Nice, Wuerzburg, Munich, Ansbach: When is a Terrorist a Terrorist?

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by Max Schwind

On the evening of July 14 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel deliberately drove his 19 tonne cargo truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. He killed 83 and injured 303 people before being shot by police forces. This unspeakable tragedy has quickly been labelled as the third major Islamist terrorist attack in France after the Île-de-France attack in January 2015 that included the killing of twelve Charlie Hebdo journalists and the Paris attacks in November later that year.

When I was following the news in the wake of this ‘newest Islamist terrorist attack’ in Nice, I was cautiously watching when the first facts about the perpetrator’s motivation were uncovered, especially after ISIL traditionally claimed that it was one of their attacks: A 31-year old Tunisian, living in France, no affiliations to ISIL or another Islamist terrorist group in the files of the French and Tunisian security and counter-terrorism forces.

So at first, it looked like the rampage of a psychologically damaged individual. However, soon after the initial reports, it was revealed that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had suddenly (his family said he never expressed religious views before) started visiting a local mosque in April after an Algerian Islamic State member had started indoctrinating him. French authorities have concluded that he became radicalized through Islamist teachings only shortly before the attack and that his transformation happened very quickly.

Based on these general facts (there are many more), one can say with great certainty that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s attack was in fact not an individual rampage, but a terrorist attack, carried out by a psychologically damaged, disillusioned immigrant who fell victim to a dangerous ideology that specifically targets young Muslim men like him. After what he has done, it is difficult to describe him as a victim, but looking at his indoctrination in the months leading up to July 14, by an organisation which could not care less about what happens to their ‘holy warriors’, it has become clear that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Boulel was both victim and perpetrator – or, in other words, a terrorist.

He can be described as an Islamist terrorist, because he has been recruited and radicalised by an Islamist terrorist organisation, namely ISIL. In this case, the quest to determine whether or not it was an Islamist attack turned out to be easier than expected – the fact that Lahouaiej-Boulel acted alone did not fit into the modus operandi of ISIL attacks. Usually, these attacks are carried out by several men, more often than not even several groups of men in different locations. ISIL fighters have displayed similar patterns in the previous two major terrorist attacks in France. For this moment, journalists and anti-terror experts all over the world were roughly on the same page again, as Nice was defined as another Islamist terrorist attack. Unfortunately, this more or less academic debate was rekindled only a few days later.

In the late evening of July 18, four days after the tragic deaths of 84 people (perpetrator included) in Nice, a 17-year old Afghan drew a knife and a hatchet in a train driving in Wuerzburg, Germany. Riaz Khan Ahmadzai shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ before attacking and severely injuring four people on the train and another one after jumping off the later stopped train. He then tried to flee but was shot dead by the German SEK (Special Deployment Commandos).

I was surprised and shocked to see my provincial hometown of some 120.000 inhabitants featured on global news networks. I was shocked, simply because everything had happened in my idyllic hometown, and even in my district, not even a kilometre away from where I live. Moreover, the perpetrator, a male Afghan teenager, was a former refugee and in the exact age group of other refugees I was tutoring earlier this year in German and English. My first thought was that Riaz Ahmadzai could very well have been a student, an acquaintance or a friend of mine if he would have lived in the refugee accommodation in my district.

I was surprised however, by the massive scale of the media coverage – usually an event only gets this much attention when there are a significant number of casualties (sad, but true) and in the Wuerzburg attack ‘only’ five people got severely injured (fortunately they all made it through the night). So what were the reasons for this huge media interest?

Firstly, unlike other major Western powers explicitly targeted by Islamist terror, Germany has never experienced a major Islamist terrorist attack before. Therefore, a perpetrator simply shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ before or during their attacks could mean that this may be the very first Islamist terrorist attack in Germany, ipso facto; an event which would naturally attract a lot of media attention.

Moreover, the second reason for the international coverage of the Wuerzburg train attack was the fact that journalists and experts could not clearly define whether or not Riaz Ahmadzai was an Islamist terrorist or not. Of course ISIL quickly claimed that the young Afghan was one of their fighters within a few hours after the act. Furthermore, a self-painted ISIL flag was later found in his room at his foster parents’ house. To make matters even more confusing was the fact that Riaz Ahmadzai was a former refugee, who flew from Afghanistan to Germany two years prior to his rampage in Wuerzburg. He had a good reputation among refugee relief volunteers and had just moved in with a foster family, which means he was regarded as successfully integrated since moving out of a refugee accommodation marks a crucial step in the integration process (I have written about this in more detail in ‘The Refugee Crisis in Germany. Part II: Refugee Integration’, published and archived on The Priori). Since no other signs of an affiliation to ISIL or another terrorist organization could be found, journalists and experts were left wondering on how to label the Wuerzburg train attack.
Let’s be honest, simply shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and having a self-painted ISIL flag does not constitute a meaningful affiliation to ISIL, whether or not they claim it was one of their ‘holy warriors’ – which they do every time a Muslim commits an act of violence in the hopes of deepening the fissure between Muslims and Non-Muslims. From ISIL’s perspective, it is a brilliant and simple tactic. This way, they can claim the attack and also its message – this is the crucial part – the message being that their radical Islamist propaganda and agenda gets more attention, and therefore more potential recruits and ‘copycats’. This brings us back to the media’s struggle with labelling Riaz Ahmadzai and other perpetrators: Was he an ISIL fighter (recruited and radicalised) or a copycat? A copycat in this sense would be a psychologically damaged person who sees himself at a complete dead-end in their life, with no hope for improvement.

These disillusioned people hear about ISIL and their glorification of martyrdom and think that by affiliating themselves with the terrorist organisation, their rampage and subsequently themselves as a person will get massive global attention and even recognition from some (ISIL and like-minded). ‘ISIL and the Jihad have become a refuge for unstable people who have given up and wish to somehow enhance their failed life [by committing an act of violence]’ said Daniel Benjamin, former coordinator of the antiterrorism division of the US State Department in the New York Times. This is a very important statement, as it acknowledges the existence of the ‘copycat terrorist’ and defines him by the reasons for his rampage: the copycat commits acts of violence for himself and himself only.

In stark contrast to this stands the classic definition of a terrorist: a person, who commits acts of violence against civilians in the hope of creating fear and to accomplish certain political aims. An Islamist terrorist, who was recruited and radicalised by ISIL or another terrorist organisation might still go on a rampage partly for selfish reasons (martyrdom, paradise, etc), but he mainly does so out of a very deep, fanatic belief that his act of violence will somehow benefit the political goals of his organisation – in ISIL’s case the creation of a worldwide Islamic caliphate, as well as religious, political and military authority over all Muslims. This is what truly defines an Islamist terrorist.

Utilising these broad definitions, it is possible to clarify that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Boulel, responsible for the Nice truck attack can be defined as an Islamist terrorist, because he was recruited and radicalised by an ISIL member and became convinced, that his mass murder would benefit the Islamic State’s goals. Riaz Ahmadzai, the 17-year old Afghan who went on a rampage in a train in Wuerzburg however, was not a ‘holy warrior’ of ISIL. Apart from shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and having a self-painted IS flag in this room, no connections to the terrorist organization were found.

Furthermore, the circumstance of his crime fit much more into the profile of an individual rampage than that of a terrorist attack. Looking at all the facts and the earlier distinction between terrorists and a copycats, it seems that Riaz Ahmadzai was the latter. Although the fact that he had a good reputation and was considered as successfully integrated does not fit into either the profile of a terrorist or that of a copycat and remains a mystery to date.

Only four days after the Wuerzburg train attack, another Bavarian city in Germany’s south was rocked by an extreme act of violence. On 22 July 2016, 18-year-old Ali Sonboly carried out a shooting in the surroundings of the Olympia shopping mall in Munich. Ten people, including the perpetrator, were killed and 35 others were injured. Once more, it became incredibly hard for the media and terrorism experts to clearly define who Ali Sonboly was. First speculations that he might be an ISIL fighter were quickly abandoned since no connections to any Islamist terrorist organization were found.

New investigations uncovered that the teenager identified himself as German (he allegedly changed his first name from ‘Ali’ to ‘David’ to sound more German) and regularly expressed severe right-wing extremist views, according to his friends and family. The fact that all his victims had a migrant background seems to support the argument that he was specifically targeting ‘Non-Germans’. However, it is impossible to confirm whether or not Ali Sonboly had specific goals or specific targets, since he was killed by the police and can therefore not answer for his crimes.

A German newspaper reported recently that Ali Sonboly was a complete loner who gradually developed hatred towards all people in his complete isolation. Subsequently, his shooting of nine people in Munich was neither the act of an Islamist terrorist, nor a copycat. Unfortunately, it seems like Ali Sonboly was a failed human being who hated his life and the world so much that he went on a psychotic rampage. The time of his shooting may have been motivated by similar recent events, but this theory remains unconfirmed.

Only another two days later, on July 24, the last of three severe acts of violence within six days in Germany’s state of Bavaria was committed, when Ansbach was rocked by a suicide bombing. Mohammad Daleel, a 27-year old Syrian refugee killed himself with a self-build explosive device and injured fifteen people. There would have been a significant number of casualties, if Daleel would not have been denied entrance to a wine bar, his original target.

Unlike the perpetrators of Wuerzburg and Munich, the Syrian suicide bomber had clear connections to ISIL, according to recent investigations. German police have found a video on his phone showing Daleel pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, as well as promising to kill Germans for the global Jihad. Moreover, a significant number of Islamist material has allegedly been found on his laptop, phone and in his apartment. Moreover, Mohammad Daleel was in regular contact with another ISIL fighter, who assisted him in the planning of the suicide bombing, according to German investigators. Based on these facts and the traditional definition of a terrorist as a person who commits acts of violence against civilians to reach certain political goals, it seems inevitable to define Mohammad Daleel’s suicide bombing as an Islamist terrorist attack.

This would subsequently mean that the bombing in Ansbach on July 24 2016 marks the first suicide bombing and first ISIL terrorist attack on German soil. Germany has always been a main target of Islamist terror organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, since Germany is a major Western power and supported the war in Afghanistan and assists the coalition in its fight against ISIL. Until the Ansbach bombing, German security forces were always able to prevent a terrorist attack before it was carried out, but we all knew, that sooner or later, it would also happen in Germany.

I was motivated to write this article by the media’s, experts’ and my own confusion over the motives of the perpetrators of the Nice, Wuerzburg, Munich and Ansbach attacks. Islamist terror, psychotic rampage, and right-wing extremism were only a few of the many headlines we read in the last couple of weeks, on nearly all four of these tragic attacks – and as an interested reader, it was very hard to make sense of these attacks. Are we experiencing a new wave of Islamist terror or were the perpetrators and motives of the July attacks in France and Germany different from each other? I hope that this article was able to shed some light on these obscurities and that you, as our valued reader, are now able to answer this question. It is of upmost importance that we understand who is an Islamist terrorist, who is a copycat and who acts on his own terms in order to prevent more, ideally all of these rampages. If we instead do not care to find out what the motives of these men were, it will become infinitely more difficult to catch them long before they kill innocent people.

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