First published by Friends of Israel Initiative
Used, as we unfortunately are, to terrorists hiding behind ski masks, the images of the area near the military base in Woolwich, south-east London, could not have been more striking: A murderer, his hands drenched in the blood still warm of his victim, holding a machete and a butcher’s knife in his hands, and talking into the video camera of a passer-by –and witness– about the reasons for his cruelty: "Allah is great;” “We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you.” “I killed him because he killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan," he continued, ending with a warning: “You people will never be safe.”
On the other hand, the fact that the weapons used in this horrible attack were two kitchen knives also confuses us, since we expect a terrorist attack to always entail a certain degree of sophistication and to achieve some significant damage. Used to the car bomb or 9/11-style aircraft application, we tend to think that a single victim and a machete cannot be terrorism. But it is.
In the end, the West’s social collective imagination regarding al-Qaeda always envisions cells and structures as impenetrable as they are well organized and trained. We find it hard to accept that people may choose to follow the path of self-conviction and radicalization by watching Internet videos about terrorist exploits and reading texts and manuals on jihadism in cybercafés or in the privacy of their own home. But it’s happening at an alarming rate.
After the 9/11, everything was bin Laden and the threat of mega-terrorism. Then, after the continued pursuit of al-Qaeda cadres started by Bush and carried on by Obama via the drone war, came the so-called al Qaeda “franchises” – regional organizations, going from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). There, a whole variety of Islamist groups adopted the ideological mantle of bin Laden and his henchmen while acting under their own guidelines and tactics. Mali may be the latest example on how neglecting such groups, considered less dangerous than the gang of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, might become a major threat in a short period of time and in specific places. After the recent Boston Marathon bombing, much attention has finally been put into what’s known as "lone wolves" – individuals or small groups with no link to al-Qaeda or affiliated groups and with little technical terrorist training, but willing to blow themselves up in order to kill in the name of their Almighty.
The jihad ideologues, including newspaper editors of Al Qaeda’s Inspiration, know very well how to distinguish between terrorists and terror. They know that shock is attained with an attack producing thousands of dead victims, and they don’t renounce to that, but they also are convinced that small stabs to the backbone of our society –our innocent civilians– in commonplace environments can generate a state of widespread panic. That’s their goal right now.
In 2005, when British authorities foiled the plot of what could’ve been a dramatic disaster –to blow up ten planes in flight over the Atlantic by skillfully blending chemical explosives in mid-air–, Intelligence and Interior deserved to pat themselves on the back for their success. So could the political leaders of the moment. After all, it was a failure of terrorism. Nonetheless, the reading of jihadist leaders was the opposite: Without having lost any of its commandos, all the procedures of civil aviation were turned upside down overnight. Travelers still must undergo unbearable controls at airport checkpoints. The same happened again in 2010 when a printer was found onboard a flight originating from Yemen and bound for the United States. The printer’s ink cartridge had been replaced with a chemical explosive. Western security officials were all smiles, but so were the al-Qaeda leaders – more than satisfied with the new security procedure changes imposed again on civilian transport.
Without abandoning their ambitions of an even more spectacular attack than 9/11, jihadist leaders know they can generate fear in other ways. And that’s what they’re willing to do. There are already far too many cases as to be simply considered isolated or unrelated acts; for example, Richard Reid and his shoe bomb; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his underwear bomb; the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston; the Fort Hood shooting by Major Nidal Malik Hasan that left 11 dead in 2009; or Faisal Shahzad, who planted a car bomb in Times Square in 2010; to name just the most famous ones.Actually, in recent years, important members of al-Qaeda, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, have been agitating in favor of a new type of attacks, such as the recent Boston or London attacks – a poorly-trained and low-intensity sort of attack, one might say. The idea, recently published in the al-Qaeda magazine, is to launch a "bleeding strategy": instead of a large wound, continuous small cuts to slowly bleed the victim –us– to death. If they cannot continue the sequence of carrying out major attacks, such as in New York, Bali, Madrid, London, they’ll try to carry out minor attacks that can keep the terror flame alive and burning – the kind of fear that permeates everything.
So far they have not succeeded, but with the limited level of preparation of our security forces to deal with this kind of threat–difficult to detect and complicated to anticipate–it’s only natural to think that we’ll have to endure this kind of terror. It’ll all depend on the pace and continuity of new attacks for the feeling of personal risk to become more acute. However, what everyone should clearly understand is that we aren’t enduring senseless events that have nothing to do with each other. They may be unrelated in their preparation, but they’re well linked to the same goal – Islamic terror.
The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).