The United Kingdom has faced an Islamicist terrorist plot on average every three months over the past three years so it was inevitable that, eventually, one terror plot would slip through the counterterrorism cordon. In the case of the Westminster attack the shock was arguably less about the casualties – luckily far fewer than earlier jihadi actions in Paris, Brussels and Nice – than the symbolic value of the target: the “Mother of Parliament” at a time when the prime minister was inside and its members were in session. Indians will draw an obvious parallel to the Lashkar e Tayyeba attack on their parliament in 2001.
The evidence so far points to the work of a lone wolf terrorist inspired but not directed by the Islamic State. The terror attack was low-tech – a car followed by a knife – and, so far, there is no evidence of anyone else involved other than the single man who was shot by police. The Islamic State has praised him, but belatedly as if initially uncertain as to the attacker’s background. All of these are signs of a lone wolf attacker.
Unfortunately, the world should brace for more such attacks. One, there is no sign that the West Asian political turmoil and Islam’s theological ruptures that are the founts of this present wave of extremism are waning. In particular, the Sunni Muslim sense of marginalisation that has helped feed the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State continues and may even worsen.
Two, even as the Islamic State seems to be entering the last several months of its physical existence, it has ordered its overseas followers to cause mayhem. The Islamic State remains a formidable online presence, releasing nearly 40 pieces on the net every day in multiple languages, many designed for niche audiences. That over 30,000 foreigners have gone to the Islamic State is evidence of its successful messaging, as well as the dozens of lone wolves it has inspired.
Three, European countries are becoming especially vulnerable to jihadi attacks because of unemployment and anti-immigrant rhetoric, falling rates of terrorist interception, and a documented surge in Islamicist-related recruiters both on the ground and in cyberspace. There is some evidence that terrorists are increasingly keeping their planning offline to avoid electronic surveillance -- making pre-emption all that more difficult.
India already faces multiple terrorist threats and may not necessarily have much to learn from the Westminster attack. Fortunately, the threat posed by the Islamic State to India continues to be minimal. But India has no reason to be complacent.