London attacks and ‘DIY-Terrorism’ | Sunday Observer

London attacks and ‘DIY-Terrorism’

‘Not again!’- would have been the most likely reaction, when the world was hit with the news of a terrorist attack in London on June 3 that killed seven and injured 48. According to reports, a white van rammed pedestrians on London Bridge, and three men left the van and ran towards Borough Market and stabbed several while shouting “this is for Allah”. This was Britain’s third terrorist attack within a span of less than three months, all of which have been claimed by the Islamic State (IS). The suicide attack in Manchester still remain fresh in our minds, given that it took place only two weeks ago and was the most deadly incident in the UK since the 7/7 London bombings in 2005.

At this point however, the latest London attack has surpassed being a mere wake-up call to the local security establishment and to the world, because clearly, the extremist Islamist threat still continues to lurk well beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. This not only raises the question of efficacy of the British law enforcement and the intelligence community despite its protracted effort in counter-terrorism, but more importantly, highlights the outreach and the potency of the global IS propaganda it yields today.

Islamic State and ‘DIY-Terrorism’

IS is notorious for its ‘slick’ online strategy, and successfully exploits the online domain and various modern social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube) for propaganda and operational purposes. This has attracted a significant number of foreign fighters and ‘jihadi-brides’ to travel from all over the world to join the movement. Those who were unable to travel were given an alternative solution to become a proactive supporter of the outfit, by carrying out attacks in their home countries as ‘lone-wolves’. In this manner, IS effectively pioneered ‘crowd sourcing’ its jihadist movement.

It is pertinent to note here that most of IS-inspired attacks that took place in the West follow a striking trend: the preferred modus operandi is vehicle ramming and/or stabbing to death. Below are some notable examples:

April 2016: 86 were killed and 434 injured when a truck drove through a crowd on Bastille Day in Nice, France

July 2016: Two men took five people hostage at a church, and murdered an elderly priest by stabbing him in Normandy, France

November 2016: A university student ran his car into a group of students and slashed people with a butcher knife in Ohio, USA

December 2016: A large truck plowed through a market in Berlin, killing 12 and injuring 48

February 2017: A machete-wielding man attacked soldiers in Louvre Museum, Paris

March 2017: A man drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing 3, before stabbing a police officer to death

April 2017: A man hijacked a truck and rammed pedestrians, killing five in Stockholm, Sweden

While the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) was commonplace among the terrorists once upon a time, the change in preference of modus operandi today among IS-inspired terrorists is not without its reasons. First, vehicle-ramming attacks and stabbing are easy to plan and execute without scrutiny, and the weapons are legal to own and to operate. Second and more notably, these tactics have gained popularity over the years as Islamist groups advocated its operational advantages on several occasions.

In 2010, the second issue of an Al-Qaeda owned English online magazine Inspire, featured a three-paged piece headlined “The Ultimate Mowing Machine”. The article provides readers with basic instructions on how to select targets and which types of vehicle to use. An October 2016 issue of the IS’s Rumiyah online magazine focused on the benefits of knives to help potential terrorists, providing specific details as to the type of knives to use, the optimal scenario for a knife attack, and instructs where to aim when stabbing. The following issue of Rumiyah features the use of vehicle attacks, offering tips for maximum casualties and damage.

With the passage of time, Islamist groups have managed to inspire and guide its sympathizers by disseminating the practical knowhow of conducting attacks and encourage the use of the particular tactic as part of the also-called ‘Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Terrorism’- where anybody, regardless of age, race, geographic location, and background, could easily become a ‘solider of the Caliphate’ to execute attacks in the name of IS. The striking reality is that today, anybody is capable of becoming a terrorist without rigorous military training and organisational membership under a leader.

Why Sri Lanka should be worried

While notable IS attacks have been confined to the Western soil thus far, there are reasonable grounds for Sri Lanka to be apprehensive of this prevailing trend transpiring in the opposite side of the globe. Lest we forget that Islamist extremism and IS is not an entirely alien concept to Sri Lanka.

The 2007 Wikileaks exposed that Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka expressed concerns about growing Wahhabi presence in the East of the island, resulting in the rise of hardline Salafi groups inciting sectarian clashes.

Notably, a Sri Lankan member of IS was reportedly killed in Raqqa, Syria in a US-led coalition airstrike in July 2015. Issue 12 of IS English online magazine Dabiq dedicated a feature article of a Kandy-born Muhamad Muhsin Sharfaz Nilam, nom de guerre ‘Abu Shurayh asSilani’, as their martyr. Facebook has also shut down a once-active public page called the ‘Seylan Muslims in Shyaam’ (Sri Lankan Muslims in the Levant), urging Sri Lankans of all ethnic background to join the jihadist bandwagon.

In November 2016, the Sri Lankan government revealed that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims have travelled to join IS.

Although the authenticity of this statement has not been substantiated, given the existing reports, it is possible to deduce that IS already has had substantial outreach in Sri Lanka. At present, the threat assessment in this front remains unclear, at least at an open source level. Alarmingly, the recent reemergence of religious extremism and communal clashes and hate speeches in the country is enormously conducive for IS ideology to further gain its foothold and legitimize its rhetoric within the radicalised segment of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka.

While the country has been fortunate enough to not witness a single IS incident to date, it is crucial for the security establishment to remain vigilant to domestic IS sympathisers and potential attacks. Neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Philippines, and Indonesia have fallen victim to IS attacks, and it would be complacent to assume that Sri Lanka would be an exception to the rule. While the extremist ideology is imported from outside, those who will carry out attacks is ‘homegrown’ - our own people from our own soil. By examining the trends of IS attacks in the West, Sri Lanka has ample reasons to worry because the Islamist outfit has successfully marketed the ‘DIY Terrorism’ concept that transcends borders, evades scrutiny, and defies stereotypical attributes of a typical terrorist. Consequently, our enemy becomes more difficult to identify. Extremism unfortunately becomes an attractive alternative among the disgruntled population, and the ‘DIY’ aspect is attractive because it provides a sense of empowerment.

To this end, it is imperative that the Sri Lankan government formulates an all-encompassing national strategy and action plan for preventing and countering violent extremism. Broadly speaking, this would include enforcement of laws on hate speech and communal disharmony against all parties concerned; establishing community-based early warning system to monitor and report potential radicalisation and extremist activities; and to foster inter-communal dialogues and assimilation of communities by building a climate of co-existence.

It would merely be a matter of time that we witness an IS-inspired attack in our land, if Sri Lanka chooses to remain complacent to the prevailing threat landscape. Let us take this opportunity to increase awareness and vigilance, and take necessary precautionary steps to mitigate the potential menace.

(The writer is a post-doctoral researcher at School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). 

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