After four successful terrorist attacks in Britain in as many months, people are naturally asking why the attacks happened, and what can be done to stop the next one. The quick succession of attacks provides an opportunity to detect patterns in the character of the attacks, the background of the terrorists and the analyses that followed.
In the hours after the attacks in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, and Finsbury Park, various issues were pointed to as the primary cause, from ideology to social and economic deprivation to western foreign policy. However, experts believe the search for a single or “root” cause is a mistake.
“There are many different core pathways of individuals into Islamist terrorism,” said Rashad Ali, a deradicalisation practitioner for the government’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism and Resident Senior Fellow at ISD. “It is neither all about ideology nor is it all about political and social factors. People don’t live in vacuums being indoctrinated but live in social environments where politics, social interaction and economics influence people’s attitudes and what will or won’t resonate in terms of extremist ideas.”
As the examples from this year show, there is also no single profile for a terrorist. Khalid Masood, the Westminster attacker, was a British-born convert to Islam with links to Islamists in Luton and a criminal past. He was older than most Islamist terrorists, at 52 years old. Manchester bomber Salman Abedi by contrast was just 22, and born in Britain to Libyan Muslim parents, with suspected links to jihadists in Libya.
Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba, two of the three London Bridge attackers, were members of the banned Salafi Jihadist group al-Muhajiroun, whose leader Anjem Choudary was jailed in September 2016 for inviting support for ISIS.
Butt was a British citizen born in Jahelum, Pakistan, while Zaghba was an Italian national born in Fez, Morocco. They and the third attacker, Rachid Redouane, lived in east London, home to 50 per cent of people convicted for Islamist-related offences between 1998 and 2015.
Finsbury Park attacker Darren Osborne is 47-year-old, British and not Muslim. He appears to have acted alone with no formal ties to extremist groups, though he reportedly followed the leaders of the extreme nationalist group Britain First on Twitter. His mental health background has also been investigated by police.
Far-right terrorists tend to be older men with little education who act alone, and usually have some links with extreme nationalist or neo-Nazi activism. Islamist terrorists tend to be younger men, and a report by Hannah Stuart for the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) on terrorism-related offences from 1998 to 2015 found “there is little correlation between involvement in terrorism and educational achievement and employment status”.
However, offenders tend to come from areas with “higher than average relative deprivation and Muslim population”, and that “offenders commonly consumed extremist and/or instructional material” produced by Salafi-Jihadists.
The means and targets of recent attacks are also instructive. The use of vehicles in the Westminster attack on March 22, London Bridge on June 3 and Finsbury Park on June 19 follow similar attacks in Nice and Berlin in 2016.
Al Qaeda and ISIS have long called for attacks using vehicles and knives by self-starters in their propaganda aimed at western recruits. Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-born US citizen and recruiter for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, launched the drive for “Open-Source Jihad” in the Al Qaeda magazine Inspire. Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen on 2011, but his message lives on and has been taken up by ISIS.
Masood’s attack in Westminster was both an indiscriminate attack on civilians and a targeted attack on a landmark and symbol of western democracy. He may have been hoping to get into Westminster Hall and attack members of parliament, roughly a year after neo-Nazi terrorist Thomas Mair assassinated Jo Cox MP in her constituency.
Abedi’s choice of target – a pop concert in Manchester – follows the Bataclan concert hall attack in Paris in November 2015, and the failed plot to blow up the Tiger Tiger nightclub near Piccadilly Circus in 2007.
The London Bridge attack was similar to the first stage of the Paris attack in targeting civilians outside bars and restaurants. The attack in Finsbury Park targeted Muslims with the same precision as the neo-Nazi David Copeland’s 1999 bombing of the Admiral Duncan gay bar in Soho, or the attack on a Kosher Deli in Paris in 2015 after the fatal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Targets and methods then tend to follow from the ideology of the terrorist and the propaganda they have embraced.
People responding to terrorism will naturally focus on their area of interest, be it ideology, socio-economics, mental illness, or foreign policy, and a division of labour might be a sensible compromise. However, the evidence shows that there is not a single cause of terrorism, and the real area of study ought to be the interplay between these factors.
Adam Barnett is a freelance journalist and former Staff Writer for Left Foot Forward. He has written for Private Eye, New Statesman, Little Atoms, Prospect, Dissent, Progress, Open Democracy, Politico, and the Independent.