The London Car Attack Highlights Changes in Terrorism—and Our Response to It

Police officers secure the roads around the Houses of Parliament after a vehicle crashed into security barriers, injuring a number of pedestrians, Aug. 14, 2018, London, England (Photo by Alberto Pezzali for Sipa USA via AP Images).
Police officers secure the roads around the Houses of Parliament after a vehicle crashed into security barriers, injuring a number of pedestrians, Aug. 14, 2018, London, England (Photo by Alberto Pezzali for Sipa USA via AP Images).
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Police have yet to determine exactly why a 29-year-old British citizen of Sudanese origin, identified as Salih Khater, intentionally swerved his car into cyclists and pedestrians outside the Parliament building in London yesterday. For now, the car-ramming, which resulted in no deaths and three minor injuries, is being investigated as a terrorist attack.

If that is confirmed, it will be the latest using vehicles as weapons. In March 2017, a similar attack outside Parliament left five people dead and 50 others injured; the attacker, Khalid Masood, was killed by police at the scene. In July 2016, an attacker drove a truck through a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France, killing 86 and injuring over 400. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for both incidents.

In part because of the lack of fatalities, but also because of its familiarity, yesterday’s attack underscored the ways in which terrorism has become more mundane, both in the everyday instruments these lone-wolf attackers weaponize and in the muted public reaction. Particularly shocking or deadly attacks, like the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May 2017 that left 22 dead, still generate outrage and outpourings of collective grief. But as terrorism has declined worldwide in the past few years and become increasingly low-tech and amateurish, a sense of resilience has emerged among Western publics.

World Politics Review has covered this evolution in terrorism, and the accompanying shifts in how governments and publics have responded to it, extensively over the past few years. This collection of five recent WPR articles offers comprehensive analysis and context to better understand today’s breaking news.

For Better and Worse, America Has Closed the Book on the Post-9/11 Period

Judah Grunstein | Aug. 15, 2018

For the most part, terrorism has faded as a major focus of public concern, in part due to successful counterterrorism, but also thanks to a measure of collective resilience to the lower-profile methods increasingly used. It is not just public opinion that has moved on from the post-9/11 fixation on terrorism. The U.S. Defense Department has officially downgraded counterterrorism as a priority, instead focusing its efforts on countering great-power competition. The downgrading of counterterrorism in national security policy is perhaps understandable. More curious is the fact that, along with terrorism, two other central buzzwords from the post-9/11 period have effectively disappeared from the public discourse: No one talks much about weapons of mass destruction and failed states anymore, though neither problem has been effectively addressed or contained.

Why Over-Hyping the Jihadi Threat Is Bad Strategy

Steven Metz | March 31, 2017

After Khalid Masood, a British-born convert to Islam with a long criminal record, plowed a vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge in March 2017, the American media was flooded with commentators asserting that the attack once again demonstrated that violent jihadism is not a distortion of Islam but its true essence. It was the latest example of the influence of what can be called “counter-jihadi extremism” in today’s political landscape in the U.S. This network of political leaders, pundits and organizations took shape after the 9/11 attacks around the idea that jihadis, and even Islam in general, purportedly pose an existential threat to the United States. In addition to being wrong about Islam, their overinflating of the jihadi threat has extensive strategic costs that too seldom enter the discussion.

The Danger of Overreacting to Terrorism—and How to Resist It

Benjamin H. Friedman | Aug. 15, 2016

For the prosperous and stable nations of Europe and North America, the cost of terrorism is usually dwarfed by the cost of reactions to it. Avoiding such overreaction is the most pressing challenge in security policy today. The number of Westerners killed by terrorists spiked in 2015 and 2016, thanks largely to attacks in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and Nice related to the self-described Islamic State. Still, the threat remains objectively small. Objectivity, however, does not drive security policy. Terrorism’s randomness, gore and spectacle provoke dread beyond its actual weight. Even when terrorism is not especially deadly, and even when it is inept, the outcry can be great. That is a boon to leaders promising energetic efforts in the name of safety, cost be damned. Besides hyperbolic rhetoric, three kinds of overreaction to terrorism are common: waste, war and closure to the world.

Playing the Long Game: Getting Past Near-Term Thinking on Terrorism

Ellen Laipson | May 3, 2016

The U.S. public seems to understand that the fight against terrorism is a struggle that’s here to stay. The challenge for government officials is to manage the threat without exacerbating it, or allowing terrorism to monopolize the time and resources at the expense of other compelling public policy needs. Most people get that—that is, until the next attack happens and the second-guessing starts. The shock and outrage following an attack, however, should not distract us from the larger question about the challenge terrorism poses today, nor should it keep us from an honest assessment of how the U.S. is coping.

From Al-Qaida to ISIS, a Blind War on Terrorism Will Mean Endless War

Jean-Marie Guéhenno | Aug. 9, 2017

Al-Qaida had some 400 combatants on Sept. 11, 2001. Today it is stronger than ever, with several thousand adherents in countries from the Arabian Peninsula to Southeast Asia. If Western powers like the United States and the United Kingdom and their regional partners like Iraq continue to frame the countering of violent extremism as an existential “war on terror” that ends only when the last terrorist has been killed, the campaign against the Islamic State will be no more successful than the fight against al-Qaida. A blind war on terror, with no longer-term vision, lays the ground for an endless war. In the Middle East, crushing terrorists without a plan for the day after will generate the same vacuum and chaos that produced them in the first place. And in Western societies, the elevation of terrorism into a strategic struggle continuously refills the pool of foreign fighters for whom terrorist acts are the ultimate selfie.

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