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Nice, Berlin, now London: Westminster shooting reflects growing phenomena of 'copycat terrorism'

The dastardly attack on Wednesday afternoon near the British Parliament by a knife-wielding man is the first major terrorist attack in London since the 7/7 transit bombings of 2005, which had killed 52 and wounded more than 700.

Wednesday’s attack, that killed five, including a policeman and the attacker, and injured about 40 – among whom were three French high school students, four British university students, two Romanians, five South Korean tourists and a German woman residing in Australia – reflects an emerging pattern globally, of 'copycat terrorism.'

The attack appears to imitate similar "successful" attacks in France and Germany last year. On July 14, 2016, at least 84 were killed and dozens more injured when a lorry deliberately drove into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France.

On December 19, some six month's after Nice, a truck was used to drive over pedestrians in a Christmas market, next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz, in Berlin; this incident left 12 people dead and 56 others injured.

 Nice, Berlin, now London: Westminster shooting reflects growing phenomena of copycat terrorism

People stand near the crashed car and a injured person lying on the ground on Bridge Street near the Houses of Parliament in London on Wednesday. AP

In Wednesday's eerily similar attack, the assailant drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing two people, before crashing it outside the Parliament. While attempting to enter the complex, he stabbed an unarmed police officer with a knife, who later died from the injuries. The police shot the assailant dead.

In all these 'copycat' attacks, there was only one assailant – a lone wolf – and the instrument of attack happened to be a motor vehicle. A lone terrorist is far less likely to trigger an alarm or come under the police scanner. The design is obvious – attack in a public place or high profile spot (such as the British Parliament), where the potential casualties are high and the resultant publicity will be global in reach.

In other words, in a copycat attack, the instrument of terror is 'low-value' and easily accessible – it can be anything of normal use (such as a motor vehicle) – but the target, ideally, should remain 'high-value'.

Secondly, the exercise is done in such a manner that there will be enough scope for the so called Left and liberal elements in established democracies (such as India, countries in Europe and North America) and the myriad of human rights organisations to argue that the "lone wolf" is not necessarily a part of a terror franchise, such as the Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda and that he could be "deranged enough" to commit such an act, without taking any instructions from any organisation.

After all, it is the most common explanation offered for such an attack everywhere – that economic deprivation and lack of education forced the attacker to adopt extreme views and turn to terrorism. In other words, extremism and fanaticism are fallouts of poverty and a lack of opportunities, for which the "State" is responsible.

However, in both the Nice and Berlin attacks, the IS claimed responsibility, though not immediately. In both the incidents, more people were subsequently discovered to be involved in managing the attacks. Even in Wednesday's attack, the British Police have already arrested seven people suspected to be involved from different parts of the country.

It should be noted that the date of the London incident, 22 March, happens to be the anniversary of the suicide bombings in Brussels last year, that claimed 32 lives. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that the latest attack on London has "IS links."

A woman assists an injured person after an incident on Westminster Bridge in London, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville - RTX326E2

A woman assists an injured person after an incident on Westminster Bridge in London. Reuters

Thus, it will be a folly to treat the 'copycat' terror in Europe as disconnected from global Islamic terror – the terror that is being fought in the name of Islam. It is a well-coordinated effort at a massive scale, the notable tactical change being that the copycat syndrome employs assailants who are carefully chosen – mainly immigrants, poorly-read, underemployed and drug addicts.

This is so because they can be easily allured by employing starkly religious language and invoking religious texts that promise "other-worldly" rewards as compensation for "this-worldly" sacrifice – including "the guarantee of eternal Paradise and the lascivious offering of seventy-two heavenly virgins."

The London episode should not distract us from the fact that neither material deprivation nor inadequate education is a major cause for support of terrorism or participation in terrorist activities. After examining the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners, Peter Bergen, the author of 'Holy War Inc', and Swati Pandey, a research associate at the New America Foundation, have found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering and medicine. Databases of terrorism perpetrators collected by sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog also reflect this trend.

In other words, the latest brand of the 'copycat terror' only masks the ugly truth that Islamic terror continues to attract reasonably well educated, financially comfortable and, in some cases, quite well off and often gainfully employed people. Consoder how some of our misguided professionals from Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telengana have joined the IS in last few years.

That their number is very small is a different matter altogether. Of course, this is not to suggest that poverty is not connected with the deadly phenomenon. But the important point is that whereas the poor may turn out to be foot soldiers or motivators, like the assailants in Nice, Berlin and London, the leadership are usually in the hands of those who are well educated and powerful.

The idea here is that if you have more educated and intelligent people in your ranks to guide you from behind, there are greater chances of success for terror incidents. We can ignore this reality only at our peril.

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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2017 18:16:31 IST