Terror Has Gone Low-Tech
The Catalonia attacks are a case study in the future of violent extremism. Governments need to figure out how to respond.
(Re-published from Foreign Policy | Oct. 2, 2017) After the fifth low-tech terrorist attack this year alone in the U.K. — not to mention a spate of attacks across Europe since 2014, and earlier — it is time for governments to reevaluate their approach. At the core of this self-assessment should be a simple recognition, which itself requires separating facts from appearances when it comes to terrorism.
Terrorist attacks in Europe have occurred at such a pace in the last few months that we are in danger of treating them as the new normal. No sooner had the attack on Barcelona’s La Rambla district disappeared from the headlines than the Parsons Green London tube station was targeted in an improvised explosive device attack claimed by the Islamic State. Worse, without time to pause, analyze the case facts, or think strategically, law enforcement across Europe and elsewhere run the risk of getting stuck in a reactive rather than proactive stance.
Yet careful analysis exposes common themes across these attacks, which are useful in a strategic response to the hard-to-predict acts of low-tech terror. Although this analysis will focus on the brotherly ties that many analysts missed in the recent Barcelona terror attacks, readers will readily see elements echoed in Parsons Green, in other recent U.K. attacks (Westminster, London Bridge, and Manchester), and beyond. In many cases, the attackers’ networks were held together by family ties. The suspects in Parsons Green, for instance, were foster brothers, young men with recent immigrant backgrounds, who used low-tech terror tactics in busy, unguarded public places; and they appear to have responded to calls from a parent terror organization (in the case of London, by Inspire, an al Qaeda magazine) to attack trains.
The ties that bind
In the three incidents associated with the recent August Barcelona terror attacks, nine of the 12 attackers were brothers. Only leader Abdelbaki Es Satty and two additional recruits, Mohamed Houli Chemlal and Salh El Karib, did not possess family ties in the group. The operatives were young (with the exception of Es Satty) and shared Moroccan nationality or heritage. This kinship element was often glossed over in discussions of the Catalonia attacks, as well as others in which cell members were often related in other ways (for examples, cousins, via families in marriage, etc.).
Although undertheorized, the subject of kinship in terrorism research reveals the utility of social network theory in underscoring how interpersonal relationships — the ties that bind — structure both groups and commitment levels. In low-tech terror attacks in Belgium, France, the U.K., and elsewhere, these bonds — literal or constructed — help operationalize “brothers in arms” willing to sacrifice themselves for transcendent aims. (Literal bonds involve biological, kinship relations in families, brothers and cousins, while constructed bonds involve the close friendships.)
So what role can identifying kinship ties play in government responses to repeated low-tech terrorist attacks, and can it help to deter such attacks?
Catalonia: the facts and the suspects
Any discussion of preventive and countermeasures must begin with case facts and to contemplate the details of this now familiar style of low-tech, small-cell attack in urban settings. The Aug. 17, 2017, La Rambla van attack was executed by an Islamic State cell and involved three related incidents, all linked back to a central figure, Es Satty. He was incarcerated between 2010 and 2014 for drug smuggling from North Africa, had established ties with al Qaeda jihadis from the 2004 train attack, and successfully appealed his deportation order in 2015 after his release from prison. He was also the subject of recent Belgian intelligence warnings to Catalan authorities.
The Alcanar explosion: The night before the Barcelona attack — Wednesday, Aug. 16 — in the town of Alcanar, several members of the Islamic State cell accidentally blew up their house, killing two members: Es Satty, who rented a room in the house, and 22-year-old Youssef Aallaa, born in Naour, Morocco, and affiliated with the Ripoll mosque, where Es Satty worked as an imam. A third member was injured in the attack — 21-year-old Spanish national from Melilla, Chemlal, reported to be the bomb maker, who is currently under arrest.
Like Aallaa and his two brothers, Mohamad and Said, Chemlal was recruited by Es Satty via the Moroccan immigrant community in Ripoll. Authorities discovered more than 100 gas canisters stored at the location, and supplies of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) indicated that the group was planning a spectacular bombing of the Sagrada Família basilica. Es Satty had communicated to his roommate — internet café owner el Karib who bought tickets for both Es Satty and Moroccan national Driss Oukabir — that he was soon leaving for Morocco, where he had already sent his wife and children …
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