Terrorism usually comes in cycles, each with its own motive and particular form of attack. Some cycles take new forms—like the cycle of airplane hijackings that began in the late 1960s, which became the focus of many very different ideologies and groups, and lasted through the mid-1980s. Others are modern variations of previous cycles.
Today’s use of cars to attack ordinary civilians in open urban and crowed areas, as evident in Thursday’s terrorist attack in Barcelona and Cambrils, Spain, bears a striking resemblance to some of the anarchist bombings and attacks that took place from the late 1880s to the dawn of the 1920s. Once again, a relatively tiny extremist minority has found that it can get vast publicity and attention with high-visibility, high-casualty attacks in a public area that have no particular political or strategic value. But even a failed attack garners lots of public and media attention.
Copycat terrorist attacks have gone on for decades in the past when there was no clear way to prevent them, and cars and vans provide a new degree of ease, cost, and potential survival at the end of any attack. Preparing for and executing a car or van attack provides little or none of the usual warning signs like acquiring specialized timers and communications, guns, bombs, and explosives. Stealing or renting a car, truck, or van is all too easy. Conspirators have to meet far less often—if at all—and there is little physical evidence to attract attention, justify surveillance, and justify an arrest and prosecution before an attack. Suicide attacks will always help breach security, but running from a vehicle or throwing a bomb is now an option.
Barcelona is also clearly yet another part of an established cycle. There were eight earlier major successes in France, Germany, Britain, and Sweden between December 2014 and this new round in Spain. All combined to teach terrorists and Jihadists that simple, low-cost attacks get massive media attention and political reactions, and do so regardless of the political, economic, or military value of the target. If anything, killing the innocent and defenseless may actually get more of a reaction than carrying out a far more difficult attack on a protected target. The sheer innocence of those hurt or killed; the fact that no given group is singled out by status, faith, race, or ethnicity; and knowledge the victim could just have easily been anyone else—all combine to grab a massive global audience.
These factors are critical when the key goal is to alienate, rather than compel or persuade, and to feed Islamophobia. If the goal is to breed divisions, hatred, fear, and anger between the West and Muslims, almost any attack works, and the more innocent targets across the globe, the better. Even the cheapest and simplest forms of terrorism become an all-too effective form of “hate crime”—a way of dividing cultures and faiths, and pushing everyone toward the broader levels of extremism that extremists seek to exploit.
Such extremists threaten the security of Muslims in the West, kill far more Muslims than non-Muslims, and are crippling development and progress in the entire Islamic world. The strong security and counterterrorism alliances between the U.S., Europe, and most regimes in Muslim states need equal stress and reiteration. Like all forms of successful counterterrorism, the struggle against today’s new cycle of terrorism threats is ultimately a war of ideas, and will be lost or won at this level.
Anthony H. Cordesman is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS.