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Islamist terrorism: the rise of the loners

March 5, 2011

The Guardian, 4 March 2011: So another attack, once again by a young, angry, Muslim man who according to prosecutors, has nothing to do with any broader organisation.

This could be the opportunity for another long discussion over whether al-Qaida is an ideology, a group, a social movement, a myth, a threat to the future of mankind etc – a debate that has been going on for over a decade and doesn’t look like being resolved soon. So instead, let’s look at what we know about Arid Uka, who apparently took out a pistol and shot dead two American soldiers on a bus at Frankfurt airport.

One: he is young, aged 21. Various studies have been done of militants over recent years in recent parts of the world. They have shown an average age that is slightly older than some expected – in the late 20s rather than the late teens – though this is an imprecise exercise. Either way, the age of Uka raises a question for those who have talked about Islamic militancy as a generational phenomenon. Which generation does Uka, who was 11 when the 9/11 attacks occurred, belong to? Is he the youngest of an older generation or the oldest of a young generation?

Second: Uka told police he was motivated by a video he saw on the internet that allegedly depicted US soldiers attacking an Afghan village and raping a girl. Continuity is always reassuring. Back in the late 1990s – and even the late 1980s – many active militants were radicalised after watching similar images from other conflicts on VHS video.

The internet allows greater accessibility but at the end of the day it’s the material (in this case almost certainly fabricated) that matters, not the medium. As someone at MI5 said to me in 2007: “It’s not what’s on the internet, it’s what’s on the 10 o’clock news that’s important.” Reportedly the head of the German police union, Rainer Wendt, has now called for 2,000 additional staff to monitor extremist websites. Monitoring who watches the evening bulletins will be harder, one imagines.

Third: Uka holds Serbian and Montenegrin nationalities, but grew up and was educated in Frankfurt. The number of people like Uka in Europe is, relatively speaking, negligible. Back in 2005 or 2006, after Madrid, 7/7, 21/7 and other scares, as well as the French riots and the cartoon crisis, many pundits, largely on the right, spoke of the threat of “European Muslims”, who number more than 20 million, rising in some kind of “intifada”. That never happened. All we’ve had in recent years, in part due to the work of the security services on the continent, have been occasional loners. A French Muslim community leader put it nicely a few years ago: “If we’d all been radicalised, it would be fairly obvious by now.”

Fourth: this was only one of a series of attacks which have resulted in death, or at the very least an explosion, in recent years that have been the work of loners. The bigger plots tend, it seems, to get unravelled by the authorities before they can come to fruition. Instead it is people like Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed an MP who’d backed the war in Iraq, who currently actually cause harm. Choudhry said she had acted totally alone because no one else would have understood her.

Fifth: Uka was amateurish. His weapon jammed otherwise he would have killed more. The amateurism has been a feature of attacks for some time. The young Pakistani-American who tried to attack Times Square with a big vehicle bomb in May last year set his timer wrong. The Nigerian who tried to bring down a jet over the US in December 2009 failed to get the device to work. The 21/7 bombers had the same problem. As did, happily, those who in 2007 tried to destroy a nightclub in central London.

Finally: Uka was opportunistic. Al-Qaida has always been able to turn the strengths of opponents into opportunities. Last week I listened to security experts from an American government programme at a university in California describe how unpredictability was the key to security, even when guarding airports. Uka, a random free element in the global structure of modern militancy, acted in an utterly chaotic fashion. “He said he had decided to perform this act when a chance came along,” Peter Brustmann, a senior Frankfurt police detective told reporters. “That was why he carried his weaponry with him.”

If unpredictability is the key to security, it is the key to successful terrorism too, as we learned nine and half years ago. The freer the element, the more chaotic its behaviour.

“That shouldn’t cause us to break out in panic. But carefree indifference was, is and will remain equally unjustified,” commented the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper in their editorial on the Frankfurt attack. Wise words.

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