Terrorist attacks have been increasing in the West for the past years and became especially frequent in Western Europe since 2015. The mainstream media continues to present us with the image of the “global terrorist network” of jihadists, guiding from afar the actions of its fighters, infiltrating them into Western societies. If we look closer however, more than little has changed with so-called “grassroots” and “lone wolf” attacks overtaking those organised by “professionals”.
An attack was prevented in Frankfurt in April 2015 when large quantities of chemicals used for the production of IEDs, as well as assault weapons and great quantities of ammunition were found by police in a family’s home.
A successful attack was carried out in Denmark in 2015 by Omar al-Husein, a lone wolf terrorist.
On May 24 2015 Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29 years old French citizen opened fire on the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Four people were killed. On March 22, 2016, two explosions – in the Brussels airport and subway, killed 35 and injured 330. All suspects were found to have been born and raised in Europe.
Of course we all know of the Paris terror attack in January 2015 against the newspaper “Charlie Hebdo”. The next attack, in November, again in Paris, caused record high casualties (137). Between January 2015 and June 2016 Paris gave 159 dead and 390 injured as a result of three different attacks. Virtually all of the identified perpetrators were French citizens.
In England there was Muhaydin Mire, a lone wolf terrorist aged 29 who on December 5, 2015 wounded three people in the London tube, stabbing them with a kitchen knife.
A bombing of a bus with Israeli tourists was carried out in July 2012 in Sarafovo, Bulgaria. One of the perpetrator’s accomplices was later found to be a Bulgarian citizen.
It appears the image of terrorists who slip through Western borders to carry out attacks on Western countries, is largely inaccurate. The process of radicalization often takes place quite successfully in the very core of modern Western culture and civilization.
Tempting as it seems for many to conclude that Muslims are incapable of becoming integrated into European societies, and that their religious beliefs make them innately more susceptible to radicalisation, such a conclusion would be wrong. There are enough examples of lone wolf terrorists who indoctrinated themselves into extremist ideologies and committed terrorist acts without ever having been of Muslim confession.
The case of Anders Breivik (2011, Norway) is widely known, but we can find other examples further in history.1 There is also a notorious and recent instance – on June 16, 2016, the British citizen Thomas Mair attacked and brutally murdered the British MP Jo Cox. The investigation found Mair’s connections with an extremist xenophobic organisation.
There are of course other factors, including state-sponsored terrorism, that contribute to terrorist acts being committed by Muslims in disproportionately high numbers. But the explanation that Islam itself leads to sympathising with and partaking in terrorism, is a gross manipulation.
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The Paris and Brussels attacks turned analysts’ attention to how victim states have relinquished control over the whole areas populated by compact groups of Muslim minorities. The state’s abdication from its role of enforcing the laws in sections of the very capital undoubtedly offers a fertile ground for all kinds of criminal activity, as well as for terrorist organisations.
The radicalisation of Muslims in Western Europe is an effort of certain imams who used to work unchallenged in France and Belgium at least until the end of 2015. The “advanced classes” take place either in the mosques themselves or in special “schools” augmenting the mosque building, and are attended mainly by young boys with whom the teacher has determined he has enough of an influence and authority.
There is no official French government data for the numbers of Muslim population, but Pew Research points to a number around 4.7 million. Between 1991 and 2011 the number of mosques in France has doubled to reach around 2100 in mainland France today. As for Belgium, it’s the biggest exporter of Islamic State jihadists per capita, according to a study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation.
Of course, when analysing the factors that contribute to radicalisation we shouldn’t identify following a religion with following an extreme political creed, or we risk leaving the unprepared reader with a mistaken impression – that following Islam is more or less the same as supporting terrorism as a means for achieving political goals or religious commandments. One of the terrorists’ arguments – that this is part of a war between religions and cultures – is sometimes indirectly confirmed by otherwise well-intentioned commentators needlessly trying to elevate the discussion to the level of a cultural or theological commentary.
Not everyone who prays at a mosque will become a terrorist, and not every imam incites towards hatred and violence. However, at least until quite recently, getting into contact with radical preachers, and into the “circle of trust” was merely a matter of personal preference.
Examples like Thomas Mair remind us that integration is a bilateral process, and it cannot be enforced. The withdrawal from normal social life and the devoting of oneself to an extreme xenophobic ideology in cases such as Mair’s can’t be explained with the failure of the state to “integrate” him. Apparently there is a choice there which he himself made.
The rise of grassroots terrorists may in part be attributed to the distinctly changed information environment. Our enhanced capability to emit and receive messages plays a significant part in the process of radicalisation and in the self-inflicting of the socipathy which turns a susceptible individual into a potential terrorist.
Another reason for switching to a “leaderless resistance” mode of operation is that in the wake of 9/11 all countries made considerable improvements to their border control services, which dramatically increased the difficulty of smuggling in people and weapons.
In this transition towards a model where “grassroots” attackers are taking inspiration from a “core group” of professional terrorists, the efficacy of the terrorist group is being multiplied by the capabilities of another network – that of communication technologies and services. It’s now less important where you are located and what company you keep, as long as you have a strong curiosity about an extremist ideology. Technology lacks intrinsic morality – it will help the linguist just as well as the extremist.
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Contrary to the 20th century when the public was being influenced by propaganda flowing from centrally controlled information channels, in the Information Age of the 21st century, you have as many media outlets as there are citizens with internet access. Virtually everyone has the ability to be his own historian, chronicler, freelance journalist, to create content accessible for all those 3.5 billion other Internet users. The systems and tools we use for searching are not merely accommodating this customisation, they are designed in such a way as to adapt to the interests and preferences we exhibit.
A Pew Research Center survey demonstrates that the percentage of adult Americans using social networks has grown from 7% to 65% between 2005 and 2015. The total count of registered blogs from 2006 to the end of 2011 has grown from 35.8 million to 172 million, according to statista.com. A survey by internetlivestats.com shows that the number of internet users has grown from 502 million in 2001 to 3 billion 425 million in the end of 2015.
Not just the number of people online is growing, but so is the time they spend online. Data provided by Global Web Index shows that a third of the time spent online is spent in a variety of social media, and this segment is gradually growing from about an hour and a half in 2012 to an estimated hour and fifty minutes for 2016. People in the age groups of 16-24 and 25-34 spend the most time on social networks. If we compare that with what we know of grassroots terrorists, we’ll see most of them are in their late twenties and early thirties.
Global Web Index, 2015
The conclusion – more than ever before, human beings have the ability to fine-tune the reality which the media crafts for them.
From 16 hours of active time per day, an average 4 hours are spent on the Internet, and a third of that time is devoted to consuming content from social networks – the kind of media which are adapted to a maximum extent to fit the tastes and interests of the viewer. As a result, our opinions and the ways in which we interpret world events are drifting further and further apart across groups based on income, age, location, religion.
Islamic State operatives understand and exploit online communication for the recruitment of new followers and helpers. They have a professionally developed system for training the recruiters themselves and they have the skills to prepare high quality propaganda video materials. Analysts who follow IS have suggested the organisation uses around 50 000 different Twitter accounts for the purposes of self-promotion and recruitment.2
The Information age comes with its dark side – the capabilities which technology offers can be utilised for the (self-)infliction of the psychical damage needed to push a man or woman to commit mass murder. This is a challenge not only to societies but also to states and their educational systems.
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The influence which the “constructed reality” of the adaptive social media and social networks can exert on those with a specific social background is a textbook example of how an informational-level vulnerability can be exploited by an adversary in order to inflict a disproportionate amount of physical damage on soft targets, and through using the victim’s own resources.
In these new conditions the skills of critical thinking and analysis, the ability to identify a reliable and unbiased source are what define the new dimensions of defensiveness and vulnerability on the informational field of warfare.
Of course, these points must not be read as an anathema of the Internet, or as a mourning of “the good old days”, or as a warning that Facebook will turn your children into terrorists. Technology is part of the environment people operate in, and it brings risks as well as advantages. Attempts at isolation or ignoring those advantages will merely lead to loss of competitive advantage and to stagnation – informational, intellectual and ultimately economical.
The best strategy is to acquaint ourselves well with the threats and sources of risk, and to accept their existence as part of everyday modern life. Hysteria is always an enemy, and knowledge – an ally.
One group of factors leading to the growth of grassroots cells and lone wolf terrorists has to do with the existence within a society of a considerable amount of people susceptible to indoctrination. Socially isolated, with low income, young and with a feeling of living in a deadlock, like most young people – angry and looking for quick radical solutions, but only knowing war from second-hand sources. In the words of the poet Pindar (5th c. BC) “War is sweet to those who have no experience of it“.
A second group of factors has to do with the configurable reality. An individual belonging to a risk group can, with an unprecedented ease, find a vent, a confessor and a community of like-minded people which may motivate him for action. It is such a community that Thomas Mair, who was heard shouting “Britain first!” had apparently found, and the same is true for the Paris and Brussels attackers. We know that social networks are infiltrated and monitored by specialist detachments of terrorist organisations who aim to inspire, motivate and prepare such people to commit acts of terrorism.
A third group of factors comprises of events that shape the local or international political context – political and sports events which offer opportunities for delivering symbolic messages through terrorism, big national or religious holidays, acts of state policy which suppress the “imported” forms of terrorism and thus encourage terrorists to switch to grassroots strategy, etc.
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How does all of this work in practise? We got a blood soaked demonstration in this year’s month of Ramadan which was the most saturated with terrorist acts to date.3 The Islamic State’s speaker Abu Mohamed al-Adnani made a statement in May in which he called for Ramadan to be turned into “a month of calamity” for the infidels, especially for those in Europe and America. The message was broadcast through Internet channels, and the period between June 5 and July 5 saw attacks committed from Florida (Orlando) through Istanbul and Medina to Bangladesh. Many of the attacks were organised spontaneously, in an answer to IS’ call, by IS followers acting without central orders or authority.
Meanwhile, a little after the referendum of June 23 for Britain’s exit from the EU, England became a scene for an increasing number of “hate crimes” conducted against people “suspected” of being foreigners. This is also a “leaderless” response, perpetrators are not necessarily known to authorities, don’t know each other, but are united in their fears. Not only is there no central leadership guiding these acts but, ironically, the party leaders who became known for their xenophobic rhetoric during and before the campaign, are finding themselves suffering severe political blows after the referendum they supposedly won.
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We demonstrated the connection between, from one side, the evolving means through which we inform ourselves about the world, the decentralisation and demonopolisation of information streams, and from another side – the atomisation of postindustrial societies, one consequence of which is their increased vulnerability to acts of terrorism. Of course, the implications of the informational shift are much more diverse in their effects than what we are demonstrating here, and naturally, not all are so negative as those we have presently discussed.
The subject is an enormous one and still anticipates its researchers, and in due time, its historiographers. What remains for us is to continue to live in an increasingly interconnected, but also increasingly more stratified world, hopefully as moderate optimists, but accounting for the dangers which this world carries with it.
1 The neo-Nazi Joseph Paul Franklin who was active in the US in the end of the 1970s, the “Phineas Priests” members Buford Furrow and Eric Rudolph, the radical catholic James Kopp, protestant Paul Hill, Benjamin Smith (active in the 1990s).
2 As quoted in front of Economist
3 Victims of terrorism during the 2016 Ramadan amount to around 550 dead and around 764 wounded against around 300 dead and 500 wounded during the 2015 Ramadan.