Comment: By Joseph Byrne
Last year Europol director Rob Wainwright stated due to the crackdown in terrorist organisations and cells in Europe, people who fervently believe in committing terror for ideological reasons now find themselves being pushed further toward going it alone.
This has created one of the most prevalent emerging questions in modern European counter-terrorism: How to tackle the lone wolf. It can be easily argued that no one truly acts alone. But there is an increasing amount of violent activity being perpetrated by individuals, who have been ideologically influenced, a trend which is set to continue. Traditionally lone wolf terrorists are designated by their non-allegiance with a specific organisation and with this comes an increased risk of uncertainty and ‘anytime, anyplace’ paranoia regarding their attacks.
Furthermore, the solution to this problem lies in understanding why individuals feel so disillusioned to commit a terrorist attack and which tools are used to persuade them that way. This is due to most terror attacks on European soil in recent years have been home-grown, where European Nationals grow up in the continent only to become disenchanted and go on to commit violent acts on behalf of an adopted ideology. To combat effectively, this question requires a distinct policy approach from both a community and a security aspect.
On the 13th December a lorry ploughed through a Christmas market in the centre of Berlin indiscriminately leaving 12 dead and 56 injured. This is a tragic and senseless crime, but it is not the most concerning aspect about this attack. Before it was claimed by any organisation the copycat nature of what happened in Nice, France the previous summer, suggests a new wave of radicalised individuals building and learning from each other’s attacks and almost creating a community without interaction.
On the 1st January, on the other side of Europe, a gunman opened fire in a Nightclub in Turkey killing 39 people. On the 20th December, a lone policeman shot dead Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov citing retribution for Russia’s involvement in Syria. Running through these examples is the trend of which these attacks were seemingly planned and executed unaided. Europe is facing a distinct threat of attacks perpetrated by members of society who act alone.
This has created a certain mood in many major European capitals as they ask what precautions can be developed to tackle individuals who are committed to violent attacks. The UK government recently labelled this period as the most likely for a terrorist attack since the IRA troubles of the 1980’s even though there has not been a major terrorist incident since the 7/7 London tube attacks in 2007. A palpable mood of fear and anticipation has arisen due to uncertainty of when or where an attack could take place.
A significant problem with lone-wolf extremists is that however radical they may seem, the impact of their actions has drastically disproportionate political and social effects. Fear of possible terror attacks and staunch media focus on Islamic terrorism gives way to increasing anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe. The threat of Islamic terrorism has then coupled with the disillusion of globalisation and has empowered nationalist and protectionist sentiment. These knock-on factors are why we see the propulsion of European populist movements such as the rise of Marian La Penn in France, Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Norbert Hofer in Austria to name a few. In this sense terrorism and particularly lone wolf terrorism can be perceived as a contributing factor in changing the European political landscape.
Through this bleak picture however, police and secret service are becoming more efficient at foiling terrorist attacks. There are precursors to group attacks and international law enforcement has learned from the Paris attacks last November. Supranational bodies such as Europol and Interpol are encouraging an increase in co-operation between member state security services to channel and compile information on possible scenarios, and this co-operation has increased.
Many attacks have been thwarted, such as in Paris, where a plot was discovered to bomb the Champs Elysees Christmas markets on 2nd December 2016. Police pressure led to the attack being moved and this movement eventually led to the capture and detention of the planners. While in the UK the strength of the security services and its exceptional surveillance apparatus have kept it relatively unscathed thus far.
Yet it is the psychological effect of these attacks and their unpredictability which create an atmosphere of unease. From large events to public transport, the concept that ‘nowhere is safe’ is a strong one that plays heavy on the minds of the many and into the hands of extremists disproportionately. Europe has grappled with different kinds of terrorist activity in the past, such as the IRA in Ireland to ETA in Spain who were nationalistic groups that looked for a specific goal within the state. This new form of lone wolf terrorism does not distinguish itself with any group as such, but much more with an ideology.
Radical Islamic terrorism is a cause for pan-European concern and efforts to crack-down on cells and organisations only develops a more sustained pressure which would lead to lone wolf activity. Even though individuals may be not as well trained and not have as much of an impact as a more co-ordinated attack, violent activity allows groups that share the same ideology, mainly the so called Islamic State, to claim attacks. There is little to distinguish radicals who act on their own to those who act in groups on the effect of the minds of the mass public. Furthermore, this is beneficial for these organisations as they do not have to spend resources training militants and they can claim an attack to appear more effective and influential.
What makes lone wolves immune to this tactic is that there is very little, if any communication between others to plan an attack for which the example I presented above, was their downfall. No pre-requisites and more than often no communication to others makes this form of extremism even harder to detect and prevent, presenting an ever more difficult question on how to tackle these individuals.
Daniel Byman suggests that attempting to isolate individuals away from radical ideas is a way to reduce the exposure and to decrease the number of lone terrorist incidents. The less radical and violent rhetoric is spread to individuals who may be influenced to commit ideological violence, the less probable an attack using this vessel becomes. Reducing social media influence of radical ideas is a key component of this and while some may say this could lead to a reduction of free speech and censorship of the media, it is only the companies upholding their own terms of conditions to prevent illegal activity.
The real threat now is not groups that are radicalising believers to join and commit atrocities, but individuals who are autonomously radicalising. We have become so hyperaware of foreign militant groups that pressure has built to reinforce prejudice and anti-Islamic sentiment within Europe itself. This is not helped by the rising populism and far right movements across Europe, opposing the intake of refugees which deepens the ideological divide of a continent and a pushback against pro-actively integrating different cultures and religions into societies.
A continuation down this path will lead to social pressure doing nothing but build, and in the right conditions breed radicalisation, resulting in what we have seen as a backlash in violence perpetrated by individuals.
But how do we tackle this elusive figure in the mist? Radical ideology embeds itself into the mind of individuals in European society, enough to persuade them to commit attacks. perpetrators may have had no direct link to extremist groups such as Islamic State and factors such as mental health issues are a prevalent contributor to these violent individual actions.
More co-operation between national security services is essential for pooling resources and being effective against a threat that could stretch across Europe for a long time. Supranational groups like Europol are encouraging and increasing communicative methods between countries such as setting up the ECTC (European Counter Terrorism Centre) which became operational in January 2016 to increase the usage and security of communication channels between member state security services.
This is already taking place in Europe and will aid in reducing the amount of networks and channels for which radical ideas can spread to the corners of the continent, as-well as reducing the amount of cell attacks which would act as a deterrent for individuals conceiving violent activity.
However, from this point and on an individual level, it seems countering violent extremism will have to also be ideological. Fathali Moghaddam explains the route to radicalisation as a staircase where there are different entry points, through material you may gain access to or a figure in your life that pushes you towards radical ideas. However, the core concept is that the more radicalised your become, the higher you rise up the staircase and the harder it is to return down.
The most important of these steps is number 4. The ‘us vs them’ concept. This is where you, as the aggrieved party have a clear focus of who you know your enemy is in a social or political situation. If a scenario can be as clear cut as ‘you vs another group’ in society, the radicalisation process from there on out is much more focused and confrontational, leading quickly to further stages and the final stage of committing a terror attack.
Schooling is on the front line against radicalisation and education of tolerance toward different beliefs and integration is a strong tool against ‘us vs them’ ideology. This is a vital ability which should be developed as major attacks have been carried out by ‘home grown’ terrorists. Many groups recruit into an organisation young people who learn of an ideology, travel to train in combat and then return to their country to carry out atrocities. Examples of this are the Brussels bombers who bombed Brussels Zavantiem airport on March 14th 2016, who were Belgian nationals.
There are differences in the case of lone wolves, who usually develop motives from the spread of ideological literature and personal grievances, but educating people to be tolerant immediately combats this thinking from a young age.
Lastly, community outreach can be an important reducer of radicalisation and an open mentality will reduce the effects of disengaged and isolated members of society. Bart Somers is a Belgian mayor who practices this mantra, developing strong communal ties with different Muslim communities in his city of Mechelen where one in five is Muslim.
This ‘inclusive society’ begins by giving security to all different communities and has seen to be effective in a European country with a high level of radicalisation. In Brussels it is estimated 2,000 members travelled to Syria to fight with ISIS, and from Antwerp it was estimated 100. Yet it is estimated no members of society left to travel from Mechelen, suggesting social inclusion is a progressive and viable policy against radicalisation and lone wolf activity.
None of these avenues are sure ways to stop individuals radicalising. What these elements propose to do is target the key factors of radicalisation, isolate them and tackle them with community inclusion, aiming to reduce fertile ground for radicalisation. Radical ideology can penetrate individual’s minds and this is the major cause of individual violent terrorist activity.
It seems the ideology and pressures Europe is placing on people who sympathise with extreme sentiments is so great, they find no other option but to express themselves in the most violent way. Tackling this problem will require more social inclusivity, acceptance of different cultures and an active effort to reduce isolation.