to-end encrypted messaging or published video on social media platforms.
The last type is remotely directed and facilitated single-actor terrorist who receives direction and remotely orchestrated logistical support from ISIS.
The only way to differentiate between the three types is analysing their behaviour and attitude. Each category presents diverse tactics and identities. For instance, the threat posed by inspired lone-actor terrorists is identified with their dependency upon their choice of weapon. Thus, this would be the reason that vehicles and knives are used for the first time as a weapon in a terrorist attack.
The Westminster attacker is one of those cases. He was influenced by the radical Islamic ideology but security investigations determined he was an extremist but not a terrorist. No one suspected that he would drive a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in April, killing three people and then stabbing a police officer.
The most prominent example for lone attackers directed and facilitated by ISIS is Said Ahmed Ghlam, who was arrested in April 2015 by French police after he was found with a car containing firearms, ammunition and tactical vests. News reports revealed that the suspect did not meet with any ISIS member. However, he was orchestrated remotely and backed up logistically with a vehicle full of weapons.
The investigation points towards a terrorist network in the United Kingdom that engaged with the Manchester attacker. Ten people were arrested, including the attacker’s father and brother. Two were later released. We are still a long way from knowing the truth.
Similarly, the Manchester attack shares circumstances and features with the Ansbach, Germany, attack in July 2016, when a 27-year-old man detonated a suicide bomb near a music festival, killing himself and injuring 15 other people, four of them seriously. He had tried to enter the festival but was stopped by concert security personnel, which, I can guess, is what happened in Manchester when the bomb was set off outside the Manchester Arena, near the ticket office.
Following the Ansbach attack, ISIS released a video of the attacker pledging allegiance to the group and threatening new attacks. Once again, the story is repeated; ISIS claimed the Manchester attack and warned of new horrifying events, particularly in the United States after US President Donald Trump pledged to accelerate the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria during his meeting with more than 50 Islamic leaders.
Before both attacks, guided videos about manufacturing bombs were posted on social media.
It can be argued that the 1990s terrorism classical cells are illogical and unreasonable after what ISIS has achieved in building a media empire via the internet. In other words, what would make terrorists take the risk and gather in one place or even one city if they can communicate through a dozen of social media outlets.
Out of the three types identified, there are two similarities. First, all of them rely on the internet. Second, they share the same ideology against the West based on the radical Islamists’ philosophy.
As the writings of the godfather of Islamism, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, reveal, the war between Islam and the West, which is referred in ISIS’s discourse as the clash of civilisations between the caliphate’s army and crusader- Zionist enemy, would never end because of the ideological conflict. His ideas fed the theory of the notion of a transnational caliphate and the comprehensive application of jihad.
The world in general and Europe in particular are facing the hazardous rise of lone wolves. ISIS is losing its battle in Mosul and under siege in Syria by US-led air strikes.
If ISIS continues to lose ground, radical attackers will not find a way to demonstrate their extreme behaviour except by increasing their small-scale attacks by single actors receiving online direction.