AN apparent terrorist attack outside the British Parliament last week shook Europe again. The London attack is the latest in a series of terrorist atrocities involving a vehicle being driven at speed into pedestrians, a tactic introduced in the terror attack in Nice.
No sophisticated weapon was involved, but the attack was still intensely frightening and symbolic at the same time, hitting the very area that signifies the democratic values of the West.
This time, it came almost one year after suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and a Metro station in Belgium, which, on March 22, 2016, left 32 people dead and more than 300 injured.
In addition to London and Brussels, there were deadly attacks in Berlin on Dec 19, 2016 (killing 12 people), Nice on July 14, 2016 (killing more than 80 people), and Paris on Nov 13, 2015 (killing more than 130 people).
The last major London attack was more than a decade ago, in July 2005, when a coordinated series of bomb blasts targeted its public transportation system during rush hour. It killed 52 people and wounded more than 700 others.
British police named the assailant as Khalid Masood, 52. He was born in Kent, to the southeast of London. More worryingly, Masood was once investigated by intelligence officers over concerns of “violent extremism”.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Although IS is likely to ride on this atrocity, there is no direct evidence to suggest that the militant group directly commissioned or facilitated the attack.
Experts claimed in an event “when IS has not directly ordered an attack, it performs a vetting process which includes a background check to see if the person involved has been in contact with IS members in one way or another”.
Normally, IS atrocities are carried out in “response to calls to target citizens of coalition countries”, such as those in Europe, the United States, Australia and other countries supporting military operations against its fighters.
One of its aims is to “hit the headlines”, provoke an overreaction directed against Muslim communities and states, and blaze anti-Islam sentiments that will isolate more Muslims to join the group.
The US-led coalition has conducted more than 19,000 air strikes on IS targets, with officials saying the bombings had killed tens of thousands of fighters and about 180 leaders, as well as disabling oil fields, destroying ammunition, factories, weapons facilities, command posts and cash stores. Most of those who fight to the death are likely to be foreign fighters, including Muslim Moroccans, Tunisians and Chechens.
While the battle against IS is far from over, the lines of this hard battle are slowly being redrawn.
As the militant group is driven away from key cities and villages in what was once a self-proclaimed caliphate, IS is evolving slowly but surely from a territorial threat to an ideological threat.
However, a threat remains a threat even without geographical influence. While IS is being challenged in Syria and Iraq, the group’s strategy has switched to insurgency mode.
Large-scale bombs and gun attacks seen in Paris and Brussels had been made far more difficult by security crackdowns across Europe.
IS is likely to strike back by exploiting returning foreign fighters to carry out or organise further attacks, with at least 400 jihadis believed to have travelled back to the UK from IS territory.
The group will try to use migrant routes and often will travel alone.
The travel patterns of those involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks uncovered deep flaws in the tracking system of such individuals among European security services.
These foreign fighters who return home might carry out lonewolf style attacks as well as recruit new members and revive underground networks.
The London attack suggests a limited IS network in Britain. Jihadis are using vehicles to commit atrocities as military defeats degrade their ability to mount anything more ambitious. Vehicles, axes and home knives are potential weapons in which nothing is too humble for the group as long as terror remains a headline.
Moreover, these attacks might be carried out by individuals with little understanding of IS ideology and deep personal grudges with no direct contact with the group’s hierarchy. However, a “strike” that makes headlines would not prevent IS from declaring the perpetrators as “soldiers of the Caliphate”.
While IS has lost its geographical grounds, it continues to piggyback on anything that is mildly inspiring to claim that it has made a comeback and is ready to strike again.
Dr Paridah Abd Samad, a Fulbright scholar and Japan Institute of International Affairs fellow, is a former lecturer of UiTM (Shah Alam) and International Islamic University Malaysia (Gombak)