Global terrorism: A new age of unpredictability

What the so-called ‘lone-wolf’ attacker in Nice, France, tells us about the new norms of jihad and how ideology is key to understanding this phenomenon.

By: /
July 28, 2016
Bouquets of flowers form a queue along the Promenade des Anglais after people collected them from makeshift memorials to the victims of the truck attack in Nice, France, July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Jean-Pierre Amet

The carnage in Nice on France’s national holiday — followed by several incidents in Germany and elsewhere in France in the two weeks since then — was just another example of how we are now facing a new norm in terror attacks across the globe.

What are sometimes called “lone-wolf” attacks — despite my serious doubts about the way such actions are characterized — will now be more and more common as security forces scramble to find ways to counter the growing presence of terrorism globally. Here in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the Nice attack “shocked Canadians,” and reasonably so, but one needs to remember that such horror is almost a daily reality in many Eastern or Southern countries (indeed an attack in Kabul last Sunday killed more than 80).

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack committed by the 31-year-old French-Tunisian man, Mohamad Lahoaiej Bouhlel. The group’s communiqué briefly and vaguely states that the operation in Nice was carried out by a “soldier of the Islamic State” in response to a call “to target civilians of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State.” Two years ago, in September 2014, ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters to run over disbelieving Westerners with their cars, something which almost certainly inspired Martin Couture-Rouleau’s actions on two Canadian Armed Forces officers in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu on October 20, 2014. 

Bouhlel seems to have added a more vicious element to his deadly action by implementing the terrifying plan as detailed by Yahya Ibrahim in an article in the English-language magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Inspire. Published in 2010, the articleentitled “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” laid out an elaborate plan, saying: “The idea is to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah. … Go for the most [crowded] locations. Narrower spots are also better because it gives less chance for the people to run away. … It is important to study your path of operation before hand. … If you have access to firearms, carry them with you so that you may use them to finish off your work if your vehicle gets grounded during the attack.” 

These actions are virtually impossible to predict and thwart since they can be committed by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Security forces are somewhat powerless as terrorists now operate differently; there is no need for a top-down organization to plan attacks. Perpetrators now can find all the support and tactical information they need online and in small cells, even without any direct contact with main terrorist groups.

What is seen as the new modus operandi of jihadist groups had already been devised by al-Qaeda strategist Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri. As early as 1993, al-Suri advised the commander of the Groupe islamique armé (GIA) to bring France into war by committing attacks on its own soil. This strategy was further developed in his 2005 work, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, where al-Suri recognized since 9/11 that it was now impossible to operate according to old models through “secret – regional – hierarchical organizations.” What was beginning to be emphasized was the idea of “Individual Terrorism Jihad,” where guerilla warfare is to be used to destabilize and have the enemy collapse under pressure. Al-Suri speaks of “light guerilla warfare,” “civilian terror,” and “small resistant units” operating individually from another.

Attacks like those seen recently in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, Dacca and Nice, just to name a few, are prime examples of this approach to jihad. The “open front” goes beyond Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan: the entire world is now the jihadists’ battlefield according to al-Suri. This is why Jean-Pierre Filiu, eminent specialist on the Middle East, is of the opinion that Daesh (ISIS’ other name) has won since it now controls the calendar of events, and the terms of the debate. ISIS is doing exactly what it wanted: spreading its influence and expanding globally, he argues. This is precisely what al-Suri envisioned, as jihad would take place on a global scale, despite borders and countries. Those who want to fight can do so in their own countries or anywhere else, which is seen as much more efficient than on the home front.

"People are slow to recognize that Jihadist groups can legitimize their deeds by means of their ideology."

At this point in the investigation, there is no indication suggesting that Bouhlel was personally commissioned by ISIS or al-Qaeda; rather, it seems that he could have somewhat been inspired by their ideology and became radicalized very quickly, according to the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and information gathered from people now in custody. However, a cousin of Bouhlel’s wife said that he was not religious since he “did not go to the mosque, he did not pray, he did not observe Ramadan. He drank alcohol, ate pork and took drugs...He was not a Muslim... He beat his wife...he was a nasty piece of work.” In an interview in Agence France Presse, Bouhlel’s father in Tunisia said that his son experienced serious psychological problems from 2002 to 2004. This was confirmed by Chemceddine Hamouda, a psychiatrist who diagnosed Bouhlel at the time. According to Hamouda, the young man suffered from an alteration of reality with signs of a psychosis. The psychiatrist said, however, that nothing in Bouhlel’s condition indicated that he could commit this kind of atrocity; such violence necessarily results from severe indoctrination, a delirium of radicalization. These actions are not those of an insane individual but were deliberate and premeditated. Homouda believes that Bouhlel conditioned himself to commit this terror attack, and is fully responsible for his actions.

The history and profile of this individual are extremely complex. There is no reason to doubt that Bouhlel acted as described above at some point in his life, but if he did quickly become radicalized – and there are cases that show this to be possible  his deadly act could be interpreted as jihad. 

If Bouhlel was not religious for most of his life but had a rapid radicalization experience, it is possible to understand his action in light of a very early hadith collection called Kitab al-jihad (Book of the Jihad) written by Abdallah ibn al-Mubarak (circa 726-797 CE). Therein, the author speaks of “the sinning but repentant believer” who seeks to expiate his sins on the battlefield. Ibn al-Mubarak taught that the “sword wipes away sins” and that “being killed in the path of Allah washes away impurity; killing is two things: atonement and rank in heaven.”

According to author David Cook, the idea that the “sword wipes away sins” is comparable to the way the Christian tradition values redemption through the Cross. Be that as it may, religious traditions can be de-contextualized – Ibn al-Mubarak’s Kitab al-jihad speaks to a specific situation in the 8th century where the warrior-ascetic wrote with the purpose of fighting the Byzantines – and re-interpreted in ways that suit the needs of current or potential jihadists. With this mind, therefore, is not surprising that al-Suri’s Global Islamic Resistance Call promotes the idea that “terrorism is a religious duty, and assassination is a Prophetic tradition.”

On this topic, most analysts tend to strictly focus on security issues rather than ideological ones. People are slow to recognize that jihadist groups can legitimize their deeds by means of their ideology. The interpretation and re-appropriation of religious traditions shape the way believers understand their actions and place in the world.

The case of Ali Sonboly, the German-Iranian teenager who killed nine people in Munich on July 22, reminds us not to jump to conclusions when a suspect of Middle Eastern background is involved in an attack. Sonboly was reportedly inspired by Hitler and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.

However, what is key to understanding those who are potential jihadist recruits is that they know very little about the historical context that gave rise to their religious tradition and are not cognizant of its multiple interpretations throughout time. This is why education is still one of the best ways to counter violent extremism.