Proven Wrong in 5 Hours; A More Expert Response

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by Neil Godfrey

Well it was a mere five hours from the time of my previous post before I was proven wrong. The name of the attacker was released shortly after I went to bed. If I had my wits about me I would have added a question mark at the end of the title and been more careful to couch my theme as a tentative hope.

So here is someone more qualified to discuss some critical aspects of this event, Jason Burke. I’ve posted on his work several times before on Vridar.

The first post discusses the re-emerging threat of Al Qaeda as Islamic State suffers battlefield reversals.

Crude nature of Westminster attack suggests limited Isis network in Britain


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Jihadis are using vehicles to commit atrocities as military defeats degrade their ability to mount anything more ambitious

. . . . . . 

The veteran rival of Isis – al-Qaida – has long backed such actions and has also repeatedly targeted London. In 2005 the group commissioned and trained the leader of the 7/7 plotters who went on to kill 52 on the London Underground.

When such attacks became logistically difficult, al-Qaida sought to execute or inspire smaller scale operations, although its leaders rejected a suggestion that blades be attached to a tractor which would be driven through a crowd. However, al-Qaida publications did encourage strikes using vehicles.

Britain’s only Islamist-related terrorist casualty since 2005 was Lee Rigby, an off-duty soldier who was killed in south-east London in 2013 when he was run down by a car driven by two Islamic militants and then stabbed to death. 

The threat has increased “exponentially” since 2011, security officials have said. As Isis disintegrates, al-Qaida remains resilient and while the Islamist extremist ideology continues to attract new followers the threat will not decline substantially in the near future.

The second article I found interesting for its analysis of the wording used by Islamic State and what it reveals about the weakness of the movement.

No surprise that London attacker Khalid Masood was born in UK

A vast proportion of attacks over the 16 years since 9/11 have involved local volunteers attacking local targets

The news that the London attacker was born in Britain and inspired by extremist Islamist ideology was entirely predictable, as was his criminal record.

The standout detail from the sketchy profile we have of Khalid Masood is his age: 52, nearly twice that of most contemporary attackers.

The attack was claimed on Thursday by Islamic State. The group has been selective with such statements, which are credible, and careful in its vocabulary.

Significantly, Isis described a “soldier” who responded to its “call”, indicating the group probably did not have prior contact with Masood before the killings.

. . . . . 

Other words tend to be used to describe attackers like those who made up the network responsible for attacks in Paris and Brussels last year. They, for the most part, were trained, commissioned and dispatched by Isis planners after spending time in Syria. 

One aim of Isis is to give the impression of global reach. 

. . . . .

Finally, the nature of terrorist trends gives a false impression. On Thursday a man was arrested for trying to drive a car into a crowd in Antwerp. He had a shotgun and bladed weapons. Tactics spread quickly across international frontiers. A global plot? Or simply the copycat effect? The latter is almost certainly the case.

The reality is that contemporary Islamic extremist violence has never been as international as often imagined by the terrorists or their victims. The 11 September 2001 attacks involved hijackers who flew thousands of miles from homes in the Middle East and lived in the US for months before striking. But this was an anomaly, though one that distorted thinking about the nature of the threat for a decade. 

. . . . . 

There are exceptions. The Berlin attack before Christmas involved a transient Tunisian. A handful of the Paris attackers were from the Middle East.

Many of these men had previous involvement in serious and petty crime. For those already living on the margins of society and the law, the step towards violent activism is smaller than it might otherwise be. Prison is a key site of exposure to radical ideologies and people. Criminal contacts can provide essential – if often inadvertent – logistical help.

The significance of Masood’s age will later become clear. For the moment it simply underlines the variety of extremist profiles, and the unpredictability of the threat. Most Islamic militants have been between the ages of 18 and 35, with the average age declining in recent years. Some analysts see their attraction to radicalism as partly a generational rebellion. Violent rightwing militants tend to be much older. Thomas Mair, who killed MP Jo Cox last year, was 52.

Every case is, of course, unique. And the reality is that, much as all politics is essentially local, so is terrorism. Islamic extremist strategists have wrestled with this challenge to their global vision for years, and have yet to evolve an adequate response. Western experts argue interminably over whether the motives of individuals are 10% ideology and 90% local context or vice versa.

But the sad reality is that, though it may be reassuring to blame bad guys, or bad ideas, from a long way away for violence at home, no one should be surprised that the man who attacked one of Britain’s most symbolically charged locations was born in the UK.

Finally, an important article from a year ago explaining the reality behind the image of “the lone wolf”:

Talk of lone wolves misunderstands how Islamic militancy works

Terrorism is a social activity and the militants we encounter are often a product of a much broader environment – repeating the same tired tropes of jihadi thinking

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Proven Wrong in 5 Hours; A More Expert Response”

  1. No point in mentioning his name. We knoe its some varisnt of Mohammed instanrly. Mohammed, Muhammed, Ahmed, Ahckmed, Mamoud, take your pick, or write them on the sides of a die and cast it.

  2. I think a comparison to “immigrant” criminals in the US during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s is in order. In most cases the most violent or vicious immigrant criminals were not the first generation but the second, who did not feel at home in either the traditional first generation dominated community nor in the host community. Abraham “Kid Twist” Reles and Al Capone come to mind, there are countless other examples.

    1. That fits the pattern addressed by a number of researchers perfectly. One that immediately comes to mind is Pantucci’s “We Love Death As You Love Life” : Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

      They are the most dislocated ones — having neither roots in the country from which their parents emigrated nor in the country to which they came.

  3. In the interests of inclusiveness I should also mention Dean O’Banion and Henry Earl J. Wojciechowski as examples of notorious second (or possibly 3rd) generation criminals/domestic terrorists.

  4. I found this article interesting:

    A local Birmingham MP tells reporters “This attacker and people like him are not of my religion. Nor are they of our community.”

    Whilst I can understand that mainstream Muslims cannot reconcile the religion that they are inured to with these acts, disowning the terrorist is not an option in the face of the compelling evidence to the contrary. Repeatedly, the terrorists’ actions are *somehow* rooted in religious motivation. In fact, it is a perilous course to deny the connection as – at least in the several Australian “lone wolf” attacks – the perpetrator has been someone who has grown up in a ‘moderate’ Muslim family, who are taken totally by surprised when their offspring is suddenly radicalised. (The fact that this fellow is 52 is surely an outlier in the data). As you have pointed out on your blog, strong Muslim piety or even a fundamentalist orientation is not an indicator of an individual’s potential to *carry out* an attack.

    Whilst mainstream Muslims such as this MP look away from the problem and disown the perpetrators, I can only conclude that the danger of “lone wolf” attacks is going to increase. For their own sake, this pattern of denial needs to stop.

    Finally, the thesis of your earlier post still holds. So far at least, there is no photo of the perpetrator or family history. Police are seemingly dampening information.

    1. I need to read more about the “lone wolf” idea. There have been a number of publications, both articles and books, that have come out in the last 5 or 6 years that I still have in my reading list. Most of my reading has been based on an earlier wave of terrorism. The third article by Jason Burke that I linked to conveys something of the same message as you do but I think from a different slant:

      Terrorism is a social activity and so-called lone wolves are often a product of a much broader environment. All the militants today speak the same phrases, repeating the same tired, familiar tropes of jihadi thinking.

      If there is one key marker of a community it is a shared language, and the vocabulary of militancy – whether that of the al-Qaida dialect or that of the newer Islamic State – is more widespread than ever before. If true lone wolves exist, they are extremely rare.

      Even those individuals who do fulfil the commonly understood definition of the term still feel themselves to be part of a broader community. This sense of belonging is not unfounded, however.

      Radicalisation is seen as a specific event or, even more misguidedly, as a conscious act. By this same logic, people apparently are radicalised – a term that implies either that they are voluntary but passive objects of a designed process, that they are involuntarily brainwashed despite themselves, or even that they somehow self-radicalise in total isolation.

      These are reassuring, as it implies that the responsibility for an individual’s violent extremism lies solely with the individual themselves or with some other individual or group, all of which could be eliminated.

      The truth is that terrorism is not something you do by yourself. Like any activism, it is highly social, only its consequences are exceptional. It makes as much sense to talk about the radicalisation of a 16-year-old who becomes involved in Islamic militancy as it does of a 16-year-old who becomes involved in gangs, or in taking psychotropic drugs, or even in extreme sports, particular video games or a certain type of music and dress.

      People become interested in ideas, ideologies and activities, even immoral ones, because other people are interested in them. No one describes a young adult who takes up fly-fishing or campaigning against global warming as self-activising, even if that enthusiasm has been nurtured and developed largely through their own initiative, social media and exploitation of resources on the internet.

      The psychological and social barriers to involvement in violence are certainly higher than in other less nefarious activities, but the mechanics of the process that draws people into them are the same.

      This makes Islamic militancy much more intractable than some hope. If the killers we have seen over recent years in Europe were indeed lone wolves, the problem of Islamic militancy would have been resolved long ago.

  5. I think the main reason the police asked the media not to release the name was to give them time to track down known associates in case the release of his name might send them into hiding.

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