That numb, helpless anger you feel when a group of innocent people have been murdered in another jihadi attack. This is quickly followed by contempt for those who try and hijack the tragedy for their own ends, be it for self-publicity or political grandstanding, whether at home or overseas. Once this has passed, reflection sets in as folks try to grasp what’s going on, because understanding is the prerequisite of doing something that prevents future radicalisation, and therefore future plots. We – the public – know nothing about the attackers yet, except they shouted for Allah as they attacked people, according to multiple witnesses. We know from the photos that at least one of the dead terrorists is a young man of Arabic or Asian descent. And we know their MO fits the pattern of other Islamist outrages here and elsewhere – the attempt to inflict as many casualties they can without any regard for their own lives.
This still begs the question why. At the beginning of Ramadan, IS called on its followers to wage all-out war on the West, but what are they hoping to achieve? After all, war always has objectives in mind. Given IS territory is under siege in Syria and Iraq, and concern has been voiced over the ‘ungoverned spaces’ in Libya thanks to the connections Salman Abedi had with them, how do outrages here, and across Europe and the Middle East help IS build its twisted caliphate?
While it might appear to be terror for terror’s sake, mass casualty events serve two distinct purposes. Just as terror bombing of civilian centres during WWII were designed to sap the morale of enemy populations, IS are trying to accomplish the same thing with sneak attacks and seemingly random eruptions of violence. Choosing the softest of soft targets – pedestrians on a bridge, kids at a concert, Londoners on a night out – are attempts at sedimenting simple, mundane pastimes with a layer of threat. A society ill-at-ease, that cannot relax and must be on its watch, is a frightened society, an anxious society clamouring for security and safety. And the traditional (and hoped-for) response is to ratchet up authoritarianism. More gun-toting police, more jailings, and, crucially, more scapegoating. Whenever reports filter through of mosques daubed with racist graffiti, of Muslim women spat at in the street and forcibly uncovered, of politicians and pundits stirring up trouble for Muslims at large, be it the dog-whistling of a Douglas Murray or a “Muslims must do more to tackle terror in their communities” of practically every mainstream MP, it suits IS. It helps IS. Every curtailment of freedom, every spike in hate attacks creates the kinds of circumstances that nudges young would-be Islamists a little bit further down that road. The likes of IS don’t hate democracy because they despise freedom and tolerance (though they do detest those things), they hate it because, among other things, democratic societies are much harder to penetrate into and recruit from. The torture chambers of Gaddafi, Ben Ali, and Mubarak/Sisi are the factories of Islamist radicalism, and is where IS and other jihadis have drawn sustenance for decades.
Two attacks to have taken place during election campaigning is no accident or coincidence, then. With politics in the air, as terrorism is political violence it can’t not raise political issues. These attacks were made with a view to bending the election course down a more authoritarian route, to try and shift policy in one or both the main parties and boost support for racist, Islamophobic politics.
It goes without saying that freedom and democracy happen to be the values most associated with the powers that bomb IS and have, since the First World War, been overtly involved with the politics of the Middle East. In the jihadi imagination, mass casualty attacks are payback for (secular) dictatorships backed, for giving Israel carte blanche in the occupied territories, for bombing civilians with no come-back, interfering in civil wars, plundering oil wealth – the list of historical grievances go on. Consider, for example, the coverage in British media of an attack here or in another Western country versus the death of innocent families at the hands of bombing raids and drone strikes anywhere in the Middle East. Individual motivation of jihadis in mass casualty suicide attacks always have an element of this emotional connection to a perceived injustice, and a desire to redress the score by visiting terror and death on the citizens of Western nations.
Lastly, terror attacks such as we saw last night are a symptom of IS weakness. Leaving aside the Manchester attacks where the full details about the sophistication of the bomb used has not been made public, this, the Westminster Bridge attack, and the murder of Lee Rigby were all primitive affairs with motors and knives. As their hellish caliphate contracts the routes into their territory are blocked, would-be fighters are left to skulk about their bedrooms and closed jihadi forums. To their mind, this justifies their assaults of civilian targets – because they can’t get to the battlefield, they have no choice but to ‘defend’ IS by targeting defenceless people and murdering them, and they will use whatever comes to hand to achieve this murderous end.
IS are a bunch of murderous thugs. Their values are antithetical to secularism and democracy, but that does not make them unknowable. There are plenty of people writing and working in this field who know full well how IS thinks and why they do what they do, as well as the processes underpinning and conditioning why someone decides to go down this path – despite it also being antithetical to Islam itself. And with that understanding, strategies aimed at undermining and disrupting the path to radical extremism can and are employed by a variety of agencies. As we enter the final days of the election campaign and reaction to this outrage casts its shadow over campaigning, we will see who wants to deploy this understanding of IS to stop them, and who wants to ignore it to score political points.