Manchester and London attacks: remarks on the characteristics of the different methods used – by Maria Chr. Alvanou

After the recent Manchester and London attacks, a discussion has begun about the effectiveness of the different methods employed by Daesh. In the first case the hit was perpetrated by a suicide attacker and in the second case by 3 perpetrators using car ramming plus knife stabbing. In both terrorist incidents the social impact was severe and operational issues about countering measures started to be discussed. The following remarks that explain the different characteristics of the above attack methods:

  • Suicide bombings for years now have been adopted by the islamist terrorist network as a “signature methodology”. Many (who ignore the use of this operational tactic by groups like PKK, the Tamil Tigers and SSNP) identify suicide attacks specifically with the religious concept of “martyrdom” and eventually Islam. The truth is that the distorted translation of the Koran by Islamists becomes a useful toolkit for the indoctrination necessary to prepare a man willing to kill by giving up his life. A suicide bomber is not carrying out a high risk mission; he is carrying out a death mission, which means there must be an absolute level of dedication to be served. Religious fanaticism and the promises of afterlife create the mindset that defies biological death because of a vision of paradise and new kind of eternal material gains. Additionally, the islamist suicide bombers has already dehumanized the human targets, by viewing them not as people, but as infidels, corrupted, “crusader” descendants and thus he or she is not committing murder, but protecting the faith through jihad. Operationally a suicide attack can be designed in a fairly easy and cheap way, still enabling the perpetrator to cause harm to many people, by mingling among crowds (for example staging the hit during a concert like in Manchester, an athletic event etc). Though it has been used as a way to assassinate specific persons (for example political leaders), usually a suicide bombing is considered an indiscriminate attack, where the victims are those happening to be present at the unfortunate time and place of the terrorist’s choice. The murdering intention of the perpetrator takes part in a single second, through the triggering of the explosive mechanism and that’s it. All the aspirations for Allah’s rewards and the animosity against the enemy get materialized in that single second, that puts an end to the perpetrators life. There is no experience of how the attack evolves victim wise.
  • The combination of car ramming and knife stabbing can be viewed as an operational model of indiscriminate yet very personal attacks. In the case we have seen in London, the attackers were not targeting a specific person (for example a certain official etc), but a crowd of people unknown to them. So in this sense we are talking about indiscriminate attacks. At the same time- unlike in the suicide operation- the terrorist is attacking very personally the victims in immediate physical relation to them: running over a human being, slitting the throat of a person, wounding another human fellow fatally. All of the above are done by looking in to the victim’s eyes, listening to the pleading voice or the screams of the victim. The perpetrator is not pressing momentarily a button and all is over. He hits a person on the streets and runs over a human body; he is pressing a knife’s blade against skin and flesh, feeling the deadly penetration of the murderous weapon in a person’s body. We have had cases where victims show multiple wounds, which means the attackers repeatedly and viciously stabbed them. In this sense these attacks get very personal, allowing the terrorist to unleash all the murderous rage created in the process of radicalization to violence. A parameter to be taken into account is the one of the expression of hate by the attackers, enjoying every second (and it takes more than the one second needed to detonate an explosive vest). The terrorists see the death and the torment of the victims. There is immediate contact with the results of their deeds. Also, despite the fact that usually such terrorists are ready for the option of getting neutralized by security authorities, car ramming and knife stabbings are high risk missions giving a chance for the actor (at least in theory) to escape the scene according to planning and circumstances.
  • Though today- with all the online manuals available- it is not that complicated to carry out an effective suicide attack (it does not have to be of September 11 planning level in order to be deadly), car ramming and especially knife stabbing are more easy for terrorists to perpetrate and difficult for security authorities to spot, so that an attack is prevented. A suicide bomber still has to hide a vest under bulky cloths, and this is something experienced security personnel can detect. Especially during spring and summer months, when people dress lightly, an unnecessary layer of clothing in order to hide the bombing mechanism is something that can cause suspicion to security officers (or even to people inside the crowd with a fair level of awareness). On the contrary driving a car before taking a deadly route does not usually give any suspicious indicators and of course carrying a knife does not require any special hiding place in the dressing, or wearing an outfit that reveals possible terrorist intention.

Suicide attacks and car or knife attacks are all operational methods that the islamist terrorist network is using today to spread death, according to its strategic planning. There isn’t a method that can be characterized as less or more murderous. Different operational choices highlight different aspects of the islamist terrorist phenomenon. While suicide attacks still provide the sensational impact connected to “martyrdom” and metaphysical aspirations (both in our secular societies being beyond understanding), a method like car ramming or knife stabbing expresses vividly the hate rhetoric and ideology of Daesh.  Those who are ready to slaughter in order to answer the call made by Daesh are people who are in a position to initiate and endure the experience of a bloody and violent operation, without showing any sign of humanity, mercy or hesitation. Terrorists who die to kill and terrorists who enjoy killing are the threat European security authorities are trying to counter. Coming up with measures to deter such a group of people is a difficult challenge.