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Berlin and Ankara: a tale of two terror attacks

The attacks in Germany and Turkey reveal a lot about how terrorism has changed.

 A heavily-armed German policeman stands near the site where two days before a man drove a heavy truck into a Christmas market in a terrorist attack on December 21, 2016, in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“We do not want to live paralyzed by the fear of evil.” Those are the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel before visiting the Berlin Christmas market that on Monday evening became a scene of terror when a driver plowed a large truck into a crowd of holiday shoppers, killing 12 and injuring 48.

The suspected perpetrator, a Tunisian national named Anis Amri, is still on the loose and his specific motives remain unknown, though ISIS has claimed responsibility. By killing and maiming innocent people without warning, he conducted the literal definition of a terror attack: paralyzing regular, ordinary people with fear and creating the perception that no one is safe and that large crowds can be targeted at any time, anywhere.

Contrast that to the shocking act of political violence that took place in Turkey mere hours before the Berlin attack. Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a 22-year-old off-duty Turkish police officer dressed in a black suit and tie, fatally shot Russia’s ambassador to Turkey as he gave a speech at the opening of an art gallery exhibition in the Turkish capital of Ankara.

The assassin, ranting at the stunned audience as the ambassador, Andrey Karlov, lay bleeding on the floor next to him, shouted “Allahu Akbar,” the Arabic words for “God is great,” as well as “Remember Aleppo! Remember Syria!” He claimed his act was in revenge for Russia’s bombing of civilians in Aleppo, Syria.

There was a critical difference between the two attacks. Altıntaş only shot the ambassador; he had a fully loaded handgun and a crowd full of people standing in close quarters just feet away, which means he could have easily killed or wounded others. Instead, he saved his bullets for the diplomat, continuing to fire at the man as he lay dying on the floor. The gunman himself was shot and killed minutes later by Turkish security forces.

Both incidents were described as terror attacks, but the contrast between them was striking to people who study acts of political violence. And the differences between the two attacks actually tells us a lot about how terrorism has changed in recent years, in large part thanks to the rise of al-Qaeda and then ISIS.

Berlin: random acts of evil, ISIS-style

Many (though not all) of the major terror attacks the US and Western Europe have experienced in recent years — Berlin, a similar truck attack in the French city of Nice, the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando shooting, and even the Boston Marathon bombing — have been attacks on random citizens carried out haphazardly and designed to inflict as many casualties as possible.

The places and events targeted tend to be only vaguely symbolic (some more symbolic than others) — a Bastille Day parade in Nice celebrating French nationalism and unity is obviously a bit more symbolic than, say, a small holiday party held in a mundane office building in San Bernardino — and the people targeted for the killing are almost always regular folks who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such attacks are specifically designed to spread fear among the population: to make citizens of those cities — and, thanks to television and social media, even those in areas that have never been targeted — fear that just by going to the grocery store or the local bar, they could be the next victim of a terrorist attack. That’s the entire point.

The people putting out the online propaganda that often motivates the attackers — in these cases, namely ISIS and, albeit to a lesser degree these days, al-Qaeda — certainly have very clear strategic reasons for doing so and for promoting such strikes. But the individual attackers themselves may not give much thought to how their specific actions contribute to these grand goals. They were told to kill in the name of a holy war, and they did.

Turkey: a specific, targeted attack on a high-profile, symbolic individual

The shooter in Ankara, by contrast, targeted one man, and one man only: Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey. There were many other people in attendance at the art gallery event that the young man could easily have targeted had he desired to do so. But he didn’t.

Hasim Kilic, a Turkish photographer for the Hurriyet news organization who witnessed the attack, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times that the gunman had fired seven shots at the ambassador — “four from behind, three while the body was on the ground” — as guests screamed and scrambled to hide.

Kilic said the gunman had ordered everyone else out and refused a security guard’s request to drop his weapon. “Call the police, and I will die here,” Kilic quoted the assailant as saying.

The attack was anything but random, and that was by design. The victim of the attack — the Russian ambassador — was selected to send a clear, specific political message, which the shooter himself articulated clearly to the assembled reporters and other guests in attendance.

Dramatic video footage captured at the scene shows the gunman slowly and deliberately walking back and forth behind the podium where the ambassador had just been standing moments before, brandishing his gun and aggressively raising his finger in the air as he delivers his message of wrath and blood right at the microphones pointed at his face.

Speaking first in Arabic and then switching to Turkish, he shouts: “God is great! We have made an oath to Muhammad to die in martyrdom … a revenge for Syria and Aleppo! God is great! Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” He had his gun in hand, but he didn’t fire it.

Russia has been actively bombing targets in Syria on behalf of embattled Syrian president and Kremlin ally Bashar al-Assad since September 2015. Russia claims it is bombing legitimate targets held by ISIS and the other “terrorists” who are fighting to topple Assad.

In reality, Russian and Syrian government airstrikes on the city of Aleppo, which has been the central front in the war for the past year, have targeted civilian neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and humanitarian aid convoys, in addition to ISIS- and rebel-held targets. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 9,000 people, including nearly 4,000 civilians, have been killed in one year of Russian air raids in Syria.

Killing the Russian ambassador — that is, the official diplomatic representative of Russia on Turkish soil — while shouting “Don’t forget Syria! Don’t forget Aleppo!” sends a pretty direct message: Russia, stop bombing Syria, or we’ll punish you and your officials. And as if that weren’t enough symbolism, the art gallery event where the shooting took place was actually the opening of a photographic art exhibition titled “Russia through Turks’ eyes.”

There’s not a whole lot of ambiguity about what his motives were and what he was trying to communicate.

What these two attacks tell us about how terrorism has changed

The assassination in Ankara may seem like a strange, new form of terrorism in today’s world, in which we seem to be confronted almost daily with some new horror story about a mass-casualty attack against random civilians going about their daily lives in some part of the world — in other words, attacks like the one in Berlin.

But in fact, throughout terrorism’s long and tragic history, there have been numerous periods in which terrorist groups employed targeted assassinations and kidnappings of specific individuals as their preferred method of political violence.

Toward the end of 19th century and into the early 20th century, anarchist terrorists in Europe and the United States carried out a wave of assassination attempts — some successful, some not — of prominent political leaders, including the German Kaiser Wilhelm I; the Spanish King Alfonso XII; the Italian monarch Umberto I; and US President William McKinley.

For three decades starting in the 1970s, the West German far-left terrorist group called the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group) achieved international notoriety with their assassinations and kidnappings of prominent figures, including the powerful industrialist and former German SS officer Hanns Martin Schleyer; Jürgen Ponto, the chair of Dresdner Bank; Ernst Zimmermann, CEO of MTU Aero Engines, a German engineering company; Siemens executive Karl Heinz Beckurts and his driver; Gerold von Braunmühl, a leading official at Germany's foreign ministry; and Deutsche Bank chair Alfred Herrhausen.

The Greek leftist terrorist group November 17 carried out a similar campaign of targeted assassinations in the 1970s, though in later years they broadened their attacks to include bombings of ordinary citizens. The group began its reign of terror in December 1975 with the murder of the CIA’s Athens station chief, and went on to kill a US Navy captain, a US defense attaché, a Turkish diplomat, and a British defense attaché, among others.

Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, was assassinated in 1981 by a militant Islamist with connections to the Egyptian terror group al-Jihad (also called Egyptian Islamic Jihad). That group went on to launch a larger campaign of targeted assassinations of prominent Egyptian political, military, police, and cultural figures throughout the 1990s under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri — the man who now leads al-Qaeda — including a failed attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1995.

And, of course, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an American far-left revolutionary group, famously kidnapped 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974.

Back in 1988, Brian Michael Jenkins, a leading scholar of terrorism, wrote that “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” As Jenkins explained in a later article, for a long time, terrorists “were limited not only by access to weapons but by self-constraint.” He continued:

Mayhem as such was seldom an objective. Terrorists had a sense of morality, a self-image, operational codes, and practical concerns—they wanted to maintain group cohesion, avoid alienating perceived constituents, and avoid provoking public outrage, which could lead to crackdowns.

However, this is no longer the norm. As Jenkins astutely observed in 2006, “Many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead.”

What this tells us about the state of terrorism today — and the way we should (and shouldn’t) respond

The reason we see so many mass-casualty attacks these days is because provoking government crackdowns and knee-jerk overreactions is exactly what groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS want. In a videotaped message released in November 2004, now-deceased al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden laid out this strategy in stark language. He taunted that his organization had found it "easy for us to provoke and bait this administration” (meaning the Bush administration). He continued:

All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.

ISIS has taken this even further. That’s because addition to wanting to build what it believes to be a “true” Islamic caliphate, as al-Qaeda does, and hating Jews and Shia Muslims, as al-Qaeda does, ISIS is simultaneously driven by what Brookings Institution scholar William McCants has termed a “doomsday vision” — a belief that the End Times prophesied in Islamic scripture are at hand, and that they are the ones who will usher in the final battle between Good and Evil. (ISIS and its supporters, of course, believe they are on the side of “Good,” whereas pretty much everyone else, including most Muslims, would beg to differ.)

So how do these kinds of mass-casualty attacks like the ones in Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, and Berlin fit into that apocalyptic vision? The answer is that these attacks — and even more importantly, the way people in the affected countries react to them — help feed ISIS’s false narrative that there is truly a holy war taking place between Islam and the West.

“The smallest action you do in the heart of their land,” declared ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani earlier this year, “is dearer to us than the largest action by us and more effective and more damaging to them.”

Each time a terrorist attack happens and more people start blaming and fearing Muslims as a group — and acting on those feelings of blame and fear by targeting Muslims for increased surveillance, immigration bans, or outright violence — the more it feeds the idea that the West is at war with Islam, and vice-versa. In other words, the exact narrative that ISIS wants people to believe.

As Jessica Stern, co-author of the book ISIS: State of Terror, explains in an op-ed in the Boston Globe:

ISIS aims to appeal, in its own words, to the people “drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people.” It claims to offer disenfranchised youth — who see no way to live with honor in the West — a chance to reinvent themselves as heroes in someone else’s violent dystopian dream.

And, just as ISIS wants, fears of radical Islamist terror attacks are indeed causing the rise of far-right parties in Europe who want to crack down hard on Muslim immigration and leading US politicians to propose things that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.

President-elect Donald Trump declared Wednesday that the attack in Germany was "an attack on humanity” and suggested he might go forward with his campaign pledge to temporarily ban Muslim immigrants from coming to the United States.

"You know my plans. All along, I've been proven to be right, 100 percent correct," Trump said, when asked if the attack in Berlin had caused him to reevaluate the proposal. "What's happening is disgraceful."

Comments like these play right into ISIS’s hands, helping to make their “violent dystopian dream” seem less like a dream and more like our new reality.

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