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When everyday items become terror weapons

Last Wednesday, Adrian Elms alias Khalid Masood, a 52-year- old British convert to Islam, drove his rented Hyundai 4x4 at high speed onto the pavement of Westminster Bridge in London, mowing down terrified pedestrians, killing three of them in the process. A fourth victim later died in hospital.

When everyday items become terror weapons

People paying tribute to victims of a terror attack after a truck ran into a crowd, killing and injuring scores, who were celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, on July 15, last year. Photo: Reuters

Last Wednesday, Adrian Elms alias Khalid Masood, a 52-year- old British convert to Islam, drove his rented Hyundai 4x4 at high speed onto the pavement of Westminster Bridge in London, mowing down terrified pedestrians, killing three of them in the process. A fourth victim later died in hospital.

Masood crashed his vehicle into the perimeter fence surrounding Westminster Palace, emerged with two large knives and entered the British Parliament grounds where he stabbed a police officer to death before being shot dead by other on-site security personnel.

The self-styled Islamic State (IS), through its Amaq News Agency, eventually claimed responsibility for the attack, calling Masood a “soldier of the caliphate” and claiming that he had “carried out the operation in response to calls to target citizens of the coalition”.

Latest reports nevertheless appear to challenge the early consensus that IS had a direct influence on the attack. Instead, the latest police investigations suggest that Masood may have merely copied IS philosophy and methods only. Nevertheless, what seems clear is that like IS, Masood clearly “had an interest in jihad”.

Hence, whatever the intensity of the IS association, what seems evident is that Masood represented the so-called “lone wolf” terrorist somewhat inspired to act by the example of an organised terrorist network, whose ideology he had bought into to a degree.

In particular, the mode of Masood’s action — a vehicle-ramming attack, sometimes accompanied by an on-foot gun and/or knife assault — appears to be in the process of becoming a trademark of IS and its lone wolf copycats.

On July 14, last year, for example, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhel, a Tunisian who was resident in France, drove a 19-tonne cargo truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, killing 86 people and maiming 484 others, before being shot dead in an exchange of gunfire with police.

As in the latest London incident, IS claimed responsibility for the Nice attack, saying that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had answered its “calls to target citizens of coalition nations that fight the Islamic State”.

Some observers argue that the latest apparent shift in IS tactics is born out of necessity. As the United States and the Russian-led coalition continue to put the squeeze militarily on IS positions in Iraq and Syria, the IS leadership may be expected to take the strategic decision to begin preparations for a shift from a territorially-based entity to a global insurgency.

That is, instead of being physically concentrated around Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, the IS meme will be kept alive in the form of what Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey has called a “terrorist diaspora” — where thousands of foreign fighters will ultimately fan outwards from the Middle East, heading back towards Europe, Africa, as well as East Asia and even South-east Asia.

One operational consequence of this strategic shift would be that complex, multiple-assault type actions like the devastating attacks on Paris in November 2015, which were basically coordinated from IS Central, will become less likely.

While returning foreign fighters may tap local black markets to secure the weapons needed for fairly sophisticated attacks, tightened security measures in the wake of Paris and Brussels may make that option less appealing.

Hence, relatively low-tech measures — like what we witnessed in London — may make more tactical sense. Worse, one need not even be a trained fighter to perpetrate such low-tech attacks — merely a fanatical lone wolf-type commitment to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) creed would do. This is why the Soufan Group has warned of the “weaponisation of everyday life” — as exemplified by the use of cars, trucks and knives for terrorist purposes — as a dangerous emerging trend.

Reinforcing such an operational trend is the fact that IS and its Al Qaeda cousins have long prepared themselves doctrinally for such a shift towards decentralised action by a mix of trained local cells and lone wolves.

In the mid-2000s, the Syrian Al Qaedaist ideologue Abu Musab Al-Suri had famously argued against centralised direction from the core Al Qaeda leadership, favouring instead action by independent small cells acting on their own initiative to exploit local opportunities to strike at enemies.

Furthermore, capitalising on the rise of social media platforms in the mid-2000s, organs such as the online English magazine Inspire, the brainchild of the late “bin Laden of the Internet”, Anwar al-Awlaki, the chief ideologue for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, promoted lone wolf action, calling on supporters to “do your own terrorism and stay in place”.

In 2010, Inspire urged followers to choose “pedestrian only’’ locations and make sure to gain speed before ramming their vehicles into the crowd in order to ‘‘achieve maximum carnage’’.

Hence, when the late Isis spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on Isis supporters worldwide in September 2014 to “single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies”, and among other things, “slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car”, he was really stating nothing new.

What we witnessed in London last week was always going to be part of the IS terror toolkit. We are likely, however, to see more of such low-tech attacks.

Even the most casual observer will recognise that the densely populated urban city-state of Singapore is not immune to the type of low-tech attack London just experienced.

While physical measures like concrete barriers and bollards are certainly part of the defence against such threats, they are insufficient.

This is where the recently launched SGSecure national movement with its emphasis on promoting community cohesion, vigilance and resilience is timely.

At one level, the wider community must be prepared to know what to do in an emergency, and act as the security forces’ extra eyes and ears to detect suspicious activity suggesting terrorist incidents are about to occur.

At a second level, being aware of telltale signs of radicalisation into violent extremism on the part of family members, friends and colleagues, is equally important to enable early intervention to prevent a vulnerable individual from acting out any lone wolf terrorist fantasies.

At a third and final level, security forces, no matter how well-trained, cannot be everywhere at once.

Hence, perhaps the call in some quarters for suitable and willing able-bodied members of the public to volunteer for training in self-defence techniques may be worth further exploration.

After all, there have been low-tech terrorist incidents overseas where alert and courageous members of the public collectively disarmed lightly armed individual attackers before help arrived.

If Singaporeans can demonstrably live up to the moniker of “Lion City”, a layer of psychological deterrence may well be added to the SGSecure mix, further enhancing our nation’s security in the face of the emerging low-tech “weaponisation of everyday life”.


Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor, Head of Policy Studies and Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme in the Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This is adapted from an earlier piece in RSIS Commentary.

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