Monet Houses of Parliament

This article was published in the Observer on 26 March 2017, under the headline ‘How can we distinguish violence driven by ideology from sociopathic rage?’

What Khalid Masood wreaked on Westminster last week was depraved and shocking. It was not, however, another 7/7. The attacks on the tube and a bus by four suicide bombers on 7 July 2005 were relatively sophisticated; the bombers had been commissioned and trained by al-Qaida and their actions carefully choreographed. Wednesday’s attack was, in comparison, as crude and as low-tech as such attacks could be – a man causing mayhem armed simply with a car and a knife.

The crudity of the Westminster attack is of a piece with much recent Islamist violence in Europe. There are certainly co-ordinated, well-planned operations, such as the slaughter on the streets of Paris in November 2015, in which 130 people lost their lives, and that in Brussels, a year to the day before the Westminster attack. Increasingly, though, jihadi violence involves individuals, without access to semtex or AK-47s, but with a desire to cause bloody turmoil.

Low-tech terrorists driving vehicles into pedestrians is becoming more common, such as the assault on a Christmas market in Berlin last December, or, most horrifically, the truck attack on Bastille Day revellers in Nice last year. The day after the Westminster horror, a similar attack, in which a man tried to drive a car into a crowd, was foiled in Antwerp.

Knife attacks, too, are becoming a common feature of low-tech terrorism, from the beheading of Lee Rigby on the streets of south London in 2013 by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, to the wounding in 2015 of three people in Leytonstone tube station in east London when 29-year-old Muhaydin Mire, ran amok with a knife, apparently as some form of deluded response to the war in Syria, to the murder last year of a priest, Father Jacques Hamel, in a church in Saint Etienne-du-Rouvray, in northern France, by two teenage Islamists, Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean.

What such attacks expose is the continuing degeneration of Islamist terror and the increasingly blurred lines between ideological violence and sociopathic rage. Last August, Zakaria Bulhan, a 19-year-old Norwegian of Somali descent, went on a rampage in Russell Square in London, stabbing six people, one of whom died from her injuries. It was originally seen as a terrorist incident. Later, Bulhan was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Last month, a court ordered him to be detained indefinitely in Broadmoor maximum security hospital.

A week before Bulhan’s rampage, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee had hacked a woman to death in Reutlingen, near Stuttgart in Germany. That, too, was first regarded as a terrorist incident, only later as the actions of a mentally disturbed man. In both cases, many refused to believe that these were not terrorist incidents and social media spawned dark conspiracy theories of official cover-ups. Such theories may be irrational, but they reflect, too, the difficulty, often, in drawing a distinction between jihadi violence and the fury of disturbed minds.

Turner Houses of Parliament on Fire

The death last week of Martin McGuinness, the former IRA leader, has led to much discussion about the relationship between the young, violent firebrand and the older patient peacemaker. What has been less discussed is the changing character of terrorism from the IRA to Islamic State. In the past, groups employing terror, whether the IRA or the PLO, were driven by specific political aims – a united Ireland or an independent Palestine. There was generally a close relationship between the organisation’s political cause and its violent activities. And, whatever one thinks of such groups, those activities were governed by certain norms and contained a rational kernel.

Many civilians were certainly killed through IRA violence, but, unlike jihadis, the starting point of the IRA was not the mere killing of random individuals. It is the arbitrariness of jihadist violence, and its disregard for any moral bounds, that can make it seem so terrifying.

IS has claimed responsibility for the Westminster attack, calling Masood one of its ‘soldiers’ (though it did not name him). Whether Masood had any real links to Isis remains unclear. ‘Soldiers of the Islamic State’ are often just unstable young men with only the most tenuous relationship to IS but driven by a sense of inchoate, personal rage. Masood’s story, a petty criminal, lacking direction, but converting to Islam after finding in Salafism a sense of order and meaning, and of making sense of his inner furies, is not unusual among jihadis.

Deranged fury cloaked in ideological rage is not uniquely Islamist. Two days before Masood mowed down his victims on Westminster Bridge, James Harris Jackson allegedly stabbed to death Timothy Caughman in Manhattan. Jackson was white, Caughman black. Jackson is said to have come to New York from Baltimore armed with a knife and a sword and with the aim of killing as many black people as possible. ‘I hate blacks’, he allegedly told police. He chose to make New York the scene of his murderous act because it was ‘the media capital of the world’ and he ‘wanted to make a statement’, investigators say. The police are uncertain whether Jackson had any formal links to racist groups. But, as with many Islamist killings, this stabbing blurs the line between ideological violence and psychotic rage. At his arraignment, the prosecutor called it ‘an act, most likely, of terrorism’. Defence counsel talked of Jackson’s ‘obvious psychological issues’.

This murderous act is not an isolated incident. In 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old American obsessed with white supremacist ideas, shot dead nine African-American worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Last July, Ali David Sonboly went on a rampage in a Munich shopping mall, shooting dead nine people, and injuring another 36. He was of Iranian origin. But being Iranian meant to him not ‘Muslim’, but ‘Aryan’. He was obsessed by mass shootings and lauded Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya in 2011, and proud of sharing his birthday with Adolf Hitler. A month earlier, in Britain, Thomas Mair, a 53-year-old man with links to far-right groups, had shot and stabbed to death Jo Cox, a Labour MP, while she was campaigning in the EU referendum, in Birstall, Yorkshire.

All this exposes both how the character of ideological violence has degenerated and how rage has become a feature of public life. The social and moral boundaries that act as firewalls against such behaviour have weakened. Western societies have become socially atomised. The influence of institutions that once helped socialise individuals and inculcate them with a sense of obligation to others, from the church to trade unions, has declined. So has that of progressive movements that gave social grievance a political form.

Whistler Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge

The Khalid Masoods and James Harris Jacksons of this world may be few but they are proliferating – angry, unbalanced individuals, detached from wider society and its norms, denied political outlets for their disaffections and who find in Islamism or white nationalism the balm for their demons and justification for their actions.

From one perspective, low-tech terrorism reveals the weaknesses of jihadi groups and the difficulties they have in organising more high-profile atrocities such as 7/7 or the Paris attacks. From another perspective, however, we have to accept that because such attacks are low-tech, they are more difficult to prevent.

This raises questions about how the authorities, the media and the public should react to such events. The immediate response to the Masood attack – the courage of those who went to help the injured, the stoicism of Londoners carrying on as usual – was measured and inspiring. But the wall-to-wall media coverage and speculation that followed, and the high-publicity nationwide police operations, have had the effect of making a low-tech attack seem more like a major 7/7 kind of incident. The authorities need to gather information on perpetrators and ensure public safety. But what the past week has shown is the need to reset the balance between pursuing such aims and giving exaggerated weight to the attack. Otherwise the reaction to terror will itself provide the ‘statement’ that terrorists crave.

While low-tech terror may become more common, we need to maintain a sense of perspective. The Westminster attack, like similar ones before it, reveals how easy it is to cause mayhem and disruption in an open, urban, society. But it should also remind us that, given how easy it is to sow terror, these kinds of attacks are relatively infrequent, even allowing for the fact that many are prevented before they come to fruition. Most people have access to cars and knives. The fact that such attacks are, nevertheless, so rare – and, hence, so shocking when they do occur – tells us something powerful about the enduring strength of social bonds.


The images are all of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge. From top down: Claude Monet’s ‘Houses of Parliament, Stormy Sky’; ‘The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons’ by JMW Turner; ‘Nocturne in Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge’ by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The cover image is from James Danby’s ‘The Houses of Parliament from the River’. 


  1. Yes atomisation and anomie are significant factors in fuelling murderous rage. Isolated and sporadic acts of violence by ‘lone wolves’ share certain characteristics whether they are carried out by a psychotic campus based gunman in the U.S. or by a deranged knife wielding maniac in Westminster. We can distinguish between carefully planned and executed massacres like the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the low tech individual acts of violence carried out in European cities more recently. Some of the attacks such as the one in Russell Square and the attack near Stuttgart were clearly perpetrated by ‘lost souls’, individuals who were obviously mentally ill.

    It is too early to say but Khalid Masood’s chaotic and nomadic lifestyle points to a deeply alienated and resentful individual. That does not diminish his criminal responsibility or exculpate his moral responsibility for his actions in any way but it does raise questions about the ideological and political underpinnings of his killing spree. It is hard to see these murderous outbreaks as ideological or political. They are more often than not the working out of murderous impulses by unhinged individuals.

    Furthermore our collective response to these outrages determines their meaning. Are these acts of terror really part of a global Islamist plot to conquer the world or are they the work of deeply alienated, unhinged individuals who adopt a meta-narrative (Islam) to justify their murderous rage and explain their individual angst and anomie? We should beware of contributing to a narrative that sees these acts of terror as a mortal threat to our way of life or as an expression of a ‘clash of civilisations’.

    You wouldn’t think there had been a terrorist attack in London on Wednesday unless you had listened to the news. People were going about their business as normal. The media dramatises the act of terror. The act of terror is the precursor to a carefully scripted, choreographed sequence of events. The political bluster, the saturation coverage, the declamations of defiance, the mawkish focus on the victims, the deconstruction of the perpetrator and the calls for security clampdowns on one side and the exhortations against an imaginary backlash against Muslims on the other. It’s showtime.

    A whole panoply of political actors and commentators and interpreters of the perpetrator’s motives is wheeled on to explain to us what has just happened, what is likely to happen next and what it all means. It is too much and the reality is the media experts don’t know any more than the rest of us, sometimes less, as they are more given to panic and hyperbole.

  2. Well said. The Westminster attack was horrific, but trivial, and while the tone of press and public reaction has, in general, been admirable, disproportionate coverage, for example by BBC News, gives the terrorists what they want, and may even increase the risk of copycat outrages.

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