As the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate crumbles in Iraq and Syria, it has brought its war to major Western cities with its lone wolf fighters and urban [sleeper] cells. The recent London Bridge attack underscores two major trends: IS terrorists are targeting civilians in the main Western cities and they are using low-tech methods like vehicle ramming and stabbing. In some cases, machetes and hatchets have also been used.
The London Bridge attack is replication of the Westminster Bridge attack in March, where a lone-wolf operator ploughed his vehicle through pedestrians and then rushed to the parliament where he stabbed five people to death before being gunned down. Similar attacks in recent months have also taken place in Ohio, Stockholm, Berlin, Nice and Manchester.
The tactics of urban terrorism have evolved from high-end tactics like hostage-taking, mass shootings, and commando-style assaults, to the low-end tactics mentioned above. Their inability to acquire the weapons and explosives to mount high-profile terrorist attacks in these cities has compelled IS and its affiliates to resort to simple and easy-to-execute tactics.
Arguably, this marks the beginning of a new phase of the global terrorist threat in which such low-end attacks are likely to increase while more complex and coordinated assaults are less likely.
These evolving tactics starkly resemble British counterterrorism expert Peter Neumann’s concept of “New Terrorism” in which structure (centralized to decentralized), nature (political to ideological), means (discriminate to indiscriminate), and goals (changing system to destroying it) are qualitatively different from “Old Terrorism.”
Since the Nice attack in July 2016 which left over 80 people dead, IS has encouraged its followers to obtain vehicles for attacks in cities because they are easy to acquire and the risk of alerting security agencies is reduced. Moreover, sophisticated planning and major funding are not required for low-tech attacks: all that is needed is a car or a knife, and the willingness to kill and die for one’s beliefs. More importantly, lone-wolf attackers can carry out these attacks without relying on a network of militants. Low-tech terrorism is unpredictable, cost-effective, de-centralized, and high-impact, which is further magnified by immediate media coverage.
IS is more or less following the same trajectory as Al-Qaeda’s post 9/11 evolution as it transitions to the next phase of its life cycle. Al-Qaeda decentralized and went underground after it was flushed out from its safe havens in Afghanistan by US troops in 2001, and it transformed from a hierarchical terrorist organisation to a jihadist movement and stayed relevant by carrying out attacks through its franchisees. IS is doing the same: it is decentralizing its operations and moving towards clandestine activities. Furthermore, the loss of territory will free up finances to fund terrorist attacks abroad.
These low-tech urban terrorist attacks, once again, underscore the futility of the heavily militarized counterterrorism approach, which has expanded and increased the threat.
At the same time, the group is moving to cyberspace for recruitment, communication, and the planning of attacks. Under IS, various social media platforms and internet chat rooms have emerged as venues to disseminate extremist ideologies and to serve as meeting places between aspiring jihadists and jihadist groups.
By resorting to low-end terrorist tactics, IS has raised the cost of counterterrorism in Western cities and further lowered the security threshold. These attacks are random and unpredictable because of their low entry barrier. No expertise in bomb-making or formal militant training is needed. Preventing such attacks is almost impossible because the terrorists engaging in low-tech terrorism can attack anything anywhere and at any time. By doing this, IS has virtually bypassed the operational phases of the terrorist attack cycle i.e. recruitment, training, planning, target selection, logistics, and execution.
This leaves IS with only one challenge: how to radicalize disenfranchised and vulnerable Muslim youth to do its terrorist bidding. Most of this is done online now thanks to IS’ revolutionization of social media for recruitment and propaganda operations. The group’s ability to link individual grievances with its jihadist narrative by providing aspiring jihadists with a stronger sense of belonging and empowerment has helped it overcome social, geographical, and linguistic barriers to recruit from diverse backgrounds.
By definition, every terrorist attack is a political statement. IS-inspired and -directed attacks in major Western cities are a display of power and outreach that exhibit its capabilities as the most feared terrorist group, notwithstanding its defeats in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, attacks on urban centers constitute security and intelligence failures. They instil fear, cause financial losses by negatively affecting businesses, and create disharmony in inter-communal relations in cities with diverse communal groups. As a result, the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the West legitimizes IS’ extremist narrative and fuels more recruitment.
The intended purpose of deterring, downgrading, and destroying IS in Iraq and Syria was to counter the proliferation of the terrorist threat and prevent its negative spillover into the main cities. However, as IS’ defeat looks imminent, the opposite of that seems to be happening: the threat has become mainstream.
These low-tech urban terrorist attacks, once again, underscore the futility of the heavily militarized counterterrorism approach, which has expanded and increased the threat. If the international community is confronted with terrorist attacks in the main cities at the end of anti-IS operations in Iraq and Syria, then the current counterterrorism approach warrants some fundamental rethinking. It emphatically hammers home a point that defeating IS-central will not diminish the diversified and multi-pronged threat that IS poses.
Additionally, without addressing the underlying socio-political conditions that create monsters like Al-Qaeda and IS, victory will remain elusive. So, creating counternarratives against religiously-inspired extremist ideologies is as important as the physical defeat of the group. In other words, a smart counterterrorism approach is required by combining the soft and hard power approaches.
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