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The dispiriting news feels like it’s coming in a torrent. Canada suffers two terrorist attacks in a week. Another attack in New York, this one with an axe, wounds two police officers before the attacker is shot dead. Immediately you recall the Melbourne case of Abdul Numan Haider, whose weapon of choice was a knife, but whose story had the same ending. Meanwhile, a Sydney teenager plays a starring role in two ISIL propaganda videos in a fortnight, while the man who apparently groomed and recruited him, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, is now very likely dead. This, you might feel, is encouraging until you consider that his symbolic pull is likely only to increase as a result of his “martyrdom”.
But pause for a moment and you notice something about this picture. We’re a long way from all the talk of dirty bombs and nuclear weapons of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era. We’re nowhere near planes smashing into skyscrapers. We’re not even in the neighborhood of bombs being detonated on buses and underground trains, or in nightclubs. This stuff is galling and tragic. It occasions the same public grieving and ceremony, but we’re talking about something qualitatively different, here.
For the moment at least, mass-casualty terrorism is off the agenda. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run over him with your car,” urged ISIL last month as it called upon Muslims to kill random Westerners. There’s a kind of desperate crudeness, here: one that seems to have lowered its horizons. Today it’s about low-casualty, mass-impact terrorism. But that impact is far more psychological than it is material.
The point is not to dismiss this as trivial. It’s serious, not least because it’s clear that a few people have acted on ISIL’s instructions. It’s serious because, while mass-casualty attacks are clearly more devastating, they’re also much harder to pull off. Rather, the point is to note that something has changed. Terrorism is evolving. And so are the terrorists.
You see, they’re dickheads now. David Leyonhjelm’s description is a disarming one because it recasts these people as self-aggrandizing amateurs. There’s more than an element of truth to this. Zale Thompson’s axe-wielding attack in New York lasted a mere seven seconds before he was shot. He was, by all accounts, an unemployed loner with a record of multiple arrests.
In Canada, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was living in a homeless shelter before he decided to open fire on the Parliament Building. This was a man with a crack cocaine habit, a suite of drug possession and theft episodes, and a history of mental illness. In this respect his story isn’t so far from Baryalei’s, which has more to do with cocaine, gambling and Kings Cross strip clubs than it does with advanced explosives training and a piercing political manifesto. He, too, has a history of mental illness, much like Khaled Sharrouf, who so infamously tweeted a picture of his son holding a severed head, and who was also diagnosed with schizophrenia.
This isn’t the way terrorism has tended to work. For all our knee-jerk descriptions of terrorists as mad, psychopathic or otherwise psychologically disturbed, decades of research has now demonstrated the opposite: that despite their clearly abnormal behavior, terrorists are overwhelmingly sane and psychologically normal. Nor have they tended to be antisocial loners. Terrorism has almost always been a group activity, carried out in cells that have strong bonds of solidarity between members. Certainly there have been “lone wolves” in history – some of them, such as the Unabomber, suffering from mental illness – but these have been exceptions to a well established rule.
But ISIL is playing by different rules. Its reach amongst Westerners is clearly skewed towards converts and born-again Muslims, often with troubled pasts. It tends not to appeal as much to those with long-held, well established religious commitments. That’s because ISIL isn’t merely offering an ideology. Like all fundamentalisms, it’s offering an identity: a chance for people to re-imagine themselves and restart their lives by turning their back in the most radical fashion on everything they’ve left behind. What better way to prove you’re free from the yoke of sin and drugs and sleaze than quite literally to take up arms against them? It’s not just the violence. It’s the illusion of purity and self-sacrifice that goes with it that is attractive.
This is particularly potent in an online era. It is precisely the fact that ISIL is so devastatingly effective online that means it doesn’t have to rely on the kind of group solidarity that has typically held terrorism together. This opens terrorism to people who previously would have been a liability. Someone who is mentally unstable or struggles to work with others is wholly unsuited to the kind of careful, secret planning that is so fundamental to professional terrorism. But no such concern applies when you’re trying to unleash the kind of rudimentary, randomized mayhem ISIL is. Suddenly the lone wolf, which was once an odd curiosity, is an emerging trend that sits near the top of the list of every Western security agency’s worries.
Those agencies will respond with what they know: increased hard power. It’s why we’re so attracted to more counter terrorism laws and military intervention. We have this intuitive understanding that these things work. And sometimes, in the short term, they do.
But at some point we’ll have to recognise that even as we chalk up successes like killing senior terrorist figures, the problem only seems to grow. Who’d have thought 10 years ago that we’d be raising the terror threat level to its highest point in our history after Osama bin Laden had been killed?
That happens because we’re dealing with something that is deeply, irrevocably social. Eradicating it therefore becomes as complex as eradicating any social disease. Truth is we’ve never figured out how to solve those. We can’t stop drug use. We can’t stop disaffection. We can’t stop alienation. Not entirely, anyway. And perhaps we can’t eradicate radicalisation, either, at least until the whole ghastly experiment of militant Islamism collapses under the weight of its nihilistic contradictions. But in the meantime, it won’t be crushed by our sledgehammers.