Hidden terror was, till now, believed to be confined mainly to the less developed regions of the world — the 9/11 attack in the U.S. was seen as an aberration, or exception, rather than the rule in this respect. Since 2015, however, with the attack in January of that year on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, followed by a series of major terrorist incidents in Brussels, Paris, Nice, Berlin and Istanbul during the past two years, it is evident that the developed world is no longer immune from terror strikes.
The Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the vast majority of these attacks, though this may not be true in all cases. What is not disputed any longer is that the West now has a sizeable number of radicalised Islamist elements who are willing to perpetrate acts of terror — either on their own, or under instructions from elsewhere.
Timeline of the new phase
Terrorism can be said today to be the single most serious threat to peace across the world. Several aspects, political, security and developmental, are affected adversely by terrorism. Meanwhile, those indulging in acts of terror appear to have moved beyond the earlier non-traditional, non-state actors who were legatees of the Afghan Jihad (1979-1989). The new breed of radicalised terrorists is not overly dependent on external sponsors or state support. Their inspiration is different. While their origins may be traced to outfits such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates — and they still continue to adopt the techniques and belong to the same genre of terror — they are distinct.
The United Kingdom, which has a reputation of possessing the best counter-terrorist organisation in Europe, and displays a steely resolve not to allow emotion to cloud its judgment unlike many other European nations, has lately been hit in rapid succession, by three significant terror attacks. This is indicative of the shifting trajectory of terror today, and the determination of ‘new era’ terrorists to attack not only ‘soft states’, but even those who pride themselves on being fully prepared to meet all contingencies.
The first of the attacks occurred in March. This came after a gap of several years following the 2005 terror attacks in London. The March attack took place on Westminster Bridge and in the shadow of the Big Ben, in which five persons were killed and around 50 injured.
A far more serious terrorist incident occurred subsequently in Manchester in May, in which at least 22 people were killed and more than a hundred injured. It featured a home-grown ‘jihadist’, whose victims were mostly teenagers attending a music concert, possibly the first instance of a large scale killing by the IS in the U.K. There had been prior warnings that the IS would focus on ‘soft targets’ and large crowds, rather than on protected areas with high security. The IS propaganda magazine ‘Rumiyah’ had specifically listed ‘concert halls’ as ideal target locations for attacks, while publishing a lengthy defence on the killing of women and children in ‘crusader’ countries.
The IS has claimed responsibility for the latest June 3 attack. This resulted in the killing of eight persons, and injuries to more than 40. The attackers utilised a van driven at high speed across the London Bridge to mow down bystanders in its wake. The attackers proceeded, thereafter, to knife many more persons in the neighbouring Borough Market. Similarities between the March and June terror attacks in London are quite eerie. So, likewise, are the similarities between the May 22 Manchester attack in the U.K., and the November 13, 2015, Bataclan terror attack in Paris.
Copycat methods have often featured in IS attacks. In both the London attacks, vans were used, and even the locale was much the same. Not to be lost sight of also is the fact that in quite a few other IS-sponsored attacks vans/trucks have been employed. Instances of this kind have been reported earlier in Stockholm, Antwerp, Berlin and Nice in the past two years.
All this needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the complicated pattern of relationships that exist between various radical Islamist terrorist organisations worldwide. These exist, notwithstanding the fact that the IS, for instance, preaches an exclusive brand of puritanical Islam alongside a vision of a new Caliphate, while some of the other terrorist organisations do not fully subscribe to this ideal. The reality is that many present-day terrorists have a common origin, and this includes the IS and al-Qaeda, though they may be rivals today. A fair amount of cooperation at the operational level is hence inevitable, and does exist among terror outfits, alongside a commonality in tactics and techniques, including in the use of high grade explosives such as TATP (Triacetone Triperoxide).
What also cannot be ignored while comparing the banal with ground realities is that terrorism is becoming even more asymmetric by the day. This is becoming more evident by the day as new terrorist groups emerge. Collaboration agreements among terror outfits are, meantime, increasing, with signs of greater sophistication in the means and methods to perpetuate terror.
This last aspect is especially important. Both ‘direct to home jihad’ and the ‘lone wolf’ syndrome have gained new meanings of late. Radicalisation via the Internet has attained a whole new dimension. Propaganda via the Internet today involves far more than mere recruitment imperatives, even though elaborate recruitment videos continue to be distributed via the social media, which depict the IS fighters as ‘knights’. All this still remains highly appealing to some Muslim youth. Nevertheless, a far more dangerous aspect today is the arrival of ‘Internet-enabled’ terrorism. This has introduced a far greater degree of indeterminate complexity into an already difficult scenario. The result is that the ‘lone wolf’ is no longer alone. Internet-enabled terror involves violence conceived and guided by “controllers” thousands of miles away. The attacks are masterminded from afar, guided via the Internet, and the actual perpetrators of violence act almost like robots.
‘Enabled’ or ‘remote-controlled’ terrorism is fundamentally different from anything seen previously. Remote controllers choose the target, the actual operative, the ‘nature’ of the attack, and even the weapon to be used. Operating behind a wall of anonymity, this helps obscure the role played by individual members of terrorist groups, who utilise various individuals to carry out attacks and leave no trace.
Specific instances already exist of the IS undertaking this kind of recruitment via the Internet. Thereafter, the individual is guided through every single step along the way for several months by anonymous “handlers” to carry out a terror attack. This marks a quantum jump as far as the terror matrix is concerned. We are possibly still at the beginning of the curve as far as the phenomena of ‘enabled’ or ‘remote-controlled’ terrorism is concerned; yet, the impact of this could be quite shattering.
The IS appears to be in the lead in this respect as of now. Other international terrorist organisations are also beginning to resort to ‘remote-plotting’. Such situations will result in little or no dependence on the maintenance of safe havens for the plotters, since the plotters are anonymous. Visa restrictions and airport security, including perimeter security of the installations to be targeted, would again mean little to attackers, since they will strike where they live, and will no longer have to travel abroad or long distances for both training and action.
Welcome, hence, to the world of ‘cyber-planners’, who will be responsible for planning terror attacks, identifying recruits, assess possible opportunities, act as “virtual coachers”, and provide guidance and encouragement throughout the process. These elements could be involved in every single planning stage of an operation, including where to obtain weapons that will be needed for use. All the while, the ‘cyber planners’ and ‘cyber controllers’ would be able to maintain almost total anonymity.
The Internet has thus become a dangerous ‘plaything’ in the hands of the many of the new-era terror outfits. Some like the IS are said to be also preparing to use the ‘deep web’ and the ‘dark net’. The ‘dark net’, in particular, could become a vicious instrument in the hands of terrorist groups such as the IS.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal