As of this writing, no jihadist organization has taken credit for the horrific attacks in France last night, when a petty criminal with no known ties to any group plowed a truck through a mile of death during a celebration of freedom. It doesn’t mark a new chapter in terrorism, but it does make everyone aware that we are firmly in that chapter, that the pages have turned around us, and we’re stuck in a new plot.
My initial instinct is that this will be the plot of a small, independent cell, possibly with some training behind them, but more than likely not. If it wasn’t coordinated with any central ISIS/Qaeda group (as seems to be the case), it also wasn’t entirely unsophisticated, despite the bluntness of the attack. The right street was picked for maximum efficacy, and the presence of weapons in the truck showed the ability to acquire the tools of war.
All that said, it wasn’t very sophisticated, and indeed was taken right out of the pages of Inspire, as well as a few smaller-scale attacks. This is the new kind of terrorism: as what ISIS actually is changes over the next few months, there will be more of these attacks, both coordinated by the remnants of the caliphate or their affiliates, or from independent groups/actors who might pledge allegiance to ISIS but in an essentially meaningless way, tactically.
That it is meaningless doesn’t really matter, though, especially to the dead. These small cells usually wind up shooting themselves in the ass, but they can sometimes be successful, especially if they keep things very simple. One of the main dangers, as I see it, is that as ISIS starts to create a vacuum, there will be more room for a) affiliated terrorist organizations to try to take the leadership mantle with coordinated, large-scale attacks; and b) unaffiliated-but-inspired groups to try to step up with attacks like these, which can be large-scale by dint of simplicity and luck.
The former can potentially be slowed down (if not stopped) by intelligence, and also luck. The latter might not be as spectacularly successful, but they can be extremely dangerous, and potentially do more to unravel the fabric of free society than larger groups. It makes everyone with a grudge, some sociopathic tendencies, and the “right” sort of inspiration (jihad, rather than The Matrix or whatever), a potential terrorist.
The problem is that a free society won’t really be able to stop these attacks until the fervor of jihad runs its course, which it will, at some point, though possibly not in the lifetime of anyone reading this. As the Middle East convulses, and as Europe tries to handle the expansion of superstates, the reaction of nationalists, and the influx of the stateless, emotions and politics on personal and international levels will be subject to huge changes and dangerous trends. We’re at the beginning of it now. The end is nowhere in sight.
The key is not to give up on the idea of a free society. Bastille Day was the right day to pick for this, for maximum symbolism. It is a celebration of freedom. Of course, the French Revolution became a horrible Goya flipbook of bloodlust and revenge, and ended in Empire, but through fits and starts, it became France. It has its problems with assimilation, but has strong democratic values.
As a free society, that’s the sort of timeline we have to look at when dealing with the mutating scourge of jihad. One day, it will be history. The question is if we’ll be reading that history in a free society, or if we’ll be looking at it through the gray-barred schoolhouse of a modern police state.