Is this the future of Western al-Qaeda terrorism?
by Rohan Talbot
Yesterday, 21 year-old student Roshonara Choudhry was found guilty of attempting to kill former government minister Stephen Timms in a knife attack at his constituency surgery in East Ham, London. The attack, according to Roshonara herself, was an attempt to enact 'revenge' on Timms for voting for the Iraq war. What is intriguing about this case is that she appears to have acted alone, with no known links to extremist groups at home or abroad.
Both police and those close to Roshonara suggest that she underwent a process of 'self-radicalisation' after watching sermons by al-Qaeda-associated preacher Anwar al-Awlaki online. This seems to be part of a growing trend; last year saw an increase in these 'lone wolf' attacks: including failed 'pants-bomber' Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan and attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. There have reportedly also been attempts by al-Qaeda to encourage Mumbai-style attacks in European cities.
Such lone wolf attacks are not new to terrorism. Other movements and causes have seen individual acts of violence before, perhaps most dramatically with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by militia movement-sympathiser Timothy McVeigh. It is, however, a relatively new development in al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, which has typically been perpetrated by close-knit groups of individuals acting together.
These types of attacks are something that al-Qaeda and its affiliated factions are clearly eager to encourage. The most recent edition of 'Inspire' magazine – an English-language online magazine reportedly published by al-Qaeda – includes a section on what it terms 'open-source Jihad'. This section is a manual of ideas and suggestions on how to independently plan and carry out an individual terrorist attack. It even encourages avoidance of groups in order to maintain secrecy, suggesting 'If you are clean, stay clean. Avoid contact with Jihadi minded individuals.'
On one hand this clearly suggests that Western counter-terrorism initiatives, especially surveillance work, have been successful in making it difficult for groups of violent extremists to meet, plan and execute large-scale attacks. On the other hand however it raises the possibility of a future increase in smaller-scale, but less predictable, attacks from individuals sympathetic to the al-Qaeda cause.