An effective trend in transnational terrorism is emerging. While not strictly new, its increasing adoption represents a break with an older model and one security services aren’t capable of defending against.
On July 25, a video was discovered of the Syrian refugee who detonated a bomb near a German festival, killing only himself but injuring a dozen others. A week prior, another video surfaced showing the 17-year-old axe attacker who injured more than 20 people on a train in Bavaria.
In both videos, as with many other attacks this year, the attackers pledged “allegiance” to the Islamic State (IS). The shooter in Florida who killed 50 last month phoned the local police department during his assault to make the same pledge. Other terrorists use social networking to display their affiliation.
What separates this emerging trend is the lack of any direct contact by the terrorist to core IS or jihadist operatives. While some of the recent attackers did indeed travel to IS or al qaeda-controlled regions, most had nothing to do with the groups before committing their acts.
To explain what is happening, the concept of “pledging allegiance” doesn’t help describe either the attraction of these seemingly isolated acts or their proliferation. These are not simply declarations of loyalty, they are expressions of fealty. Whatever al qaeda represented for the Muslim world, it did not approach the significance of what IS has created. And the concept of fealty to the Caliphate is transforming modern terrorism.
Fealty is a recycled medieval idea. It is a life-long, public and irreversible oath of loyalty from a vassal to a lord. It also referred to the duties incumbent upon a vassal that were owed to the lord, which consisted of service or aid, without specific direction or instruction from the lord. In a religious context, fealty promises salvation, absolution and redemption to the vassal.
In medieval Europe, fealty linked people across geography in a time before light-speed communications. Now, in the age of the internet, IS instructs its followers not to declare fealty until they commit the attack to avoid discovery by authorities. It also tells them not to request or search for support in planning, again to limit the threat of exposure.
For Muslims who believe in the validity of IS’ Caliphate, declaring fealty immediately accepts the believer into the group, cleanses their sins while opening the way to Paradise – all without having to travel. All the benefits of holy war can be gleaned by opening fire on a McDonalds in Bavaria, using a simple digital camera and uploading a file to Facebook.
And from the perspective of core IS, fealty supplies a perfect method of circumventing the heavily-centralised security and intelligence apparatus set up after 9/11. For past terrorism to function effectively, it needed communication and grooming to flow between terror operatives and their radicalised targets inside anarchist, Islamist or Marxist communities. With internet propaganda and declarations of fealty, this need for grooming is completely discarded.
So if there’s nothing to intercept, and potential jihadists do not breach the law and justify arrest, then security services are effectively useless. Without seriously rupturing social freedoms, free speech and enacting extraordinary measures of state power over the individual – none of which is possible in modern politics – security services are severely constrained.
In the context of this year’s attacks, it must be remembered that terrorism doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The idea of an isolated “lone wolf” is dangerously misleading. All terrorists are part of a social group. As with Marxists in the 20th century, radicalised individuals require some grand meaning to act. Yet today, spreading IS’ grand meaning among sympathetic Muslims is a way to create self-activating terrorists.
On the internet a person can be radicalised wherever they are, at any time, without obstacle. Try as they like to censor and disrupt Islamist communication channels, private companies and governments are fighting with both hands tied while on the internet – a communications tool specifically designed to thwart centralised control of messages.
Declaring fealty during or after an attack turns the terrorist act itself into a ritual of initiation. It is a public, online declaration of loyalty in which an individual connects both with the IS grand meaning and to a friendly social group. Promising forgiveness or washing away of sins – crucial for the mentally disturbed – anyone who truly believes can participate.
The most important lesson here for security services seems to be that a decentralised approach to domestic counterterrorism is needed, one which encourages all civilians to take some responsibility in their own security – although, tighter gun control in most developed countries will make this difficult. The other response is to recognise the impossibility of defeating the threat and concentrate on resiliency.
In other words, when (not if) terror attacks occur, the society targeted must absorb the act and respond without panic or retribution. Although given the nature of humans, this too may be wishful thinking. One thing is clear for this developing trend: more attacks are certain and security services will not be able to stop them.