By Greg Sheridan
March 25, 2017
So terror stalks London again. The lone wolf attacks Westminster Palace itself, the mother of parliaments, the home of democracy, and comes within a very short distance even of the location of Britain’s formidable Prime Minister Theresa May.
The response is heroic and as calm as it can be in the context of an attack whose dimensions could not be instantly known.
Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP who looks like any other dull, white-bread politician, ran towards the danger, just like the police, in an effort to help the dying policeman Keith Palmer. At least Palmer died in the arms of a countryman trying to help him.
It was another countryman, Khalid Masood, who had stabbed Palmer fatally. He had been born Adrian Elms and converted to Islam, and had once figured in MI5 terrorism investigations.
Both houses of the British parliament met the next day. Every civilised leader in the world — including, obviously, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten — expressed their solidarity with Britain. This solidarity came not least from Britain’s European partners, with which it has been squabbling over the terms of its exit from the EU.
Islamic State was quick to claim credit for the attack and to label Masood “a soldier of the caliphate”.
This attack has big consequences, perhaps even strategic consequences, and it grows directly out of the geostrategic conflict in the Middle East, which is clearly now entering a new phase.
First, it is important to realise that the attack could have been much, much worse. There was a good deal of luck involved in its relatively restricted dimensions.
What if Masood had rented a lorry or a big truck instead of a small, four-wheel-drive Hyundai? What if he had a comrade with him? What if they had been carrying guns rather than knives?
Even this, of course, is not all luck. Britain’s MI5 and its police forces are among the best counter-terrorist outfits in the world. The better your counter-terrorism operation, the more you invest in it, the more you are likely to have such luck.
The more organised terrorists talk to each other on the phone or via the internet, and the authorities intercept their communications, so it’s more likely that a relative loner, with less competence, is the one who gets through. The past two years have seen a radical increase in the number of lone-wolf Islamist terror attacks in Western societies, such as the truck attack in Nice on Bastille Day last year, which killed 86 and wounded 330.
Lone wolf is an imprecise term. It means generally the attack was carried out by a single person, but very few terrorists who later earn the lone wolf label have really been radicalised entirely on their own or undertaken their activities without any help.
But they are the opposite end of the spectrum from al-Qaida’s epochal September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, which were preceded by elaborate planning and co-ordination. So they are very hard to stop.
Lone wolves have several distinctive characteristics that make them potent as well as useful to Islamic State, but also vulnerable.
One, they are very cheap. They don’t cost their sponsors much money.
Two, they are very hard to detect.
Three, rather a large number of them have mental health problems — but that poses no difficulty for Islamic State when the actions required of them are so simple.
Four, they can be inspired or instructed. Whether directly instructed by Islamic State or just inspired by it, the group is justified in claiming responsibility for such attacks, however unpalatable it may be to admit that.
Lone wolf attacks give Islamic State great tactical flexibility. It can issue, as it has, a general call for sympathisers to carry out attacks in the West and expect to get some response, or it can in some measure co-ordinate attacks, arranging for them to occur on significant anniversaries — this London attack came one year after the Brussels attack — or to hit iconic and symbolically powerful targets.
Five, the runway to radicalisation can these days be very short. If a potential terrorist merely feels the rage, the lone wolf method allows him to express it immediately.
And six, the political effect of the lone wolf can be huge. Perhaps Donald Trump would not be President had it not been for the San Bernardino, Orlando and other attacks. This London attack must, within limits, strengthen Marine Le Pen’s chances in France.
And yet the rise of the lone wolf is also a sign of serious weakening in the Islamic State position. The lone wolf attack is typically a weapon of choice for a terrorist organisation that can no longer mount bigger and more sophisticated attacks. It is also a sign of Islamic State weakness in another sense.
For several years Islamic State emphasised its efforts in Syria and Iraq, and to a lesser extent in related theatres such as Libya, above all else. It wanted recruits to join it on the battlefield. Much of its prestige came from its shocking and swift battlefield victories and its ability to control substantial territory and a sizeable population for a long period of time.
It could claim to be the most successful terrorist group in the world. It had created a caliphate where it imposed its often bizarre, extremist and violent interpretation of the Koran on the subject population. It once had six to 10 million people under its control. It had attracted perhaps 30,000 people from more than 80 countries to join its Syrian and Iraqi adherents in battle.
But US estimates now are that about 45,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed in Iraq and Syria over the past two years. It has lost two-thirds of the territory it once held in Iraq. It seems a matter of months now — inevitably with terrible and bitter fighting to come — before it loses its biggest centre in Iraq, Mosul, and its Syrian prize, the city of Raqqa, long the Islamic State headquarters.
It cannot any longer get foreigners to the battlefield. Twitter and Facebook have heeded the calls of Western governments to delete accounts that they know are linked to Islamic State. So while the latter’s internet effort remains slick and dangerous, it reaches fewer people.
But Islamic State still needs to hit its enemies and show that it can conduct operations. So it has repeatedly urged its followers and sympathisers to take direct action in the West, to become lone wolves. Inevitably, there will be a good deal more of this — and there is every chance it will happen again in Australia.
The territorial defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa is undoubtedly a victory in the war against terror. But we have had a lot of victories like this in the past and yet the overall terrorist challenge has continued to metastasise. Al-Qaida and the Taliban were decisively defeated in Afghanistan. Then we got al-Qaida in Iraq. Then al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Then Islamic State and a whole raft of terror groups in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia, inspired by and pledging loyalty to Islamic State. Operational success has not led to strategic success.
In a sense, conventional military victory over a conventionally organised military opponent is the sort of thing the West should always be able to achieve in the Middle East, although a striking feature of the most recent developments is that Iran and Russia have been more important than the West in bringing about the battlefield defeat of Islamic State.
What Will Happen Next?
What will a post-caliphate, and perhaps even a post-Islamic State Middle East look like, and what will US strategy be?
It’s very unlikely that Islamic State will simply go out of business. It will adapt, probably to become a version of the old al-Qa’ida-style organisation. It holds some territory in Libya. It might find havens in other places. It will likely emphasise ever more intense violence against soft targets in the West.
It would like to operate in Afghanistan. But it has been mostly chased out by the Taliban and al-Qaida. Mark that. It has not been chased out by the West, nor even predominantly by the Afghan government, but by the Taliban and al-Qaida.
After 1½ decades of heroic US-led Western efforts in Afghanistan — that have involved expending blood and treasure, providing training and aid, a spending billions upon billions of dollars — a good deal of Afghanistan is once more under the influence of the Taliban, which has never altogether renounced its alliance with al-Qaida.
And here is one strand of what a post-Islamic State world might look like. We could see a significant resurgence of al-Qaida. The Syrian terror group affiliated with al-Qaida is al-Nusra Front. It has changed its name several times and absorbed some smaller groups. It has declared its independence from al-Qaida, though most analysts don’t believe this. After the decisive defeat of Islamic State, this group may become the biggest and most powerful Sunni jihadist faction in Syria.
There are other fundamental dynamics at work that are alarming in the long term. The Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria are utterly un-reconciled. In Iraq they are a minority that formerly ruled the country and is now in some measure oppressed by the Shia majority. In Syria the Sunnis are the majority but have always been marginalised by the Shia-related Alawite regime presided over by the Assad family.
The pre-9/11 and pre-Arab Spring Middle East order kept these populations docile because they ruled in Iraq and were ruthlessly kept in their place in Syria. Now they have been through years of continuous warfare and upheaval. Without a new order in those countries that somehow or the other squares the situation of the Sunnis, there will be a new insurgency that will almost inevitably assume a militantly Islamist character, to succeed Islamic State, just as Islamic State succeeded al-Qa’ida in Iraq.
Further, we don’t know what the long-term strategic and even terrorist ambitions of Iran might be in Syria. The Iranians will want hegemony in a Syria where they have restored Alawite rule. This could bring them into military conflict with Israel. It could also see them sponsor their own brand of terrorism internationally, as they have done in the past.
The catastrophic loss of US influence in the Middle East, which occurred under Barack Obama, and which has seen a proliferation of external actors supporting different proxies, makes a stable order hard to envisage.
And finally, for all his extremely tough rhetoric and militant tendencies, Donald Trump is likely to adopt ultimately something like the strategy Obama was groping towards, and that is one of empowering and assisting local allies and proxies rather than embarking on massive US efforts aimed at a military victory and then a political transformation.
Islamic State’s defeat is a positive, but terrorism, especially of the kind we have just seen in London, will persist for a very long time.