A woman has shown to the Muslim nation’s men the path of jihad”, the al Qaeda magazine Inspire wrote in the summer of 2010, after Bangladeshi-origin Roshonara Choudhry plunged a knife into Member of Parliament Stephen Timms to avenge the United Kingdom’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A woman, my brothers,” the magazine wrote, “Shame on all the men!” The tragic terrorist attack in London on Wednesday has demonstrated, if evidence was needed, that life remains in the political impulses represented by those words. Though terrorist groups have not succeeded in staging a major organised attack on the West since the strike on Brussels a year ago, their supporters have staged a steady war of attrition, carried out by knife, vehicle or whatever other means are at hand. This is, notably, a global tendency. Last month, an Islamic State-inspired cell bombed a train in Madhya Pradesh, following up on a murder and a botched attempt to bomb a rally held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October. The al Qaeda-inspired Base Movement, similarly, sought to target judges trying terrorism-related cases in southern India.
These kinds of attackers are sometimes referred to as “lone wolves” — a term that inhibits understanding of, and engagement with, the phenomenon. Each act of violence, first, exists within an eco-system, made up of everything from propaganda to ideas on how acts of terrorism might be waged. Then — and arguably more importantly — the individual terrorist sees herself or himself as an agent of a political idea. Terrorists like the London attacker know that their violence, trivial in the grand scheme of things, will not create a caliphate, or subjugate their enemies. Their political project is to engineer a backlash which severs Muslims from the wider community, and thus give their cause the legitimacy and mass base it now does not enjoy.
Fixated as the world is by the barbarism of terrorist violence, we risk losing sight of this wider aim. Barbarism, it is forgotten, is not a jihadist invention; till the 1980s, after all, the United Kingdom’s pubs were being bombed by Irish nationalists, seeking to force their adversary to the negotiating table through terror against civilians. To demonise entire Muslim populations, as Europe’s resurgent Right is doing, will gift jihadists something their bombs and knives have failed in winning them. That is the outcome that must be avoided. Intelligence and policing are key weapons to win this long war — but so are calm, clear minds.