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France is getting to grips once again with its domestic jihadist threat, after two lone-wolf attacks in Nice and Paris.
On October 29, three churchgoers in Nice were hacked to death by a Tunisian migrant at the city’s Notre Dame cathedral. This was preceded by the gruesome beheading of Samuel Paty, a history schoolteacher, at the hands of a Chechen-born expat near Paris on October 16.
The triggering factor that inspired such violence was France’s upholding of liberal patriotic values, defending Paty’s cartoon showing of Prophet Muhammad during his free speech classes.
Both tragedies show how Western counterterrorism continues to struggle in understanding lone-wolf extremism as an undetectable, unpredictable and persistent terrorist threat.
Two days before Paty’s assassination, Britain’s MI5 chief, Ken McCallum, admitted that “more terrorists have gone for basic attack methods requiring little preparation, meaning fewer clues to detect in advance.”
Like terrorism, lone-wolf extremism is hard to define. Generalisations have neither been recognised by policymakers nor academics in terms of obscure interactions, ideological beliefs and choice of tactics and targets adopted by militants. Political violence staged by individuals can be traced back to the early 1800s, when anarchist activists committed random attacks in Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and the US.
Australian sociologist Ramon Spaaij recognises that “lone-wolf terrorists operate individually, do not belong to an organised group and whose methods are directed by individuals without outside command”.
Single-minded determination, strategic direction and independence to plot violence have made solo acts of terrorism high-profile, devastating and unforgettable for victims and audiences. Patrizio Peci, a former Red Brigades militant, once described how these characteristics require individual terrorists to become “tense but not nervous, calm but not relaxed, decisive but not foolhardy”.
Virtual self-radicalisation, irrespective of ideological influences, have inspired lone attackers to follow radical social media platforms, publicise their militant content and call for extreme solutions through violence.
Guns need hands but they also need ideas
Norway’s 2011 attacks are an example. Anders Breivik’s murder of 77 civilians, from the Oslo bomb to the Utøya shootings, reflected his online presence to promote his far-right ideology.
Convinced that Islam and migration were threatening Norway’s white power identity, Breivik’s belief to use terrorism was shaped by Nordic xenophobic blogs that praised violence as a moral (if not spiritual) defence against ‘betraying’ governments undertaking multiculturalism.
Breivik’s bloodstained beliefs, posted online under his manifesto ‘2083: A European declaration of independence’, would serve to inspire online activists to carry out greater lethal attacks, including Brandon Tarrant’s 2019 anti-Muslim massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand.
For Western liberal democracy, Islamist terrorism remains a disturbing phenomenon when rethinking lone-wolf extremism. On November 2, Vienna saw Austrian-born IS supporter Kujtim Fejzulai mow down four bystanders in a gun-and-knifing spree. Fejzulai had been prevented from joining ISIS in Syria by Austria’s security services and was later released from prison.
Later revelations from Austria’s interior ministry indicated that Fejzulai’s wish for revenge was incensed by his attendance at two local mosques preaching political Islam. Revenge plays an emotional role that persuades lone-wolf extremists to adopt political violence.
Lone attackers imagine the use of terrorism as altruistic, seeking to defend powerless communities by violently cleansing the evils of liberal democracy. Irish terrorism expert Louise Richardson argues: “I grapple with how a young idealist can believe that, in murdering innocent people, he is battling injustice and fighting for a fairer world.”
Europe’s recent jihadist attacks show how terrorism’s ideological threat continues to stimulate future lone-wolf militants, adopting a radical mindset that reshapes contextual problems, reidentify in-group victims and out-group targets and justify violence in ethical terms to achieve goals in whose cause they fight for.
Sotiris Kondylis, an ex-terrorist from Greece’s defunct Marxist gang 17 November, once concluded: “Guns need hands but they also need ideas. If the ideas are not there, the guns won’t work.”
Samuel Bezzina, independent researcher in terrorism and political violence
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