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The events in Paris a week ago have reminded us once again of the brutality of the terrorist threat that we face. While the world’s attention has shifted to other things like the threat from the extreme right or the continuing pandemic, the grim reality is that the problem of violent Islamist terrorism persists, with little evidence that the underlying issues driving it have gone away.
As new MI5 head Ken McCallum pointed out in his first public speech, his service focuses on three strands of terrorist ideology, none of them new. Dissident Irish republicanism, violent Islamism and the extreme right all continue to occupy his service’s time, with violent Islamism still identified as the biggest quantifiable threat. An absence of public attention has not made these problems go away, rather it has allowed them to fester.
The murder of Samuel Paty seems to be the product of an online hate campaign resulting from his decision to educate children about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that stirred such controversy when they were first published. The assailant was a young Chechen man reportedly inspired by the angry posts and calls to arms generated by parents of children at the school. He was reportedly in contact with fighters in Syria, and there are reports of parts of the extended families of the children having gone to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. The assassin himself was not reportedly on security services radars, but came from a milieu rich in suspects. In the days after the attack, likely reflecting heightened tensions, two Arab women were attacked in a racist confrontation under the Eiffel Tower, while a group of Britons were arrested after reportedly trying to run over a policeman outside the Israeli Embassy in Paris.
The attacks take place against a larger backdrop. Just over two weeks ago, Paris was rocked by another assault on two journalists near Charlie Hebdo’s offices. A young Pakistani man struck just as the trial began of men connected to the terrorists who launched the 2015 attack on the satirical magazine’s headquarters. Both Samuel Paty’s murderer and the Charlie Hebdo attacker released messages on social media highlighting the reasons for their acts.
A Persistent Threat
These were the latest incidents in a long line of violent Islamist attacks in Europe with a particular focus on cultural icons. Dating back to the publication of The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s, there have been periodic incidents in the decades since of angry Islamists lashing out in this way. Salman Rushdie’s totemic book generated terrorist plots directed by Iran, self-starting attacks, as well as violent protests. The Danish cartoons crisis in the mid-2000s led to attacks on embassies, as well as terrorist attacks and plots across Europe targeting the newspaper that published the cartoons as well as the cartoonists themselves. On a smaller scale, there was the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 in Amsterdam and the publication of The Jewel of Medina generated an attempted firebombing of the publisher’s house in London in 2008.
What is notable in many of these incidents is the lack of direction from international terrorist networks. No clear evidence has been presented that the attackers were directed to do what they did. In the current Parisian case, more information is emerging showing the young man may have had links to violent networks, but as of yet no evidence of direction has been presented. Like many Islamist terrorists, the attacker was violent, young, and keen to disseminate his brutal message on social media.
All of which reflects the grim reality of a chronic violent Islamist threat and its particular anger towards cultural insults. The news may be increasingly full of stories of extreme right violence, but as McCallum reported last week, his service still sees ‘tens of thousands of individuals’ who are committed to violent Islamist ideologies.
Enduring Causes, Enduring Threat
The problem is that none of the underlying issues that feed this ideology have gone away. Factors such as anger against real and perceived divisions in society, extremist preachers advancing polarising ideas and an unregulated online community where extremist networks can propagate ideas which are increasingly picked up by a younger, more troubled and isolated audience, all persist. This last problem is further sharpened by the coronavirus pandemic, as people spend more time online, going down algorithmically-generated rabbit holes. The conflict zones that provided shelter and training for extremist groups still exist, while numerous Europeans still sit in detention camps in Syria. All that has changed is the configuration of the terrorist groups on the ground, and the volumes of territory and people they control.
But there has been a notable change in the size and scope of attacks. Large-scale plots involving complicated networks and direction appear to be a thing of the past. Whether this is a product of lack of effort by terrorist groups or a more effective security shield is difficult to know. But the threat is still showing up, reflecting the fact that the underlying problems continue. A worrying aspect of the recent spate of attacks in France (as well as some recent plots in Germany) is that they have been carried out by first generation migrants. This reality is likely to sharpen extreme and far right narratives, leading to potential backlash against migrant communities, further stoking social tensions.
It has become passé to worry about violent Islamist terrorism. And to some degree maybe this is a healthier response. The absence of publicity helps starve terrorist groups of the oxygen they seek. But this does not mean the problem has gone away. It means that the threat can now only express itself through occasional incidents that shock in their randomness.
It is unclear how the pandemic will ultimately impact this threat picture, but it is not going to suppress or destroy it. Similarly, a rising extreme right is a growing problem, but it has still not achieved the scale and effective violence of the violent Islamist threat. This is not to say that it might not, but it is simply being added to a growing roster of problems rather than a shrinking one. Counterterrorism, unfortunately, is a long struggle which requires committed and consistent attention.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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