A machete attack in New York’s Times Square. A stabbing at the Gare du Nord in Paris. A foiled plot in Germany. A shooting in Spain. It’s still only January, but 2023 has already made it clear: the jihadist threat is far from over.
With so much media focus on white supremacist violence these past few years, some might wonder if Islamist violence continues to endanger Western cultures, or whether the fall of the Islamic State signaled a slow but inevitable end. But while Islamist attacks have decreased significantly in the post-ISIS era, several experts caution this is not a time to grow complacent.
Indeed, jihadism scholar Gilles Kepel points to an emerging “post-IS generation” in Europe that “combines two dimensions: terrorist attacks by individuals influenced by online ‘entrepreneurs of hatred’ who vilify specific targets, and the flourishing of a separatism culture on social networks that aims at a clear break with ‘kuffar’ (infidels) in the name of Salafism, and prepares the ground to seed further violence.”
Others, including Shiraz Maher, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, warn that ISIS may well see a resurgence in the next year, with the possibility that thousands of foreign fighters now in Syrian detention camps could escape — creating what he called the “single greatest security threat to the West.”
Added to this is the number of European ISIS fighters repatriated in recent years whose prison sentences are coming to an end, even as counter-terrorism agencies face the growing threat from the far right, taxing their already-stretched resources. All of which may be why Colin P. Clarke, a Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute, recently declared that “for terrorism and counterterrorism analysts, 2023 will be among the most unpredictable years in recent memory.”
Certainly, the NYPD were not expecting a young Muslim convert to go on a rampage against them as they stood guard over the New Year’s Eve Times Square festivities, an international landmark event celebrated even across time zones and oceans. But Trevor Bickford was there, having traveled from Maine with that one purpose. “I wanted to kill an officer in uniform,” he later told investigators.
Almost as if it had been a signal, the event spearheaded a string of attacks, threats, and other jihadist activity to get the New Year started: on Jan. 8, thanks to a tip from US intelligence, German authorities arrested two Iranian brothers on suspicions that they planned to acquire significant amounts of ricin and cyanide to kill “an unspecified number of people,” according to Deutsche Welle.
Three days later, an Algerian man living illegally in France went on a stabbing spree at Paris’ main international train station, the Gare du Nord. Using a homemade weapon fashioned from a sharpened metal hook, the assailant injured seven people before being shot by police and taken into custody.
It didn’t stop there. On Jan. 14, another man, identified only as a “thirty-one-year-old Kosovar refugee,” attacked random passersby on a sidewalk in Strasbourg, including a woman walking with her two young children, and an off-duty policeman, who quickly managed to restrain him. According to media reports, the suspect chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) while being arrested, and advised the officers that “you will burn in hell for what you have done in Palestine.”
Two additional attacks shook European communities last week. On Jan. 25, a “man of Palestinian origin” stabbed nine passengers on a train traveling between Hamburg and Kiel, Germany, killing two teenagers. German authorities later stated the suspect did not seem to have a terrorist background, but did not rule out terrorism as a motive.
A day later, a Moroccan man due to be deported from Spain entered two churches in Algeciras carrying a machete, which he used to stab the priest of one church, injuring him severely, and to kill the sexton of another. The attacker also had no apparent history of terrorist convictions, but unlike their German counterparts, Spanish authorities nonetheless determined to charge him with terrorism for the killings, according to police.
Meantime, in the UK, Paul Stott of the Centre for Radicalization and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society who, like Maher, has cautioned against a “possible resurgence” of ISIS, believes that the focus of efforts on extremism from the far right may cause authorities to miss signals of an imminent jihadist attack.
Other European counter-terrorism experts further warn that European Islamists who returned after fighting with ISIS are finishing out their prison sentences. Not only are they a danger, but, according to a report from Dutch intelligence agency AIVD, many are believed to have recruited others to their cause while in prison, expanding the reach of local terror cells. Others, the AIVD says, have banded together to form new networks after their release.
What’s more, the AIVD notes that many have learned to hide their extremism from de-radicalization workers and law enforcement, making it a point to exhibit more “socially acceptable” behavior in order to manipulate reduced sentences. Women, according to the agency, are especially likely to play such games in order to be allowed to reunite with their children after their release. Yet many returnees, having successfully duped the authorities during their detention, have gone on to take part in terrorist attacks after their release. That was the case, for instance, with several of the jihadists who took part in the multiple Nov. 13, 2015, Paris attacks.
Notably, weeks after the Paris and Strasbourg attacks, authorities have yet to pronounce either an act of terrorism. Both assailants have been diagnosed since their arrests as being “psychologically unstable.” That tendency to conflate “mental illness” with terrorism, ascribing violent, religiously motivated attacks to “mental illness,” regardless of actual intent, has created a growing dilemma for counter-terrorism officials and experts. In truth, the line between mental illness and terrorism isn’t always clear: as former director of the NYPD intelligence department Mitch Silber told The New York Times in 2018, a terrorist attack “can be a bit of both.”
Moreover, ISIS and other groups specifically target people who show signs of psychological problems for recruitment. As The New York Times reported, “some of the best-known attacks linked to [ISIS] have been carried out by assailants, who, at a minimum, displayed symptoms of mental distress.”
But according to a 2016 study by the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, mental illness is rarely, if ever, behind the motivation for Islamist attacks. “The fact is that confirmed diagnoses in recent cases remain few and far between,” wrote study authors Emily Corner and Paul Gill. “… Just because a factor (such as mental disorder) was present, does not make it causal. Nor does it necessarily make it facilitative. It may be completely irrelevant.”
Yet, they report, in many instances, “when confirmed diagnoses were present, there was a tendency to try dismiss the possibility of terrorism altogether.” Whether this is the case in the two recent attacks in France remains to be seen. But what is clear, both in those cases and others, is that the growing trend of dismissing terrorist activity as “mental illness” may be giving us a skewed picture of the number of attacks that are actually taking place, and the number of “lone actors” in our midst.
True, as we watch the new year unfold with a wave of Islamist violence across the globe — consider the Palestinian attacks on Israel over the weekend — it may make us feel better about the threat. But it doesn’t make it go away.
Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.
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Author: Abigail R. Esman
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