Civilian atrocities hit headlines almost daily, creating an impression of a spectrum of attacks – even if links are tenuous
By Jon Henley
A woman lights a candle at a makeshift memorial in
They are coming, it seems, almost daily. Most – though not all – are in
Europe. With weapons ranging from knives to axes, machetes
to handguns, bombs to 19-tonne trucks. At a firework display, a festival, a
fast-food restaurant. On a train and in a church.
In less than a fortnight, violent, indiscriminate attacks on civilians in
, France and, on Monday, in Germany have claimed more than 100 innocent lives –
including those of a four-year-old boy and a priest aged 86. Japan
Some have plainly been inspired by jihad; four have been claimed by Islamic State. But others appear to have no particular ideology or motive other than a desire to kill and maim. All, however, are fanning tensions and fuelling fears.
Most bear no discernible relation to the coordinated and highly organised attacks on
in January and November 2015 and on Paris this March, planned and executed by a large
and organised cell of battle-hardened jihadis, many of whom had fought with Brussels Isis in or Syria and returned to Iraq Europe on a clear terror mission.
These attacks – in Nice on 14 July; in Würzburg, Munich, Reutlingen and Ansbach over the following week; in Sagamihara outside Tokyo on Monday and in the small Normandy town of St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, on Tuesday – are less clear in origin.
On a line that has ideological terrorism at one end and extreme violence triggered by resentment, rage, personal psychoses and mental health problems at the other, it is not hard to place Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the radical jihadi behind the string of suicide bombings and shootings that left 130 people dead in
, including 89 at the Bataclan concert hall. Paris
One of the the two men who slit the throat of Father Jacques Hamel while he was saying morning prayers on his church at St-Etienne-du-Rouvray on Tuesday morning was named as Adel Kermiche, 19, who was arrested twice last year while trying to get to Syria.
Less clear cut, though, is Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who killed 84 people on Bastille Day in Nice by mowing them down in a rented truck. Isis swiftly claimed him as its “soldier”, but prosecutors say he had no meaningful links with the terror group and showed no particular Islamic fervour (far from it).
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, 31, did however have a history of violence going back to his childhood in
and had been treated by psychiatrists with
anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs. Tunisia Isis’s bloody but simple ideology perhaps simply
gave him what he felt was license to act.
But Daleel was refused refugee status a year ago and had a history of mental health problems. An earlier attempt to deport him to
had been halted, apparently because of a
knee injury which was, in turn, followed by two suicide attempts. Bulgaria
Police searching the room of the asylum seeker who attacked train passengers with a knife and an axe near Würzburg last Monday – an attack also claimed by
Isis – found a hand-drawn Isis flag in his notebook.
The clearly distraught attacker wore a T-shirt bearing the group’s symbol during the attack, when he shouted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great”. But officials have said they are worried by the speed with which he appears to have become radicalised and suspect he may have been pushed over the edge by recent news of the death of a close friend.
As for Ali David Sonboly, the German-Iranian teenager who shot nine people in Munich dead on Friday before turning his gun on himself, he was bullied at school, had received treatment for psychological problems and was fascinated with mass violence, school shootings and by the Norwegian rightwing extremist Anders Behring Breivik.
The lack of uniformity or clarity in what is really motivating the current spate of killings makes it particularly hard to respond to them. The unpredictable nature of the attacks, and the troubled but often lonely lives of their perpetrators, means they are necessarily difficult to prevent.
But with nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment already on the rise across
Europe, and far-right parties ready to capitalise
on every incident, authorities in and France are facing urgent calls to act. Germany
The fact that three of the recent attacks in
were carried out by migrants has heightened
already strong popular misgivings about the refugee policies of the chancellor,
Angela Merkel. Germany
That three also took place in
, which has taken many of the 1.1 million refugees who crossed Bavaria ’s borders last year, and where political
opposition to Merkel’s policy is strongest, makes matters even trickier for the
chancellor, who faces federal elections next year. Germany
(Saying people were scared and Merkel was “dodging the issue”, Bavarian authorities on Monday announced a huge increase in controls on migrants and thousands of extra police to patrol streets and public spaces.)
In France, too, where the nation came together in horror after both the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Bataclan, Stade de France and bar and restaurant killings of last year, there is now increasing anger at the government’s perceived incapacity to protect the public. François Hollande, too, faces presidential elections next year.
But for many this summer, the politics will be secondary to the fear and anxiety they feel about what is happening in their countries. It will be no consolation to learn that western Europe is actually safer now than it has ever been or that the number of deaths from terrorism is now far lower than through much of the 1970s and 1980s.
So is there a unifying factor behind them? One, perhaps. Whatever the underlying motive behind an individual act of mass violence, the instant, global notoriety now guaranteed to any disturbed person who carries out such an attack has, surely, also become a lure.
In the age of the internet and the camera phone, of 24-hour news, Twitter and YouTube, one troubled individual’s act of violence will now make them world famous, immediately, no matter in whose name they do it.