Today in Terrorism: 9 November 2015 Cameroon, 2018 Melbourne

Knife and bomb attacks carried out by lone terrorists in Australia and Cameroon show terrorism can occur at the hands of an individual.

I would not be surprised if most people who do not think of terrorism on a regular basis – unlike me, you are the fortunate ones – believe most attacks to be the work of large, shadowy networks. We may think that there is the terrorist ‘leader’ (an Usama bin Laden or an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), a team of crack commandos, some folks who raise and send money around the world, a few who take care of logistics, etc. All in all a well-oiled machine.

What if it is not always like that?

There is no question that some major operations cannot go forward without such a team: 9/11 is a great example of that. But on other occasions individuals can plan and carry out their own attacks with little to no help. We sometimes call these terrorists ‘inspired’, as in they take their cues from larger organisations. The October 22, 2014 shooting in Ottawa by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was clearly the act of a terrorist who took inspiration from Islamic State (ISIS), a group he unsuccessfully sought to leave Canada to join.

Female suicide bomber strikes Cameroon night spot

2015 Cameroom suicide bombing

On this day in two separate years we saw two attacks perpetrated by individuals. Each incident has its interesting characteristics. The earlier one occurred in 2015 in Cameroon, a country we do not normally associate with terrorism. A 14-year old girl suicide bomber detonated herself near a mosque in Fotokol, killing five people and injured over 20. The army managed to foil another attack by another child bomber.

Boko Haram is believed to have been involved, as well as in similar attacks 12 days later. While the group carries out most of its work in Nigeria it has encroached into neighbouring nations like Cameroon.

Melbourne Bourke Street attack: Attacker goes on knife rampage

2018 Melbourne knife attack

In 2018 in Melbourne a Somali man who set a car on fire and stabbed three people – one fatally – later died in hospital after being shot by police. The suspect was ‘known’ to federal police and intelligence agencies – code for he was on their radar, probably because of his violent views – and ISIS claimed that one of its “fighters” was behind the attack. The truck used by the assailant was full of BBQ gas cylinders which thankfully did not explode.

So what do these two incidents tell us? That solitary individuals, backed up by a group or merely inspired by one, can do significant damage. We need to bear that in mind. Not every attack will be on the scale of 9/11. In fact most won’t result in the deaths of more than a few.

The loss of one life is still the loss of one too many. We need to get a lot better at understanding terrorism. I hope these short pieces contribute to that understanding.