Radicalised Individual: A New Aspect of Terrorism

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The word ‘terrorism’ dates back to the French Revolution of 1789 as the label used by the establishment to describe the conduct of revolutionaries.  Today, the conduct of terrorists has global repercussions and the term international terrorism has gained prominence in diplomacy and security studies.

While the international community continues to debate the need for a definition for terrorism, there is a ‘radical’ shift in the type of the terrorists that the security forces are encountering. For long those who joined terrorist organisations were the uneducated, or indoctrinated through religious education, the unemployed for whom picking up arms was at times the only means of monetary security, which would continue for their families if they died ‘on the job’. However, over the past few years it has been noticed that those who are joining terrorist organisations or are supportive of their extreme ideology are well educated, qualified professionals, from middle income families. The involvement of such individuals is a worrying trend as the motivational factor is ideological rather than monetary.

What has further alarmed security personals is a number of attacks being carried out by a number of radicalised individuals. In recent attacks by radicalised individuals Mr. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian national residing in France, killed over 80 and wounded hundreds when he ploughed a 19-ton cargo truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day (July 14, 2016) in the southern French city of Nice. Mere days after the Nice massacre, a 17-year-old Afghan migrant seeking asylum in Germany attacked passengers on a train in Würzburg with an axe and a knife, wounding four before police killed him. This was followed by two attacks claimed by individuals for ISIL: A suicide bombing on July 24 injured 15 in the German city of Ansbach, and on July 26, two attackers claiming allegiance to ISIS stormed a church in a suburb of the French city of Rouen, slit an 84-year-old priest’s throat, and took hostages. These incidents are part of a broader trend of increasing violence carried out by lone individuals who may or may not be connected to ISIL or other terrorist organisations.

The nature of radicalization and operational planning in the digital age has complicated efforts to interpret and analyse attacks perpetrated by single individuals. In the years before the digital age, ‘radicalisation occurred through in-person contact. Counter terrorism officials looked for physical hubs of recruitment, tapping phones and scanning surveillance videos for evidence that cells were meeting. But with the social media boom and the growth in encrypted communications, radicalization and operational planning can easily take place entirely online. ISIS has capitalized on evolving communications technologies, building cohesive online communities that foster a sense of “remote intimacy” and thus facilitate radicalization. The group has also established a team of “virtual planners” who use the Internet to identify recruits, and to coordinate and direct attacks, often without meeting the perpetrators in person.’ Nonetheless, there is a distinction that can be seen on the types of radicalisation of individuals. Distinction has to be made between the individuals who are motivated enough to join the organisation, get training and thereafter carry out the attacks, with the support of the terrorist organisation, from individuals who are motivated to conduct attacks by their handlers, who keep in touch through social media. These two sets are different from the people who are in communications with terrorist groups online but carry out their attacks without any support or direction from such groups. There are some who conduct such attacks on their own accord, without any communication with any terrorist organisation.

The rise of the radicalised individual willing to carry out an attack is a new addition to the terrorist’s arsenal. Aided by the anonymity provided by the digital media they are able to target individuals and provide technical assistance. Such attacks are difficult to predict and are proving very hard to prevent. It would mean understanding the relationship between such individuals and the larger terrorist networks. The security forces have to change and evolve new strategies to stop such attack which includes detection and preventing the attacks in the planning stages. It makes little sense to apply pre-digital-age thinking to jihadist attacks perpetrated in the age of Twitter, Telegram, and end-to-end encryption.  Nonetheless, it is futile to expect that security forces would be able to prevent such attacks without the help governments and societies. It has been noticed that in societies where social and criminal justice, social welfare and security is poor, there are higher chances of radicalisation among individuals and groups. Governments have to have a measured approach, which are not perceived to be unfair or targeting some within the society.

(Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of the Council in any form)

Profile photo of Stuti Banerjee
Dr. Banerjee studies US foreign policy with a leading foreign policy think tank based out of New Delhi.