When most people think about terrorism and terrorists they probably go immediately to explosives, suicide vests, firearms and, increasingly, the use of cars and vans. Attacks in which these ‘tools’ are used are ubiquitous and have become a scourge in far too many countries. Nary a day goes by without news about an incident somewhere in which one of these methods has been used. Whether it is a suicide bomb in Kabul or a Boko Haram ambush in Nigeria’s northern Borno State or the recent van atrocity in Barcelona it seems that the only thing new on any given occasion is the particular combination of city and MO.
We have also seen a trend in the use of knives of late. Attacks that have been executed with sharp instruments have been seen in Turku (Finland), London (UK) and, if we want to go back a few years, in Woolich (UK) – a combined vehicle/machete killing. There has been quite a bit of commentary on why knives have been so prevalent and these tend to reduce to availability. After all, who does not have a drawerful of sharp implements at home? Why make things complicated (i.e. bomb construction) when you don’t have to? While it is probably true that this kind of operation results in fewer casualties (dead and wounded) it is still terrifying.
I think there is more to this development than is obvious at first blush. In the wake of an attack outside Buckingham Palace yesterday I’d like to draw your attention to an important underlying theme. For the incident at the home of the UK monarch was not just an ordinary knife attack: the terrorist tried to kill and maim with a four-foot SWORD.
Now sometimes a sword is just a sword and is used because it is there. For instance last week in Taiwan a man attacked a guard at the Presidential Palace with a samurai sword he had just stolen from a museum ‘to express his political views’ (surely there are other ways to do this). This may be symbolic but it is well beyond my expertise to make a comment about the imagery of the samurai.
But swords are very meaningful tokens for jihadis. They hearken back to the ‘glory days’ of Islam that these extremists think they are ushering back, when Muslim warriors created a vast empire from India to Spain in less than a century. Swords were, and still are, the weapon of choice for a ‘real man’. A common kunya (nom de guerre) among Islamist extremists is Saif ulislam – the sword of Islam. This evocation of a long dormant past probably also explains why the Saudi government, the self-appointed guardian of ‘authentic Islam’, uses swords in Riyadh’s ‘Chop-chop Square’ for public executions. There is also still a call for wannabe mujahedin to train in the techniques of classic Islamic warfare: horseback riding, swimming and the ability to use a sword.
For a terrorist to wield a sword in an attack may strike some as anachronistic but you have to admit seeing someone yell ‘Allahu Akbar‘ while slashing people with a metre-long blade would be a pretty harrowing experience. Not to mention the horrific injuries a sword does to its victims. I am no armament expert but I have read enough accounts of medieval battles to know that being stabbed and hewn with a long blade is not a pleasant experience.
The downside is that it takes some skill to use a sword and I can’t imagine that there are many that are adept at it. As I noted above this would reduce the number of serious injuries and deaths. Furthermore, first responders who arrive on the scene are equipped with vastly superior weapons with which to neutralise the terrorist. As they say ‘never bring a sword to a gun fight.’
It will be interessting to see if we come across more sword attacks, copycat or otherwise. One thing I do know is that terrorists want to re-create an imagined history. What better way to do it than with historical methods? Yes, they will use more modern instruments – TATP, AK-47s, internal combustion engines – but for some there is the romanticism of the tried and true.