An Attack From the ISIS Playbook

The London attack seems to fit with a pattern of growing attacks on Muslims—both in Europe and in the United States.

People leave flowers at a makeshift memorial where a man drove a van into Muslims outside a mosque in London.
People leave flowers at a makeshift memorial where a man drove a van into Muslims outside a mosque in London. (Hannah Mckay / Reuters)

The attack was right out of the ISIS playbook. The attacker was a man, apparently acting alone. He took as his weapon a simple van, ramming it into people in an attempt to kill them. And he obeyed the command from ISIS spokesman Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer to strike civilian targets in the West during the holy month of Ramadan.

There was one crucial difference, of course: The attacker was trying to kill Muslims—as ISIS itself does when it targets Shia mosques—ramming a van into a crowd leaving a London mosque after iftar on Sunday.

He reportedly shouted, “I want to kill all Muslims.” One person is dead, but it’s not clear if his death was caused by the attack. A local imam reportedly protected the attacker after congregants subdued him; The Guardian identifies the suspect as Darren Osborne, 47. Scotland Yard is investigating the attack as terrorism, and Prime Minister Theresa May also used the term in a statement Monday morning, saying, “This was an attack on Muslims near their place of worship … and like all acts of terrorism it seeks to drive us apart.”

A government’s decision on whether or not to label something as terrorism is useful in thinking about an attack, but it is not binding on the public discourse. Based on what is known so far, the London mosque attack looks like a textbook instance of terrorism: political violence designed not only to kill, but also to intimidate other members of a group and spread instability.

The attack seems to fit with a pattern of growing attacks on Muslims, which corresponds to a heavy focus on the threat of Islamist terror attacks, both in Europe and in the United States. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in early June that hate crimes against Muslims had spiked after an ISIS-inspired attack on London Bridge. In the United States, a man has been charged with hate crimes after he shot two Indian men in Kansas, killing one; the defendant, Adam Purinton, told a bartender he had shot two “Iranians.” In May, two men died in Portland after being stabbed when they tried to stop a man who was delivering an anti-Muslim tirade against two women on a commuter train. (A Muslim teenager was abducted and killed after leaving a mosque in Fairfax, Virginia, on Sunday. Police there say there’s no indication she was assaulted based on her race or religion, but added “it’s not definitive.”)

Meanwhile, there are other forms of anti-Muslim violence cropping up around the world. In Eastern Europe, vigilante groups are patrolling borders to try to intercept Muslim refugees. In Australia, an anti-Muslim gang has taken to walking the streets of Melbourne, putatively to deter crime.

Terrorist attacks against Muslims are not a new phenomenon. Anti-Islam hate crimes have been elevated in the U.S. since 9/11, and in 2012 a man killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and it was speculated the shooter had confused the turban-wearing adherents for Muslims. While ironclad statistics are impossible to come by, the concentration of terror attacks in predominantly Muslim countries guarantees that Muslims make up by far the greatest number of victims of terror attacks worldwide. “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years,” the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center calculated in 2011—before the rise of ISIS.

The grim accounting is clear that the number of deaths in these attacks against Muslims in the West still stands below the number of fatalities in jihadist attacks in Europe and the United States. In purpose, however, the attacks are similar: The death toll is always just one part of a terrorist attack, along with the intent to intimidate and to force changes in government policy.

Meanwhile, despite the attention to recent attacks in London and Paris, among others, the number of jihadist attacks in Europe seems to be on a downward trend. A report released last week by Europol, the EU’s police agency, found there were 13 jihadist attacks within the union in 2016, down from 17 in 2015. The 13 attacks paled in comparison with the 99 incidents over the same year involving ethno-nationalists and separatist extremists, although the jihadist attacks produced almost all of the deaths. Still, the total of jihadist victims, 135, was also down from the 2015 total of 150, though the two huge attacks in Paris that year accounted for most of those deaths.

The adoption of a van as a weapon in the London mosque is particularly interesting—coming as it does after Islamist militants recently used vehicles to attack pedestrians in London, Stockholm, and elsewhere. ISIS has recently embraced the tactic, encouraging would-be jihadists to use trucks, vans, and cars to deliver death: It’s much easier, cheaper, and legal, to procure an automobile than it is to get guns or explosives, and driving doesn’t require specialized training or knowledge. These advantages make the tactic just as alluring to would-be anti-Muslim attackers as they do to ISIS recruits.

What unites the various incidents of anti-Muslim violence cited here—from the London attack to the Kansas shooter to the self-appointed vigilante crews—is that they occur when the assailants lose faith in the power of the state. Bigotry toward Muslims is not a new phenomenon. But the sense of a growing danger of jihadist attacks, even if there aren’t actually more or more lethal attacks, creates the sense that the governments are unable to control the threat on their own.

That, in turn, leads to lone wolves or small groups who decide to take matters into their own hands. They undermine the state’s monopoly on violence, an essential element of a functioning civil society, in the name of bolstering that same civil society. Any ISIS operatives monitoring the situation at the mosque in London must have been delighted. The attacker may not have claimed allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but he adopted ISIS’s approach and weapons, and in doing so, he helped further the group’s motive of undermining the power of European governments.