When one man was killed and 10 people were injured in north London after a van plowed into Muslim worshipers early Monday morning, the majority of the world mourned. Stories of heroes surfaced. And calls for solidarity rang from communities of all stripes.
But where most saw anguish, others saw an opportunity.
No sooner had news of the attack emerged than extremists of various shades began to co-opt the narrative to suit their own ends.
White supremacists said the attack, which targeted innocent civilians, proved there was “hope for the British,” according to SITE Intelligence, which tracks extremist threats across the globe.
Warrior heroes and villains
The trend is not new, but rather heightened due to the current geopolitical climate, says Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
“I’ve been studying extremism for decades, and there will often be some catalytic event that becomes part of a folklore and helps galvanize where aggression is directed to and amplified towards,” Levin told CNN.
“(It’s) almost like a perverted comic book. What we have is the beginning of a folklore narrative that identifies warrior heroes and villains. And what’s so interesting to me is that we see this across the ideological spectrum, everyone from Euro nationalists to black nationalists to religious extremists of all types.”
Combating these narratives is a crucial step governments must take in order to prevent terror attacks from becoming force multipliers, inspiring dueling extremists to commit new acts of violence inspired by previous violence.
It’s what’s known as “cumulative extremism,” a self-perpetuating downward spiral of violence that triggers more violent acts, a 2015 report from Teesside University’s Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist Studies notes.
And with four terror attacks hitting the UK in recent weeks, the risk of cumulative extremism is high.
“There’s no big overall, strategic network except for the fact that I think energy and motivation by seeing one attack spurring another,” former Metropolitan Police Commander Mak Chishty told CNN. “What’s different about this one is because this is on the other extremist level because it’s a clearly targeted attack against Muslims. And what we don’t want now is retribution. It’s a call for calm amongst a great people of the United Kingdom.”
The gray zone
A big part of ISIS’ global strategy involves the response to terror attacks like those Monday.
A 2015 article in Dabiq, the terror group’s English-language magazine, explained why ISIS’ goal was to get rid of what it called the “gray zone,” an area occupied by Muslims who aren’t pro-ISIS and live side-by-side with others (which are far and away the vast majority of the world’s Muslims.)
Their hope is to turn the world into a black-and-white place: you’re either with ISIS or you’re an infidel, regardless of religion, and there’s no in-between.
“ISIS wants to eliminate coexistence between religions and to create a response from the West that will force Muslims to choose sides,” Muslim author Laila Lalami, the award-winning Moroccan-American author, wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2015 shortly after the Paris attacks. “Every time the gray zone recedes, ISIS gains ground,”
The worry is that with each terror attack, regardless of the perpetrator’s motives, the gray zone is getting smaller.
For ISIS, the hope is that Monday attack was a piece of fodder for recruits and something they’ll likely point to as “proof” of the gray zone is eroding.
“This individual attack is more of a marker than anything else. Its symbolism is more important than its operational use for ISIS. They’re going to use it, but they’re so wildly unpopular in the Muslim world, it’s going to take more retaliatory attacks and more kinds of overt discriminatory acts against Muslims to give them that traction beyond the relatively a small sliver of people,” Levin told CNN. “They’re looking to create something broad, and they haven’t been able to sustain that.”
Multiple members of the Muslim community that spoke with CNN in the hours after Monday’s attack talked of living with the constant fear of reprisal attacks in the wake of ISIS-inspired terror attacks on London Bridge and in Manchester.
Research shows after jihadist terror attacks, hate crimes against Muslim communities often spike. That was the case after Manchester and London, police said earlier this month.
The 2015 report from the Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist Studies claimed that its analysis found an increase in the reporting of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the seven days following an attack. The report’s authors said they believe the relationship was causal.
“People are using terrorist means to now put fear into the Muslim community,” community leader Abjol Miah told CNN Monday morning.
Anti-Muslim extremists did hail the attack online, but some of Britain’s public far-right figures – like Tommy Robinson and Paul Golding – would not condone the attack.
Golding and Robinson said it proved them right.
Robinson, who says he has received a handful of death threats since the Monday attack, called the driver an “idiot” (along with profanities) and said the victims of the terror attack were innocent.
But he also said the attack is proof of “sectarianism” and believes other similar attacks are inevitable.
The worry from some experts is that calling these sort of attacks sectarianism alienates the Muslim community and feeds the “us-versus-them” narrative, further shrinking the gray zone.
“Terrorism will cost many people their lives. But there is also a second danger, which is just as great, if not greater: that our societies will become polarized; that Far Right parties and militant groups will gain in strength; and that ultimately it will become more difficult for people of different faiths and origins to live together,” Peter Neumann, a leading expert on radicalization in the United Kingdom, wrote in his 2016 book “Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West.
For jihadis, the terror attack near a London mosque offered them a small propaganda gift.
White supremacists suggested it may be the “early stages of a race war.”
But the idea of reciprocal attacks isn’t new.
What’s new is what Levin calls the “franchising of these loner-types who get radicalized across different ideologies but through similar ways,” like social media and a more fractured news media.
“There’s very much a fear of change and a fear and a distrust of established nations and institutions. And coupled on top of that is an anger that is culled from these folks who are disenfranchised and unstable people, who can be caught up in that net of the DIY terrorist,” said Levin.
“Extremist movements are like these planets that are hurdling through sociopolitical space, and they get caught up in the gravity of other moons and planets, and they are both reactive and reciprocal,” said Levin.