Knee jerk reactions from leaders to incidents like the London bombing isolate Muslims and hinder the fight to prevent violent extremism.
The London Underground explosion at the Parsons Green station is being treated as a terrorist incident after a senior counterterrorism official announced that it was a “detonation of an improvised explosive device”.
With 30 people injured, UK authorities were prompted to raise the threat level from “severe” to “critical”. The explosion that ISIS claims to be involved with continues to be investigated with a manhunt now underway.
What is striking, yet again, is the immediate response that attacks such as these induce.
Hours after the explosion, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Another attack in London by a loser terrorist. These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!” prompting British Prime Minister Theresa May, a strong ally, to term comments like that as “unhelpful”.
With an on-going investigation underway, it was near impossible for Trump to have any reliable intelligence on the perpetrators. As the Metropolitan police service, transport and emergency services continued to respond to the incident, the public was urged to remain calm yet vigilant.
The use of an improvised explosive device (IED) in a bucket left in the London Underground as the weapon of choice has led many security experts, including Peter Neumann, Director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence to term the attack as an “amateur attempt” conducted by people who may not have extensively trained abroad, but were rather inspired by ISIS attacks. This theory holds much weight if attacks conducted by militant groups are assessed for impact on public behavior.
Al Qaeda, in planning and executing its activities strived for high impact and high casualty attacks designed to garner media attention and sow public fear. ISIS on the other hand has encouraged a variety of less sophisticated forms of violence like knife attacks, home-made bombs, ramming vans into crowds and encouraging young men to continue assault to the very end - even if it means inflicting just one casualty.
Yet, speaking shortly after the London explosion, President Trump told US Air Force members at Joint Base Andrews that “radical Islamic terrorism” will be “eradicated”.
Without complete facts and with UK security forces currently conducting their investigation, including raids and arrests, presumptious comments like these can be misleading. By many measures, the President’s quick issuance of such speculation is one of the ways that efforts at preventing violent extremism (PVE) are negatively impacted.
One of the four strands of the British government’s counter terrorism program, Prevent, has been criticized for overwhelmingly focusing on Muslim communities in countering extremism and failing to be inclusive of other forms radicalism (such as far-right extremism) and thus proving counter-productive by many measures.
In the US most recently, President Trump was far more tempered when speaking about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia refraining from using terms such as “terrorism” or “white supremacists”.
Facing severe backlash at home, Trump complained that the media didn’t cover him fairly on the violence and that he wanted to refrain from making “a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.”
However, in condemning incidents abroad much like the London explosion, Trump drew on speculation without waiting for reliable facts, swiftly concluding that it may be the work of Islamist terrorists and advocating for a “larger, tougher and more specific” travel ban that he has put into place for people from several Muslim-majority countries.
The travel ban has received its own share of criticism, prompting many to once again call out Trump on a policy seen as isolationist and detrimental to America’s future. Others, including in the UK argue, that mounting terrorist attacks offer a good argument for halting immigration and adopting tougher border controls.
As ISIS and its affiliates have become active in more countries, including many in Europe, there have been several significant attacks in Western Europe. However, the continent records relatively fewer numbers of people killed by terrorism as compared to the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the UK Home Office, 2017 marks the highest number of terrorist incidents in a year: the Westminster attack in March that saw six people killed; the Manchester Arena bombing in May that occurred shortly after a rock concert concluded, killing 22 people and injuring 250 others; the London Bridge attack in June that killed 8 people and the Finsbury Park mosque attack later the same month that saw a van ram into people, killing one and injuring ten others.
The Home Office quarterly bulletin reveals that 105 arrested for these incidents were charged with terrorism related offences.
Though terrorist attacks have mounted in Europe the response and vigilance of British authorities remains steadfast.
Any response to a violent incident however encompasses both actions and statements. In times like these, comments issued by heads of states based on emotion and prejudice instead of facts and actionable intelligence only exacerbate the counter-productive profiling and targeting of specific communities.
There is no “one profile of a radicalized individual” in terms of gender, religious affiliation, social and ethnic background, or age. Even if ISIS claims that one of its “detachments” placed the bomb, it offers little insight into the actual act and raises strong suspicions of whether the group was actually affiliated or not.
ISIS has rarely ever claimed responsibility so swiftly, especially when the suspect may still be at large.
Trump’s speculative response of “radical Islamic terrorism” might just prove right but that is besides the point: in an effort to appear tough on “terror”, the US President has set a dangerous precedent of singling out Islamic terrorism. This is bound to create greater fissures and alienate young Muslims around the world - whether proven right or wrong in his threat assessment.
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