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Why attacks like the one in Nice are nearly impossible to prevent

Bastille Day Truck Attack Kills 84 In Nice (David Ramos/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Friday morning, French authorities confirmed the identity of the man who ran over a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France. His name is Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel; he was a 31-year-old Tunisian national living in France. Bouhlel had a petty criminal record but no known links to extremist or terrorist groups. His motivation for the attack is still, as yet, unclear.

Despite the lack of proven links to any Islamist terrorist group, we’ve already heard calls to declare war on Islam. Newt Gingrich, for example, called on the US to "test every person here who is of a Muslim background" and to deport the ones "who believe in Sharia."

This isn’t just premature — it’s a terribly counterproductive response to Islamist terrorism (if that is, in fact, what this is). The truth is that this kind of attack — an individual taking a truck and running over a crowd — can be nearly impossible to stop in advance. From a law enforcement standpoint, these attacks are much more akin to a mass shooting than a 9/11-style grand plot.

But treating them as such — as massive threats requiring a massive policy response — plays right into the Islamists’ hands. By assuming that they’re responsible for everything, and then demanding extreme responses when they are, we end up helping make militant Islamists seem far stronger and scarier than they are — helping them sow exactly the kind of terror they’re aiming for.

The kind of terrorism we can’t stop

The scene of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
The scene of a similar attack in San Bernardino, California.
(Frederic Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s still possible that Bouhlel ends up having links to some kind of militant group, Islamist or otherwise. But the truth is that the basic mode of attack he used in Nice — ramming a crowded area with a vehicle — could easily be executed with no direction from experienced militants. All it takes is a car (or some other form of weapon, like a knife or a gun) and homicidal intent.

This kind of attack, where an attacker without formal links to a terrorist group attacks a target, is called "lone wolf" terrorism — and it is nearly impossible to prevent.

"Attacks by lone operator terrorists provide the most puzzling and unpredictable form of terrorism," Edwin Bakker and Beatrice Graaf, terrorism scholars at the University of Leiden, write in Perspectives on Terrorism. "Lone wolf terrorists are a nightmare for the counterterrorism organizations, police and intelligence communities as they are extremely difficult to stop."

Take Israel. In the past several years, there has been a spate of terrorist attacks in which individual Palestinian motorists have run down civilians or Israeli army soldiers. The Israeli security establishment, one of the most effective in the world, cannot seem to predict these attacks or stop them from happening.

Why is it so hard? It’s because individual, uncoordinated attacks give off few if any of the signatures that would help detect the attack in advance.

To disrupt a terrorist plot, law enforcement and intelligence agencies need intelligence: an informer with knowledge of the plot, intercepted communications between the plotters, etc. Lone wolves don’t do any of that, by definition.

Moreover, the demographic profile of past lone wolves is so varied that it’s hard to predict who’s going to become one, which makes it hard to take any useful steps in advance.

"They display a variety of backgrounds with a wide spectrum of ideologies and motivations: from Islamists to right wing extremists, and from confused suicidal psychopaths to dedicated and mentally healthy persons," Bakker and Graaf explain. "This vast array of expressions and visions, ranging from ideological ramblings on the Internet and hate mail to fully-fledged acts of terrorism, hardly gives away anything in the sense of patterns or recurring methods behind [the] lone wolf’s attacks."

The rise of ISIS has made this challenge even harder. ISIS has repeatedly encouraged its sympathizers to launch attacks on their own, without guidance from ISIS headquarters. With huge numbers of people around the world reading material about ISIS or by ISIS propagandists, law enforcement cannot really predict who will become violent.

"It is particularly difficult to differentiate between those lone operator extremists who intend to commit attacks and those who simply express radical beliefs or issue hollow threats," as Bakker and Graaf put it. "While most terrorists are radical but not all radicals are terrorists, it is extremely difficult to single out lone wolves who will carry out an actual attack before they strike, even with the help of the most sophisticated technical intelligence gathering tools."

Western intelligence communities can’t catch every person with an extreme ideology and a car or a knife. They just can’t.

How to respond to the lone wolf threat

Bastille Day Truck Attack Kills 84 In Nice
Mourners in Nice visit the scene of the attack.
(David Ramos/Getty Images)

Luckily, pure lone wolf attacks are very rare. If that’s what happened in Nice, it is a horrific act — but one that, thankfully, is not likely to recur frequently.

Research by Peter Neumann, the director of the International Study for the Center of Radicalization at King’s College London, finds that many people the media hyped as "lone wolves" actually had a long history of involvement in radical movements. Factors like internet exposure to ISIS propaganda were only a contributing factor rather than the reason for their radicalization.

"Compared to the hype that there is about the internet," Neumann told me in a December conversation after the San Bernardino, California, shooting, the number of "people who were purely and exclusively radicalized through the internet ... is fairly small."

That doesn't mean attacks will never happen in the future — according to Neumann, the opposite is more likely to be true. Rather, it's important for us to keep the real scale of the threat in context.

The reason ISIS encourages attacks like this is because it makes the group seem like it has more reach than it does. ISIS has correctly recognized that lone wolf attacks are nearly impossible to detect in advance, and cause levels of panic in the target state that are wildly disproportionate to the actual damage done.

"What ISIS understands, more than al-Qaeda before, is that even fairly limited acts of violence can be very terrorizing," Neumann explains. "Terrorism is not necessarily about the number of people you kill; it's about the terror you create."

For ISIS, sowing panic in the West is a tactical victory far greater than simply killing Westerners. It serves any number of strategic objectives: provoking a military overreaction, sparking a backlash against Western Muslims that would fuel its "clash of civilizations" narrative, demonstrating its reach and power to admirers and thus beating out al-Qaeda for recruits, or simply retaliating for defeats in Iraq and Syria at the US-led coalition’s hands.

It's impossible to know what the group's endgame is with absolute certainty; ISIS doesn't exactly invite journalists and analysts to sit in on its strategy sessions. But we do know, for a fact, that the goal of encouraging these attacks is to make ISIS seem strong at a time when it’s actually suffering defeat after defeat around the world.

The worst possible response to the Nice incident — which, again, we don’t even yet know is Islamist terrorism — is to help ISIS sell this narrative of reach and strength. To act, as Gingrich and others have, as if attacks like Nice pose a civilizational threat to the West rather than being horrific but rare acts of mass violence hands ISIS exactly the kind of propaganda win it’s been hoping for.

The best way to respond to the tragedy in Nice isn’t to hastily call for illiberal assaults on Muslim civil rights. It’s to wait until we have enough information to know what actually happened — and, even then, to keep a sense of perspective about the nature of the threat.

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