Three terrorist attacks – three motives?

It has been yet another difficult day on the terrorism front.  A truck plowed into a crowd of Christmas shoppers in Berlin, killing at least nine.  The Russian Ambassador to Turkey was killed by an off-duty police officer at an art gallery in Ankara.  And three people were shot outside an Islamic Centre in the Swiss city of Zurich.  Details are still coming in but all these incidents do seem to be terrorist attacks.

And  yet there are some distinct differences among the three.  Terrorism is terrorism some would say, but it is important to look at the characteristics of each incident.  The attack in Germany appears to be akin to the Nice massacre on Bastille Day and fits the profile of action called for by terrorist groups like Islamic State in magazines such as Dabiq and Rumiyah.  It is also an example of a  low-tech crime – how hard can it be to get a truck and aim it at people milling about?  There are reports that German intelligence had been warning of this kind of plot, but in any event it is very hard to interdict.  The victims are also innocent individuals who have nothing to do with what IS considers to be its “enemies”.

The assassination of the Russian ambassador is quite different.  His killer allegedly said “don’t forget about Syria, don’t forget about Aleppo” as he shot the diplomat.  Unlike those who died in Berlin, the official was a more understandable target in light of what his nation is doing in Syria.  No, I am not excusing terrorism by any means but the ambassador was the official representative of a country directly responsible for both backing a murderous regime (the Assad government) and killing untold Syrian civilians in airstrikes.  In essence, the assailant murdered a man who stood for his country’s actions.  It will be interesting to see what this means for Russia-Turkey relations given that the terrorist was a police officer and, hence, from the Turkish state.  The two countries had gotten past the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet a year ago and were mostly getting along.

The attack in Zurich appears at this point to be the act of anti-immigrant or anti-Islamic actors.  I have nothing to prove that yet, but it is consistent with other incidents in Western Europe this year.  Events of this nature do two things: they confirm the message of IS that the West doesn’t like Muslims and they are part of a spiral of attacks by both sides (Islamist extremists and far right terrorists) as each feeds off the other.

Today’s news seems to be merely the latest in a series of attacks.  Each day brings new horrors somewhere in the world.  We need to condemn the loss of innocent life and we need to do whatever we can to stop future attacks (which means adequately funding our security intelligence and law enforcement partners).  But we also need to ensure that our response is measured, identifies and brings to justice the real perpetrators, and does not over-react by blaming communities or faiths in blanket ways.  What we don’t do will be as important as what we do do in the days to come.

My thoughts and prayers to the victims and the families.

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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