By Erika Brady
Columnist, PhD Student at the Handa Center of Terrorism and Political Violence
The attack in London on 22 March 2017 has, unsurprisingly, been dominant in the British media for the past week. At the outset, the viewer and reader was bombarded with flashy headlines and minute by minute analysis, even when there was no actual information to provide. Cameras and microphones were pushed into the faces of overwhelmed witnesses as news crews battled to be heard over the blaring sirens of the security and emergency services still working on an active crime scene. These sound bites were repeated on loop for the next several hours. For all the reporting, we knew nothing new. Only with the passing of time have we been able to appropriately assess the events that took place on the afternoon of 22 March. Only now is there a remotely clear picture of what took place, allowing us to make some form of informed assessment of the situation. Only now can we apply appropriate perspective such that we can analyse events honestly and take hope and encouragement from the response on the day.
ISIS spared little time in claiming responsibility for the attack, stating that attacker Khalid Masood was one of their “soldiers”. Whether this is true or not is unclear, but it can clearly be seen as a political move on behalf of the beleaguered so-called Islamic State. With this event being the first successful attack on UK soil that the group could lay claim to, it has become a ‘strategic feather in the cap’ for a group which has been trying to impact the UK much as it has already impacted France, Belgium and the US in the past two and a half years.
Whether or not ISIS trained Masood or instructed him from a distance to carry out the attack, or even simply inspired him to act in response to the repeated ‘calls to arms’ made by ISIS’ current leader Al-Baghdadi, is almost irrelevant. By putting its name on the attack, ISIS has given itself a much needed propaganda boost. The fact that no successful Islamic-inspired terrorist attack has taken place on UK soil since the brutal murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 was no doubt a sore point for the organisation. It can now use this event as a propaganda tool, potentially recruiting more people into its ranks.
Previously, ISIS used the high number of British citizens leaving the UK to become ‘foreign fighters’ in Syria and Iraq to protect and fight for the ‘caliphate’ as its propaganda campaign. At the time, videos of young men speaking from what appeared to be the Middle East with British accents and trying to convince others to come out to these conflict zones was chilling. Jihadi John, the notorious British citizen who was dominant in the beheading videos, became a symbol to those open to radicalisation of what could be achieved by British and Western volunteers joining the jihadi cause. He also became a stark and devastating reality check that it was not just Muslim foreigners from the Middle East who were carrying out atrocities on behalf of ISIS, but people who were our friends, colleagues and neighbours. And whether through its own efforts or through the help of the media, it worked as a recruiting tool. Unprecedentedly, it even worked on young women, something that experts had not predicted would happen beforehand.
However, as ISIS now faces military defeat in the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, foreign fighters are no longer what it seeks. What is infinitely more valuable to the group now is for radicalised individuals to take the fight to their home countries around the world. The shift of ISIS from statehood, as the self-declared caliphate, back to a terrorist organisation is inevitable and has been accepted by most experts. However, one thing is certain – there will be no complete ‘defeat’ of ISIS, an organisation which has shown itself to be, time and time again, an opportunistic entity which refuses to be categorised. No manner of rhetoric on the part of President Trump or Prime Minister Theresa May can alter the fact that the group will not be “defeated” in any conventional manner.
No manner of rhetoric on the part of President Trump or Prime Minister Theresa May can alter the fact that the group will not be “defeated” in any conventional manner.
In addition to the likelihood of hundreds of trained foreign fighters returning to their home countries to wreak havoc and radicalise a whole new generation, we are also seeing a chilling shift in tactics. It is no longer necessary to build complex bombs with chemical components and detonators. The weapon of choice, the weapon of mass destruction if you will, is now simply a vehicle. Whether it is a large truck the size of the one used by Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel in Nice on 14 July 2016, or the rental truck used by Anis Amri in the Christmas Market in Berlin on 19 December 2016 or a rented car as was used in the attack on London, vehicles are now a real and present danger and a highly accessible terrorist weapon. The potential for death and destruction by mowing down pedestrians on a sidewalk is great – the feelings of fear instilled by the thought that this could happen at any time and in any place has an even greater impact. This type of attack has long been feared by security and intelligence forces, and is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.
On the face of it, one can argue that this event had not been prevented by the security and intelligence agencies. Whether or not Masood should have been caught before carrying out the attack will remain to be seen, and the police are currently carrying out an extensive investigation into the incident, which will include developed insights into this point. What can be unequivocally stated is that Masood attempted to enter Westminster Palace, to what exact end is currently unclear, and was ultimately prevented from doing so.
The death toll of five, including the attacker, is tragic, but it could have been so much worse. The quick response of emergency teams and the heroic acts of bystanders, staff from local hospitals and even Members of Parliament should encourage the public that the UK is not as under-prepared as it once was. The attacks on the London Transport System in 2005 exposed some flaws in the system, and these have been, to greater or lesser extents, addressed. An increase in training exercises, the most recent of which took place on the River Thames in London on 19 March 2017 mean that, when an event does happen, people are more informed and know what to do.
The investigation into the attack is ongoing, and as more details emerge it will be interesting to see whether the attack was indeed that of a lone wolf or whether it was part of a larger terrorist cell. Either way, this attack has once again brought the stark challenges of terrorism to the very doorstep of the British people. The government, the security forces and the media have a responsibility to the British people to inform and protect. It will be necessary for the media to consider how they report such incidents and to balance the obvious need to inform with the responsibility that their reporting can have a positive impact on the terrorist’s narrative.
Terrorism has for some time now defied all attempts to define it. Ultimately, most would agree that it involves making a bigger impact than on those specifically impacted in an attack. It is a question of fear, of forcing a more powerful entity, usually the state, to act in a particular way at the behest of a concerned or fearful population. The media is tied up directly in this, and depending on how these events are reported, can hinder or assist the terrorist narrative. Media outlets should seriously consider how best they can inform people while not providing terrorist organisations with a soap box from which to affect those vulnerable to their message. This is a responsibility, and one the media needs to take very seriously.
Media outlets should seriously consider how best they can inform people while not providing terrorist organisations with a soap box from which to affect those vulnerable to their message.
An important element of the narrative of the events on 22 March 2017 is that Masood was a British citizen, who was born and lived in the UK. While involved in crime, he was not explicitly involved in terrorism, and he was not under any form of investigation of this nature. He was not a Syrian or Iraqi refugee, and he was not what is termed an ‘economic refugee’, coming to the UK to make a better life for himself. He is not representative of the mostly peaceful Muslim communities living in the UK. Just as Thomas Mair, a far right-wing extremist with mental health problems who murdered MP Jo Cox on 16 June 2016, was not representative of Christian communities.
What will be needed in the coming days, weeks and months, is a concerted effort to ensure that hate crimes against Muslim communities are prevented. Nothing can add more to ISIS’s narrative than the persecution of innocent Muslims, ostracising them from local population and driving them towards the support of extremist organisations. I have been asked many times over the past few years why Muslim communities do not speak out. The answer is simple—they do, although they are often not heard. Mainstream media has chosen not to report on, for example, the mass protest held by Muslims in Oxford Street in London in 12 October 2016. This protest was attended by hundreds who held peace signs and denounced ISIS. Nor has anyone to whom I have spoken been aware of the Facebook page ‘Muslims Against ISIS’ which has over 100,000 followers and highlights the Muslim communities’ perspectives on what radicalisation and terrorism means to them.
The truth of the matter is that Muslim communities are speaking out, but for whatever reason, the media is not covering it. This, I believe, is one of the biggest threats to British security, because when there is a lack of communication and understanding between communities, counter-terrorism strategies such as Prevent, which seeks to prevent the radicalisation of individuals, will never be able to make the impact they should. Only through working together will we be able to prevent terrorists getting what they want, and the media has a responsibility to contribute professionally and honestly to this effort. To date, I have seen no consistency in the way terrorism and radicalisation is reported.
The truth of the matter is that Muslim communities are speaking out, but for whatever reason, the media is not covering it.
The attack in London was tragic, although to some extent it was inevitable. It was only a matter of time before a successful attack was going to take place in the UK. This is not defeatist, this is realistic. Nonetheless, I believe that the response to the attack showed the improved ability of the security and emergency forces to deal with such a situation. This fact should encourage the British population. The bravery of by-standers should inspire the British population. And the counter-terrorism strategy in place in the UK should comfort the British population. Lessons will no doubt be learned from this event, and the next few months will be enlightening for those of us who study such areas. Nonetheless, London can now finally, and sadly, join the ranks of cities who have been subjected to terrorist attack inspired by the so-called Islamic State. It can only be hoped that what has been learned from these vehicular attacks can go some way to inform their future prevention.
Featured image by melfoody/Flickr