Random is the new normal

Rise in self-radicalisation and lone-wolf attacks forces governments to rethink tactics

Police officers standing near a truck, with its windscreen riddled with bullets, that ploughed into a crowd leaving a fireworks display in the French Riviera town of Nice. PHOTO: AFP

On the evening of July 14, tens of thousands of revellers packed the Promenade des Anglais in the French city of Nice, which had been pedestrianised for Bastille Day celebrations.

Fifteen minutes after fireworks lit up the Mediterranean coastline, many were still strolling on the promenade and enjoying the balmy evening when a white, 19-tonne lorry barrelled down the boulevard.

The first pedestrians in its path thought the driver was drunk or lost and tried to wave it off the promenade, only to realise too late that they were the target. By the time the police stopped the lorry nearly 2km down the promenade, the attack had claimed 86 lives and injured another 434 people.

The senseless assault - and the perpetrator's choice of vehicular warfare - remains one of the starkest reminders of a year when terrorism left bloody trails across the world, with attacks in Asian capitals, European cities and different states in America.

The Nice attack was eerily similar to one late on Monday in which a truck ploughed into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 48. Investigators suspect it was a terror attack and have detained the driver.

This year, attacks have increasingly morphed from carefully planned, mass-casualty hits on hard targets into more random, grassroots-level attacks.

Faced with constant bombardment and later a ground offensive by coalition forces that led to territorial losses in its self-declared caliphate, leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) made renewed calls to their supporters to carry out strikes everywhere, with whatever tools at hand.

This message proved devastatingly effective and influenced the tenor and frequency of assaults throughout this year.

Some months saw almost 400 attacks carried out around the world in the name of ISIS, compared with between 150 and 200 a month in 2014, according to the International Security and Defence Policy Centre, a US think-tank.

It was evident in January, when an ISIS supporter walked up to a tour group near Istanbul's historic Blue Mosque and blew himself up, killing 13 tourists.

The strategy also drove attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, where radicalised individuals wielding knives, hatchets and machetes carried out attacks on civilians in public, and "lone-wolf" shootings and bombings in the United States.

This region was not spared either: Coordinated blasts in Jakarta, the bombing of a religious shrine in Bangkok and a grenade attack outside Kuala Lumpur reminded South-east Asians that the threat is present here, even if the war is on a different continent.

Singapore had a close call when the authorities uncovered in August a plot by a Batam-based cell to carry out a rocket attack on Marina Bay.

There were also two waves of detentions and repatriations of Bangladeshi workers here who had become radicalised by extremist propaganda. It was the first time Singapore had uncovered a terror cell comprising foreigners.

The Government said both cells - of eight and 27 individuals - had separately planned to wage "armed jihad" back in Bangladesh.

While there have been some successes detecting such self-radicalised individuals, many have proved difficult for governments to identify until they strike.

This has to do with four fundamental ways that terrorism has evolved since the time of Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, said Mr Ridzwan Rahmat, a senior security analyst at IHS Jane's.

With its savvy use of online propaganda, ISIS has cut the time taken to radicalise an individual from months to weeks, he said.

Videos that glorify violence and misuse Islamic texts appeal to misguided youths, many of them known as "clean skins" because they do not have a criminal record.

Unlike Al-Qaeda before it, ISIS has also willingly "outsourced" terror strikes to local outfits, and has stoked local grievances to rejuvenate groups, such as those in the southern Philippines and Thailand.

With this comes a focus on softer targets such as theatres, malls and other public spaces, and away from military targets and embassies.

The weaponising of vehicles, hatchets and other implements also means that restrictions on firearms and explosives no longer guarantee safety, Mr Ridzwan added.

Governments, including Singa- pore's, have to realise that terror groups have shifted tactics and change their responses accordingly, said Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

He noted that today's terrorists aim to "kill as many people as quickly as possible for maximum effect", and that any hostages taken are no longer bargaining chips, but to be killed in the end "for high PR value".

"This being the case, our tactics have to evolve too in the way we respond," he said at a dialogue earlier this month.

These trends point to a world of more frequent, small-scale and opportunistic attacks.

Even as governments and security forces reshape their preparations and responses, civilians also need to be conscious of the threat and know how to react if they are caught up in a terror attack.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline Random is the new normal. Subscribe