In the aftermath of the recent London attack, where a British-born, converted Muslim, murdered four and injured 29, Dr. Doron Pely, TAL Global’s Director of Conflict Management and Special Projects, and a University of Southern California (USC) HVE Studies Associate at the Safe Communities Institute, spoke with Professor Erroll Southers, Director of the Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California (USC) and TAL Global Managing Director of Counterterrorism and Infrastructure Protection. We wanted to know what it is that we can learn about the motivation of the attacker, the method of attack and the evolving investigation.
Professor Southers, what do we know about the attacker? Is he an ISIS fighter returning from Syria or Iraq?
A: As far as we know, Mr. Khalid Masood, 52, the London attacker, was born as Adrian Russell Elms, and also used the name Adrian Ajao, his stepfather’s surname, in Kent, in South-East England, but was believed to have been living in the area of the city of Birmingham, in the West Midlands – about 120 miles North-West of London. He was not an active part of ISIS and was not trained or lived in either Syria or Iraq and therefore, not a returning “foreign fighter.” This attacker is older than the “usual” terrorist demographic. Most similar attacks were carried out by younger perpetrators, between the ages of 20 and 35. As time passes and the investigation broadens, new information may come to light that will help us understand critical factors such as his social network and his motivation.
Q: Has the attacker been previously identified as a potential terrorist?
A: No. We know that Mr. Masood had a long criminal history, including assault, weapons charges and violations of public order; but as far as terrorist activities, according to British Prime Minister, Theresa May, he was considered “a peripheral figure.” Even though he had been examined by MI5, Britain’s internal security agency, he was not “part of the current intelligence picture.” It is interesting that he was suspected of having a connection to violent extremism, but that component has not been fully explained.
Is there something we can learn from the recent wave of vehicular attacks in France, Germany and England?
A: We know that this is straight out of the al-Qaeda / ISIS playbook. The attackers tend to be either local citizens or resided near their target areas. They knew their targets, the roads leading to the location, the best routes, and the optimal time to strike. They understand what we call “attack utility,” or how to get the most effective return on the terror operation, such as, fatalities, injuries, infrastructure disruption, economic consequences (tourism, etc.) and psychological impact. In this instance, Masood stayed the night before the attack in a hotel in Brighton, got into a rental car and drove to London, to use the car as a weapon. He reportedly told the staff at the hotel, “I’m off to London today” as if he were a visiting tourist.
Q: What do we want to know about the attacker?
A: As I mentioned previously, we want to know everything we can about his social network; who did he socialize with, work with and who were his classmates? Who did he communicate with, in person and ultimately, online? What were the narratives he received and imparted? Another piece of information that will be of relevance is to try to figure out what exactly precipitated the attack? We know that such attacks do not happen instantaneously – they are not typically a product of a sudden flare of emotions and/or ideology. Such actions take time to germinate and plan. Masood was a bodybuilding enthusiast, who had several incidents involving edged weapons attacks, landing him in jail. His first conviction was in November 1983 for criminal damage when he was 18 and his last one in 2003 for possession of a knife. It appears he was one of only two black men in Northiam and ostracized from the community. He served time in Lewes jail, East Sussex, Wayland prison in Norfolk, and Ford open prison, West Sussex. It is likely he was radicalised during his time in jail.
When you consider this attack as part of a large, counter-terrorism, picture, and what does it tell you that is of significance?
A: It tells me the messaging regarding this type of attack, is working. We have seen this in Israel, France, London and even in the state of Ohio, in America. If you peruse the online magazines such as “Inspire” and “Dabiq,” literally every issue touts this attack strategy. It is low tech and medium to high impact, as the consequences relate to fatalities, injuries and psychological effect. The other component of this strategy includes the vehicle assault being accompanied by an edged weapon attack. This is very common and part of the planned approach. It is obviously very effective. As ISIS loses its grip on territories and resources in the Middle East, we can expect a surge of London-style attacks in Europe and North America. Defeated and humiliated fighters will start filtering back into their home countries, particularly in Western Europe. They will seek a way to vent their frustrations and show the world that while they may be down in the Middle East, they are not out in terms of their ability to inflict pain on the “infidels” in the West. Furthermore, the current anti Muslim wave, including President Trump’s travel ban, and rising anti-Muslim sentiment and action in Europe and the US may actually have the opposite effect in that they will increase frustration and anger within Muslim communities, weaken their will to resist fundamentalist pressure as well as their will to aid authorities in quashing budding terror plots.
Q: What can we do, at a practical level, to help reduce our exposure to such attacks?
A: Well, for one, we can pay more attention to improving the functionality and usability of the “See Something, Say Something” mechanism. I will not be at all surprised if in the near future, someone who knew the attacker will appear and say something like: “I knew this guy was trouble, but I did not know what to do about it”. Well, there’s a whole lot that can be done to ensure that more people know what to do if the “see” or “suspect” something nefarious. People should be made to feel comfortable about communicating such concerns to the authorities. Currently, some people are mostly worried that saying something will turn them into targets of an investigation, and will cause them endless suffering both within their communities and with the local and national law enforcement agencies. Much can and should be done to alleviate such concerns. We need to bring whole communities in on the side of justice, security, solidarity and good citizenship. Only community-level engagement will create the energies and connections required to enable the establishment of a meaningful opposition to homegrown violent extremists. I call it a “Mosaic of Engagement.”
Thank you, Professor Southers.