The Barcelona attacks fit a pattern – there is no pattern

What happened in Barcelona last week has taken some  interesting twists and turns.  A heinous act that we all thought was yet another quasi-random example of ‘vehicular terrorism’ (Nice, Berlin, Stockholm, London, Charlottesville…) has become a carefully planned albeit badly executed plot.  We thought that the use of a van was the original intent but have learned that the real plan was to explode bombs, potentially made with the lethal TATP.  A lone driver has given way to a whole cell in several cities.  A mastermind of sorts has arisen, and he appears to have had a hand in a much larger attack in Madrid 13 years earlier.  And so on and so on.

Once more it turns out that initial analysis and quickly arrived at conclusions were erroneous.  This should come as a surprise to precisely no one, I hope, since it happens so often.  In the immediate aftermath of an attack many people, including a bunch who should know better, make definitive statements in the almost complete absence of facts.  You would think we have learned by now but clearly we haven’t.

There are so many aspects to this incident that underscore the absolute uniqueness of every act of terrorism.  So-called commonalities prove to be inadequate as they are ineffective at bolstering the predictability of violent extremism.  We are forced to consider each occurrence on its own merits, look only at the data at hand, and try to reject the very strong temptation to extrapolate from one case to many.

So, in Barcelona I found the particular things of interest from a radicalisation perspective (thanks to an excellent New York Times article):

  • just hours before the attacks the perpetrators seemed to be living ‘completely normal lives’ (eating kebabs, sleeping in, looking relaxed)
  • they said ‘hello, goodbye’, they all had jobs, they all had cars, they all had parents
  • they didn’t live in misery
  • a man in his 40s brought the young men under his tutelage after he had installed himself at a local mosque
  • there may have been four sets of brothers involved including one family with three members in the cell
  • at this point the Internet does not appear to have played a significant role in the radicalisation process
  • they were all from ‘well-integrated’ Spanish-Moroccan families
  • many  of them had gone to school together
  • while few of the terrorists were described as ‘religious’, one in particular became much more so in the last year, in fact ‘abruptly’,  and would incessantly talk about ‘religion, religion, religion’
  • one got top marks in high school
  • only one has so far been identified as having had brushes with the law (marijuana).

On your list of ‘characteristics of radicalised people’ how does this lot compare?  Not well, I bet.  For yet again it is NOT a question of the kid born on the wrong side of the tracks to a dysfunctional family with a history of violence and poor performance in school.  There are a lot of people who still hold to these myths despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  When the next big attack (notice that I did not say ‘if’) I will draw your attention to the facts available and we will see that those terrorists too will look differently and come from totally different backgrounds.  Nevertheless, someone will point out that they do not ‘fit the pattern’.  Spoiler alert: there never is and never will be a ‘pattern.’

You would think that I should have grown tired of making this point about the idiosyncrasy of terrorism and radicalisation by now (15 years and counting).  But I haven’t because reality does not seem to be getting through.  Preconceived biases still rule and these biases do more than prejudice how we view these phenomena: they lead to bad laws, bad policies and bad programmes.

So I will continue to make these arguments until a) I sense that people are grasping them or b) I get tired of making them.  If our recent past is any indication I would bet on a) not b).



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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