We must all join the search for dangerous misfits

Individuals take any of a number of paths to terrorism while the inspiration and motivations remain the same, writes Colin Randall

Police officers carry a single flower on Westminster Bridge during a vigil to remember the victims of last week's Westminster terrorist attack in London. Carl Court / Getty Images
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The Westminster killer Khalid Masood, who began life as Adrian Russell Elms, had no known links with ISIL or Al Qaeda, according to British police.

At first glance, this may seem at odds with the ISIL’s admission of responsibility. An online communique, dressed up in now familiar if squalid terminology, described Masood as a “soldier of Islam” responding to exhortations to kill citizens of the United States-led coalition fighting it in Iraq and Syria.

In fact, there is no inconsistency. ISIL has been driven to adopt developing methodology by the growing difficulty of directing, from the Middle East, teams of terrorists on foreign missions.

In this respect, the Paris and Brussels attacks of 2015 and 2016, drawing on members of essentially the same Franco-Belgian network, were exceptions. After Paris, the French president Francois Hollande spoke of acts “decided and planned in Syria, prepared and organised in Belgium, perpetrated on our soil with French complicity”.

This is a far cry from the lonely last gesture of Masood, apparently unaided when he drove at speed across Westminster Bridge on March 22, killing three pedestrians before stabbing to death a policeman and being shot dead outside parliament.

British police discourage calling attackers without identifiable support systems “lone wolves”. In part, this stems from a reluctance to allow a catchy phrase to apply a glamorous veneer to ugly criminality. They, and many institutional analysts, regard “lone actor” as more appropriate.

But individuals take any of a number of paths to terrorism and the inspiration and motivations remain the same.

One man actively seeks participation, or is recruited, through contacts online, in peer groups, at mosques with reputations for radicalisation or in prison. Another may simply choose to answer ISIL’s calls for freelance attacks knowing responsibility will, in any case, be assumed by ISIL as if the operation had been masterminded in Raqqa.

This reflects a grudging recognition of the successes of intelligence services in dismantling structured cells before they can pass from intent to action. But it also brings alarming new dangers, especially when there is no history of radical behaviour or, as with Masood, only suspicion of “peripheral” past links.

Masood was a thug with a taste for knives but had not been in trouble since 2003 and might have been supposed, at 52, to have settled into less aggressive ways. The Nice “Bastille Night” attacker Mohamed Louaiej-Bouhlel was a petty offender with no reported interest in extremism; indeed, he went on drinking sprees and showed little attachment to religion. Anis Amri, who drove a lorry into crowds at the Berlin Christmas market in December, had more obvious terrorist connections but was also a violent drinker and drug-dealer. Ziyed Ben Belgacem had consumed a cocktail or drugs and alcohol before the recent attack that led to him being shot dead at Paris’s Orly airport.

While some would-be terrorists will always gang together hoping to commit high-casualty attacks, there is now ample reason to expect and guard against smaller-scale, relatively unsophisticated incidents. Most terrorism in the West is perpetrated by individuals known to the authorities, but ISIL is perfectly content to embrace opportunist acts by criminals with no past involvement and no real knowledge of Islam.

Such a misfit, especially such a fanatical convert as Masood, may be harder to spot. But while law-abiding Muslims should never feel obliged to accept collective but irrational blame for revolting crimes of which they are often victims too, they do have one absolute requirement of civic responsibility. They must be alert to, and willing to report, the least sign of extremism among those they encounter in everyday life.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National