London attack: IS influence pervasive

The attack near the British Houses of Parliament in London last week is the latest in a string of terror attacks in western cities. Assailant Khalid Masood’s weapons were just a car and a kitchen knife. He drove the car into the pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, crashed it into the gates outside Parliament and then used a knife to kill a police officer, before being shot dead himself. At the end of the attack, five people, including Masood, were dead and 40 others injured. It took Masood just 82 seconds to unleash terror, mayhem and death.

The attack, the deadliest in London since the 2005 suicide bombings in the London Underground, has understandably rattled security agencies worldwide. Using vehicles in terror attacks is not new; Palestinian and Tamil militants deployed them often in suicide attacks. However, there has been a sharp rise in ‘lone wolves’ using vehicles to mow down pedestrians since 2014, when a spokesman of the Islamic State group called on its supporters in the West to use cars to run over ‘disbelievers.’ That was followed by attacks in Ohio, Berlin, Nice, Quebec and now London. What makes such attacks particularly worrying is that they are so easy to carry out; they are low-tech and need little money or planning. Besides, they rarely figure on the radars of intelligence agencies and are difficult to prevent. Although the IS has claimed responsibility for the Westminster attack, the nature of its role is still unclear. Masood may have been inspired by the IS ideology but whether there was a larger IS network involved in the attack is being investigated.

The Westminster attack has come at a time when the IS fortunes on the battlefield have declined. But while it may be on the brink of losing its so-called Caliphate in Iraq, its capacity to influence, inspire and radicalise people online remains strong. Masood could have been influenced by its online propaganda. Counter-terrorism strategies must pay attention to de-radicalising people, especially youth. Although the British government put in place a de-radicalising strategy around four years ago, the strategy has come in for criticism as flawed and counter-productive. Studies reveal that Muslim youth are feeling targeted by the policy. Strategies for prevention of radicalisation of youth should not exclude communities; they need to engage them.

Importantly, xenophobia, which has been running high among Britain’s white population, is likely to have got a boost from the Westminster attack, altho­ugh Masood was of British origin. His Muslim identity will be used by hate mongers to polarise society. This must be tackled as it could encourage attacks by Islamic radicals as well as White supremacists.

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