Last Wednesday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris represents the continuing evolution of terrorism from coordinated networks dedicated to large scale political violence to the atomized acts of marginalized but inspired people. But its most pervasive danger could come from overreactions by government and law enforcement.
Like the slaying of a soldier in London’s Woolwich, the bombing of the Boston Marathon and the recent hostage crisis in Sydney, such individuals have been called ‘lone wolfs’, ‘copycats’ and ‘DIY’. Whatever the term, we are witnessing the emergence of what is effectively garage terrorism that blurs the line between transnational terrorism and more conventional crime.
Their emergence is the product of success in global terrorism policing.
Over the last decade, the military and intelligence campaign against Al Qaeda and related terrorist networks has largely dismantled the corporate structure of these transnational organizations. Al Qaeda has been split into atomized regional affiliates of varying strength under constant surveillance and threat of drone strikes. Before the rise of the Islamic State, US intelligence reports were moving on to other matters like cyber security.
Officers and agents are now acutely sensitized to the footprints of choreographed plots of mass murder and damage. And to their credit, the kind of attacks seen on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, on March 11, 2004 in Madrid and on July 7, 2005 in London are thankfully rare.
What remains is a loose but potentially large collection of people who share Al Qaeda’s goals but act more independently. This emerging challenge entails keeping track of any number of alienated individuals who are swayed by radically misinterpreted Islam and—with visions of glory—seek to independently advance its agenda.
For those supporting Islamist political violence, this is small ball—short gains rather than touchdowns. And the world is asking, how can we play better defense?
Law enforcement’s response will be to expand their dragnet and enhance their capacity to predict or prevent individuals’ terrorist acts. Already we have heard concerns about stretched police forces in London and Paris that cannot possibly keep tabs on the activities of so many would be perpetrators, particularly with the return of Islamic State volunteers to their countries of origin.
However these recent, more individualized acts by garage terrorists (with and without ties to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State) should be understood differently from the coordinated catastrophes of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Atocha Train Station and London’s Underground.
Garage terrorists present challenges similar to those of everyday crime, as opposed to those of organized crime.
We cannot predict when rape, robbery or homicide will occur, and citizens would likely resist the compromises of civil liberty and privacy that would be required to do so. We would, metaphorically, need to place cameras in garages.
Should we expect governments to predict or prevent garage terrorism?
When the dust settles from the horror of this most recent attack, societies will likely be presented with plans to undertake expansions of law enforcement surveillance and detainment power. We will be assured that these measures will only affect those who merit suspicion. We will be told that our societies will be safer as a result.
Aside from the dedication of more resources and personnel to preventing these isolated and unpredictable acts, such measures risk the unfair treatment of otherwise peaceful communities of Muslims in North America and Europe. They also risk individuals in these communities becoming increasingly marginalized—and therefore harder to reach and monitor.
In this light, the real peril of garage terrorists goes beyond the acts they execute, to the responses they will engender from governments. By making terrorism more decentralized and more private, garage terrorism could make counterterrorism measures more invasive, and more likely to marginalize the people we need to protect.
Gest is assistant professor of Public Policy at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs. He is the author of Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West (Oxford University Press).