[Candyce Kelshall] Lone wolfs, terror networks, cells or social movements? Will the real terrorism please stand up?

What does the London 2017 attack tell us?


Each terror attack is looked at in isolation. It is scrutinised, analysed and categorised according to low tech, high tech, international connections and group memberships. The reality is that a more holistic view has to be taken of the nature of the violence which we are currently experiencing. A new pattern is emerging and it can only be addressed when seen as a whole, rather than individual instances of terrorist atrocities. The situation is not unique to any one country.

The context of our current environment has to be taken into account when understanding the threat. The face and pace of terrorism is changing and responses and prevention need to evolve with the shape and tempo of the threat. London, June 2017, Manchester May 2017, Westminster March 2017 and the 18 attacks which have been stopped at the point of commission in the UK  in the last 24 months are not the only terrorist attacks which have occurred or been planned. As terrible as they have been they represent the tip of the iceberg. Terrorist attacks are not happening any more or less in UK than in other parts of the world when considered as a whole.

There have been over 50 significant attacks in the West since 2013. Ten countries in the west have experienced attacks. Austria, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, UK and US. This puts the nature of what we are experiencing into perspective. In the West France, Belgium, UK and the US have experienced 93% of the 1523 Western casualties before the June attacks in 2017. The rate of attacks in 2017 is at 1 every 26 days.

This does not begin to account for what is going on in other parts of the world. In total there have been over 150 attacks in 31 countries since 2014. Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Turkey ,Russia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia ,Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Nigeria, Somalia, Cameroon, Australia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines. This is also not a religious war. 82-97% of terrorism related deaths over the last 5 years are Muslim. Estimates from US State department, National Consortium for study of terrorism and responses to terrorism global terrorism database, and Counter-terrorism Centre at West Point support these statistics. So the question is if this is part of a wider context or a new norm- what is it and why is it happening? Clearly this is not a vendetta against a single country based on that country’s foreign policy alone. If so then the foreign policies of 31 countries across the globe are at fault. Given the wide base of attacks in developing, developed, African, Pacific, North American and European countries is there something greater afoot? There are two commonalities only. The lack of physical relationship between all these actors and all these events and secondly the presence of a common identity. While Islamists are Muslim, all Muslims are not Islamists.

Understanding distinctions between Islamism, ISIS and Islam

The London Bridge incident denotes a step up or a change in the evolving nature of the terrorist threat. The attack is less ISIS inspired than it is ISLAMIST inspired. Its distinguishing characteristics which make it unique from other recent attacks speak only to the fact that current incarnations of terrorism are multiple in design and nature.

This attack seems to have involved individuals from amongst the fringes of Anjem Choudary’s defunct al-Muhajiroun network. Itself a breakaway from Hizb ut-Tahrir. In this sense while it is not ISIS inspired strictly speaking it shares the Islamist ideology of establishing Islamist dominance even over other non Islamist Muslims.

ISIS is an ISLAMIST movement which is violent and transnational. It uses terror as a tactic. Its aim is Islamic reform and anti –secularism. Its objective is to separate communities and use violence to dominate all other value systems including that of other branches of Islam which do not advocate or support Islamism. Boko Haram is an Islamist movement, Al shabaab is an Islamist movement. Al Muhajiroun was one of the forerunners of the British Islamist movement. Islamism is a fringe theocratic ideology which seeks domination over and the submission of Muslims and of the west.  ISIS may claim any terrorist attack that seeks to spread this social and cultural construct as it is ISLAMIST in nature and therefore a part of their overall agenda.

Islamism is distinct from Islam which is a religion with many branches. A set of values and practices which Muslim communities adhere to. The distinction is relevant. It is relevant because Islamists do not represent the religion of ISLAM and the conflation between this movement and the religion of Islam is misleading and problematic. Conflation weaponises religion and ethnicity. It engenders hate speech and division. It polarises free, plural democratic societies. Theresa May’s comment on Islamist threat does not represent an attack on Muslims in Britain it does the opposite. It separates mainstream Muslims from the ideological sect which seeks to subjugate or eradicate mainstream Muslims themselves.


The shape of contemporary terrorism

Isis inspired individual attacks represent a significant proportion of the western attacks listed above. The idea of the lone wolf is misleading in that it makes the assumption that these are individuals with a specific issue or maladaptation to their environment who use ISIS as a narrative to make their lives mean something greater than the sum of their individual experience. Working as part of a greater movement gives meaning to frustrated individuals. The step from inspiration to action does not happen in isolation and this is where the concept of the lone wolf is misleading.

It is another aspect of Islamism which is particularly troubling and misunderstood. Radicalisation and the spur to action comes from membership in a virtual community. The messenger delivering the radicalisation does not need to be part of an actor’s physical community or even in communication with the actor.  This does not detract from the fact that actions taken by these individuals are still actions in concert with the intentions of ISIS. From a policing and law enforcement perspective these individuals are extremely difficult to intercept. Where these actors have accomplices it is usually family members.

Family groups or nodes can operate with impunity and a cloak of invisibility as there is no need to communicate to achieve objectives. The Tsarnaev brothers, Abedi’s family was allegedly involved with his plans, The San Bernardino husband and wife team are all examples of how nodes can operate. Actual extremist organisations such as al-Muhajiroun also deliver on the same but unconnected objectives of ISIS. The shape of the terrorist threat is therefore morphing daily and encompassing a unique hybrid nature which is challenging to the single -state based security and law enforcement communities charged with keeping states safe. The terrorist threat can effectively take all shapes, act at any time and operate entirely under the radar. The mere size of the persons of interest pool in the UK ( 23,000+ individuals ) indicates that this is less a terror group and more a terror movement, a violent  social movement which is based in multiple countries with or without any leadership needed at all. Returning Islamist jihadist fighters supplement the knowledge base and capability and arguably, potentially, grooming traditional terror cells for future operations.


Violent social movements vs traditional concept of terrorist

Even as pictures of an attacker wearing an Arsenal shirt in London emerged, the British citizen was still referred to a Pakistani born. The implication being he was not really British. The same was said of Salman Abedi in Manchester who is referred to as Libyan by descent despite being born in Britain. To date there is no connection or relation to these attacks besides the Islamist motivation to engage in violence against all who oppose islamist beliefs. These beliefs specifically are democracy, secularism, liberalism and freedom. These represent the values which define a non Islamist world.

Terrorist groups traditionally have a hierarchy, a structure, operational commanders, training splinters. Terrorism is traditionally viewed as state inspired or international in nature and  led by an individual via instructions and commands in pursuance of a political strategic objective. Other contemporary beliefs include the belief that terrorist groups seek to attack the west from countries outside. Further there is a clear belief that there are organised sleeper cells and operatives waiting to strike on command from a centralised command centre. The contemporary terror experience does not bear this out. Actors are seldom if at all related by common membership in organisations or  common mosques- in fact many of the attackers have been asked to leave mosques or been reported by community members.

They are overwhelmingly not new immigrants or refugees but second generation citizens. They do not have to ‘get into’ the country. They already live in country and are citizens. Many have never been trained and hence the resorting to low tech means of mass carnage. The unrelated-ness and geographic  spread of the car attacks in Stockholm, Berlin, Nice, Jerusalem, London, and Columbus, Ohio is itself a good indication that there is no organised terror franchise or group orchestrating and unleashing terror. These ‘car (truck) as a weapon’ attacks are unconnected except for the belief and espoused Islamist identity. Domination by theocracy.

This belief is a new social phenomena empowered by the internet and social media where individuals can find inspiration and ideas to cement their identity as part of a global movement  in struggle with values and beliefs which are at odds with the ideology of Islamism. Jihadism is the fighting element of this ideology. Social movements do not have one leader, they have many messengers, each with different messages which followers can pick and choose to advocate according to what resonates with their life experience. They do not have to accept the whole. Social networks are identity based and not hierarchical in nature. They are networked and overlap. This is one of the reasons ISLAMIST terrorism can be ‘lone wolf’ in nature, or be a splinter group of an established terrorist group or be networks of family members none  of who are connected to each other in any respect except being united by the social construct of an Islamist identity. A centralised identity with a decentralised ad hoc delivery mechanism which needs no coordination, collaboration or consent.

As ISIS degrades Islamist aspirational fighters’ stay at home. This will mark a significant change in the pace or tempo of Islamist activity. Violent transnational social movements (VTSMs) remain violent as this violence defines the movement. VTSM identity remains  intact whether a jihadist travels to join ISIS or another ISLAMIST group which is more or less structured than ISIS or if they remain in their home country. As the opportunity to travel and join the territorial caliphate closes off the members of these movements will become increasingly and unpredictably active- at home in their countries of birth and where they are citizens, even lifelong supporters of their local football team.


Candyce Kelshall is an Adjunct Professor in Terrorism, Risk and Security Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada. She is also a Fellow at Buckingham University Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, UK. She is a former Metropolitan and British Transport Police Independent Advisor. 


Featured Image: http://news.sky.com/story/london-bridge-attacker-khuram-butt-was-part-of-banned-jihadi-network-10906091