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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 22 March, 2018

Tom Clonan: After a bloody year, all signs suggest 2017 will bring more of these lone wolf terror attacks

The tragedy in all of this is the plight of millions of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees, writes Dr Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist,

THE BERLIN ATTACK sends a jarring, uncomfortable message across Europe in the run-up to Christmas.  Such an attack on a Christmas market was predicted by the international intelligence community.  In November, the US State Department warned US citizens that it had credible indications that an attack on a European target was imminent.

Germany has suffered a number of high-profile terror attacks and mass killings over the last year or so.  In September of 2015, Berlin police shot dead an Islamist who attacked a female police officer with a knife.  In February of this year, a 15-year-old girl – inspired by Islamic State propaganda – stabbed and seriously injured a policeman in Hannover.  In May, near Munich, a German national shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ stabbed and slashed commuters – killing one and injuring several at a railway station in Grafing.

July saw a spate of attacks including an axe and knife attack on commuters on a train near Wurzburg.  The assailant was a teenage Afghan asylum seeker who was shot dead by German police.  Also in July, German-Iranian teenager Ali David Sonboly murdered nine people including children in a mass shooting at a McDonald’s restaurant in Munich.  Two days later, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee blew himself up in Ansbach in a suicide bombing that injured over a dozen bystanders.

Germany Christmas Market The scene of the attack in Berlin Source: Markus Schreiber/PA

There were other incidents involving asylum seekers and refugees also.  In Reutlungen, a 21-year-old Syrian man stabbed a 37-year-old pregnant Polish woman to death.

The pattern of lone wolf attacks

Unlike the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Paris attacks of January and November 2015, none of the German incidents appear to have been carried out by terror ‘cells’.  Rather they have been characterised as ‘lone wolf’ attacks and appear to be a toxic mix of sometimes unrelated hate crimes.  Unlike the Brussels attacks of March this year, groups like Islamic State have not claimed credit for all of the lone wolf attacks that have been characterised as terrorist attacks in France and Germany.

Such attacks include the execution of Fr Jaques Hamel in St Etienne du-Rouvray in July, along with the killing of a police officer and his wife near Paris in June.  Similar hate crimes in the US have been exploited by Islamic State in order to harness as much anger and fear as possible in order to further their terrorist aims.  The Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando in June of this year was a hate crime directed at the LGBT community.  The perpetrator, Omar Mateen mobilised the rhetoric of groups such as Islamic State in order to give some sort of twisted legitimacy to his horrific attack.  For its part, Islamic State was happy to claim him as one of their jihadis as his actions represented an attack on the western values of tolerance, equality and diversity – concepts that are anathema to Islamist bigots.

The assault on the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz on Monday night bears a shocking resemblance to the Nice attack on Bastille Day which killed 86 men, women and children on the Promenade des Anglais.  In the Nice attack, the perpetrator, Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a heavy rigid truck onto the wide beachfront pedestrian area, weaving as he drove to inflict the maximum number of casualties. The Nice attack was halted by ordinary street cops using small side-arms and pistols in a desperate attempt to stop the truck and apprehend the driver.  Despite France’s state of high alert, there were no specialist anti-terror units involved in the disruption of the Nice attack.

The complex causes of these lone wolf attacks

Many questions remain about the attack in Berlin.  At time of writing, the perpetrator has not yet been identified or apprehended.  The attack has some subtle differences to that of the Nice incident.  To begin with, the truck appears to have been hijacked or stolen in the hours before the attack with the 37-year-old Polish driver, Lukasz Urban, stabbed and shot to death.  It is likely that the perpetrator drove the articulated truck to the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market with a corpse in the cab.  This sequence of events reveals some level of planning and reconnaissance – knowing where to hijack an articulated truck, knowing how to drive it and knowing where to drive it.  The attack, it would seem, also involved the use of a firearm.

Germany Christmas Market The Brandenburg Gate tonight Source: Markus Schreiber/PA

The level of violence and intent evident in this week’s attack bodes ill for the possibility of future attacks in Germany and elsewhere throughout Europe.

The increasing pattern of so-called ‘lone wolf’ attacks in Europe may have complex causes.  Some are simply hate-crimes – the actions of inadequate, angry men craving the status of ‘Jihadist’ or ‘Mujahideen’ to mask sexual jealousy, rage, misogyny, racism – who knows?  Whatever the causes, groups like Islamic State are keen to see more and more such attacks.  As Islamic State loses its territorial integrity in Syria and Iraq, its propaganda wing is encouraging such attacks across Europe and the United States.  Amaq, the News Agency of Islamic State, has been encouraging returning jihadis and any angry or disaffected young men across the EU to launch lone wolf attacks on the European mainland.

Amaq incites the killing of ‘kuffars’ or non-believers across continental Europe, the United States and Russia – referred to as ‘Dar-al-Kuffar’ by Islamic State.  Specifically, the magazine of Islamic State – Dabiq, most recently re-branded as Al Rumiyah – urges jihadis to drive trucks and cars at ‘kuffars’ and their families.  IS also gives advice on the type of vehicles to be used in such attacks pointing out that double-wheeled vehicles are more effective at crushing the heads, limbs and torsos of non-believers.

The real tragedy

As Russian and US-backed forces close on Raqqa in the coming months, it is believed that the centre of gravity of Islamic State and other Islamist groups such as Al Nusra and Al Qaeda may shift to Libya and North Africa.  It is also believed that having been denied their battleground in Syria and Iraq, such terrorist groups will re-focus their attention on increasing terror attacks in Europe.   2017 is likely to see a continuation and rise in such horrific terror attacks in Europe.

The tragedy in all of this is the plight of the millions of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees who have been the principal victims of Islamist groups such as Islamic State.  Stateless, powerless and often homeless – they are now the focus of much hostile scrutiny in Europe and elsewhere by an emerging far-right dynamic that seizes on the actions of atypical lone wolf attackers to spread xenophobic messages about ethnic groups in general and Muslims in particular.

Ironically, this is also the aim of Islamic State – to foment civil strife and racism in Europe, to provoke conflict and a clash of cultures that would give momentum to their so-called global jihad.


Read more from Tom:

‘It is possible that the US and Russia may carve up Syria and Iraq between themselves’

What can we expect from President Trump’s defence policy? Working with Putin, for a start

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist,

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