The tide of ISIS’s terrorism in Europe broke on January 7, 2015 at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. That attack heralded the start of waves of ISIS directed or inspired attacks that have washed over Europe in the years since. On Thursday, August 17, 2017, terror came to Barcelona. We’ve seen this before. A van rammed into crowds on the busiest street in the city, Las Ramblas at 5 pm. It drove through the crowds, apparently swerving and weaving for maximum impact. The driver of the van is responsible for the deaths of 14 people, and of wounding over 100, 14 of whom are in a critical condition. The driver fled the scene on foot and is, at the time of writing, still at large.
Five suspects were then shot dead in Cambrils, a coastal town 75 miles from Barcelona. The working assumption is that they’re part of the same network as the driver. Meanwhile, early on Thursday morning, there was an explosion at a house in Alcanar Platja, where another member of the network blew himself up with his own bomb.
Islamic State has claimed the attack, saying “Terror is filling the crusaders’ hearts in the Land of Andalusia.” Whether they’re really responsible for this, whether they had some sort of control or role as a guiding hand is not yet known. Time will tell, but the effect is the same even if the attackers were only inspired; another vehicular missile driven by a jihadist mowing down innocent bystanders, guilty of heresy in the eyes of those who murdered them.
We can expect many more of these. Britain has 23,000 suspected jihadists. Belgium has 18,884. France has between 15–17,000. Germany has 24,400. Spain has 1000. This totals around 82-84,677 potential jihadists in 5 European countries. While we must not give in to fear-mongering and the temptation to paint with too broad a brush when describing diverse communities, we cannot pretend that these numbers represent anything other than a jihadist insurgency in the heart of Europe. This has destroyed the state’s monopoly over the use of military force, which as Max Weber argued, is the crucial element that gives the state legitimacy.
These vehicle attacks are now a trend in Europe that have become worryingly frequent. Instead of the tragedy of the commons, we now have the tragedy of the common place. ISIS is not the first to call for trucks and other forms of vehicular terrorism; Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular, in their magazine Inspire, gave detailed instructions on how to carry out a vehicular attack. Dabiq, ISIS’s now defunct English language magazine, also gave instructions on vehicular terrorism. Advice included attaching spikes or shards of glass to the front of trucks that were of a certain height and weight in order that they would have maximum physical and psychological impact. From 2010 to 2014, there were attempted car and truck attacks that were either small scale or foiled in the attempt. Nice 2016 saw the first mass casualty attack with over 80 dead. There was then the Berlin Christmas market attack in 2016, and then there have been 6 Islamist attacks using vehicles and one far-right attack so far this year in Europe.
In these attacks over the last two years, we can see the legacy of two strategists that have had huge influence over ISIS’s use of terrorism in Europe. Abu Bakr Naji argued in The Management of Savagery that even though al-Qaeda was militarily weaker than America and the West, it should promote disproportionate fear by utilising particularly brutal and gruesome terrorist and asymmetric warfare tactics. Naji believed Western societies lacked the strength and the resolve to endure the long war. Instead, he argued that jihadists should continually escalate the depravity and savagery of their actions, destroying Western powers’ will to resist. This would allow them to re-establish control over territory, creating safe havens and bases for future terror attacks, by forcing the withdrawal of Western powers from the Middle East because the cost was too high. We can see his legacy in the regions that faced ISIS’s barbaric campaigns of terror and brutality in the Middle East, and in the actions of terrorists in Europe like those in Paris at the Bataclan, who tortured their hostages and executed wheelchair bound concert attendees.
The other strategist who has had a significant impact on ISIS’s terrorism in Europe is Abu Musab al-Suri. He argued that the American response to 9/11 was overwhelming, had been severely underestimated, and that Al-Qaeda would never be able to regain the freedom that the Taliban had provided. He felt vindicated by the response to 9/11, a response he had always feared. The global jihadist movement had to embrace this new reality, and adapt their terror tactics accordingly. Al-Suri had began advocating a more decentralised approach in the early 90s. He argued that formal hierarchies and structured organisation did not suit the jihadist cause. He was advocating this in the context of militant groups being rounded up in Egypt, Libya and Algeria, as a result of their members congregating in large hierarchical organisations.
The most important influence on al-Suri was Hafez al-Assad’s brutal repression to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising in the 1970’s and 80’s, which impressed upon him the need for smaller decentralised cells which could wage a form of low-intensity asymmetric insurgency warfare, chewing away at the resolve and the will to resist of the local populations. After 9/11, al-Suri’s thoughts came together into a coherent theory, articulated in his 2004 book The Global Islamic Resistance Call. As al-Suri wrote, “The jihad of individual or cell terrorism, using the methods of urban or rural guerrilla warfare, is fundamental for exhausting the enemy and causing him to collapse and withdraw.” He found the justification for these indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the Quranic verse 8:60, which states that “And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them.” He used this verse in his interpretation to argue that “terrorism is a religious duty, and assassination is a Prophetic tradition”.
This is the “army of one” doctrine. The idea is as simple as it is fiendishly clever and horrifyingly effective. Individuals are empowered to carry out deadly and destructive attacks without an overriding command-and-control hierarchy, giving rise to what Marc Sageman dubs “leaderless networks.” Having no overarching hierarchy makes this form of terrorism much more difficult to counteract and prevent. The reality is this: the origins of Europe’s current Islamist terrorist threat were born in Afghanistan’s mountains more than ten years ago. ISIS, with its utopian, apocalyptic message and ideology that is based on an extreme medievalist interpretation of Islam, is drawing on a rich tradition of jihadi strategy and using it to brutal effect.
In the wake of another terror attack, will we now wake up to the threat and its origins? Or will we allow these attacks to continue, and allow the publics of Europe to continue to bleed and die in the streets?