Before setting off to cause mayhem, 17-year-old Riaz Khan Ahmadzai made a quick video in an oddly empty room in which he talked about why Westerners must die and his devotion to the Islamic State.
German police would later say they’d found a handmade Islamic State flag in his notebook, but in this video the white walls behind him are bare, as is the closet and the dark gray ceiling. He didn’t display the flag in the video.
He’s wearing a plain white T-shirt as he speaks into what is most likely a cellphone. There’s no attempt to copy the more common black outfits of the Islamic State.
While he talks, he plays with a small knife, a knife with which he pledges to behead his enemies.
Ahmadzai would later attack five people on a train near Wurzburg, wounding four, before he would be shot to death while lunging at police. The weapons were the knife and a short-handled hatchet, which has been widely mischaracterized as an ax. The Islamic State would quickly claim credit for the attack, posting his video on its Amaq news agency website.
If there is any support, it’s very low-level support. There doesn’t seem to be much training, or even contact, by the Islamic State.
Magnus Ranstorp, Swedish Defence College
It’s instructive to look at the knife. It’s a common kitchen knife, with a cheap plastic handle and a blade that’s not quite as long as Ahmadzai’s fist is wide. It’s the sort of knife that can be found in millions of kitchens worldwide, and a cheap version, at that.
The Islamic State has claimed credit for some of Europe’s most spectacular attacks in the last year. But Ahmadzai’s attack stands out for its simplicity, especially compared with the Islamic State’s Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, which involved multiple attackers, hard-to-obtain weapons, numerous rental cars, cellphones and safe houses, or the March 22 mayhem in Brussels, which featured three coordinated bombers attacking nearly simultaneously at the airport and a subway station.
Ahmadzai’s attack involved no expensive weapons, no explosives, no training and not likely much contact with or advice from the Islamic State.
The same can be said for the attack by a Syrian refugee in Germany who blew himself up near Ansbach on Sunday. He used explosives, but German police say they were poorly assembled and the bomber managed to kill only himself.
The July 14 attack in Nice, France, which claimed 84 lives, likewise involved no major coordination, just the rental of an 18-ton truck, which Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel used to mow down the crowds assembled to watch Bastille Day fireworks. He was armed with a pistol, but he is not known to have shot anyone, and the other weapons found in his truck were fakes.
Even the murder Tuesday of a priest outside Rouen, France, was decidedly low-tech. The two assailants used a knife to slit the Rev. Jacques Hamel’s throat after they stormed into a church as Hamel was saying Mass. The explosives they reportedly were carrying turned out to be fake.
Terrorism experts are uncertain how to interpret the recent attacks. Are they signs that lone wolves are picking up on the Islamic State’s frequent calls for Muslims rising up against the West with whatever weapons they can find? Or are they symptomatic of a movement that can no longer provide the expertise and support needed to carry out more intricate, spectacular attacks?
Have French and Belgian anti-terror efforts taken out the group’s logistical network in Europe? Are the group’s most skilled operatives now dead, either at the hands of police or in suicide attacks?
Terrorism experts are uncertain how to interpret recent attacks. Are they signs that lone wolves are rising up against the West or symptomatic of a movement that can no longer provide expertise and support?
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, the so-called “mastermind” thought to be behind four terror attacks in France, including the Nov. 13 assaults, which killed 130 people, died in a November shootout with police in Saint Denis, a Paris suburb. Salah Abdeslam, 26, who is thought to have run logistics for the Nov. 13 attacks, was arrested. He remains in a French prison.
Belgian Najim Laachraoui, 24, who police think made the bombs for the November Paris attacks and the March 22 attacks in Brussels, died in the blasts at the Brussels airport.
“Let’s call this an interim group of attacks,” said Magnus Ranstorp, an international terror expert at the Swedish Defence University. “If there is any support, it’s very low-level support. There doesn’t seem to be much training, or even contact, by the Islamic State.”
That doesn’t mean the attacks haven’t had impact. “The Islamic State would certainly approve of attacks on Bastille Day celebrations, and on a priest,” Ranstorp said. “They need to drag France deeper into this war. They need this to recruit, and raise money. Remember, terrorism is all about the reaction.”
But the attacks have little in common with previous Islamic State actions, which bore a signature: The attackers were heavily armed. Their assault weapons were often fully automatic. They were prepared to outgun unprepared police. When they left photos and videos, they were replete with Islamic State iconography and phrases.
Their bombs were professionally made, often with hard-to-procure explosives. They used encrypted communications, worked from central bases and created supply chains to get guns, ammo and bomb making materials. They appeared to have some level of insurgent-style training.
Not the most recent attacks. While French police are investigating alleged accomplices in the Nice attack, it’s not clear what assistance was needed to drive a truck through a crowded street.
For more than a year, German anti-terror police and social workers have been concerned about a trend they’ve spotted among Islamic State recruiters: the targeting of the homeless, those with disabilities and young, frustrated refugees. Experts have long worried about the prevalence of violent crime in the backgrounds of those seeking to serve the group.
“Many of the attackers seem to have some form of mental illness, and once an idea becomes ‘cool’ it will attract others who have delusions of grandeur/revenge,” Daniel Byman, an expert on international security at Georgetown University, said in an email.
While this leads perhaps to smaller attacks, it has a downside, he added.
“I don’t think IS is really giving major logistical or operational support to the recent attacks – Paris, in contrast, was quite different,” he wrote, referring to the Islamic State. “I think this sort of low-tech terrorism is exceptionally hard to stop. It also has a momentum all its own.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews