The rise of the self-preserving jihadi: a different lesson from the terrorist attacks in Barcelona

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The Rambla after the terrorist attack in Barcelona

After four days of confusion and contradictory reports, the Spanish authorities have finally pierced through the fog of war to identify the man who carried out the ghastly vehicle attack in Barcelona on August 17. As yet, little is known about 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaquoub, but it is clear that he had all the ruthlessness to make his attack the one of the most deadly on European soil since the Paris attacks in November 2015. He swerved for some 500 metres to hit as many people as possible, and he probably would have gone further if hadn’t crashed his Fiat van into a newspaper stand. But then he did something that is not in the Islamic State playbook: he ran away.

The suicide attack has long been considered the hallmark of jihadist terrorism. The organisations that dominated the terrorist scene from the 1970s into the 1990s were very careful with their personnel, going to great lengths to make sure that they could use the same perpetrators for multiple attacks. Jihadist terrorism was different when it first emerged. While suicide terrorism is in no way exclusive to jihadists, many of those who were trained or inspired by Al Qaida wanted to kill themselves as well as their victims. The operational advantages of this modus operandi are clear: a suicide bomber is more flexible in choosing the place and time of the explosion and, if successful, cannot rat out his fellow conspirators to the police. Also, the idea that suicide terrorists are willing to give their lives makes them more intimidating to their enemies and more alluring to their sympathisers.

Lately however, jihadists carrying out attacks in the West are more likely to commit what one could call self-preserving attacks. Belying the notion that they hold their own lives in as little regard as the lives of their victims, many terrorists in the age of the Islamic State appear very eager to survive their attacks. To give just a few examples, the man who started a shooting spree at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 ran away after the attack, as did the man who opened fire on several Jewish targets in Copenhagen in February 2015. Many vehicle attacks are self-preserving attacks as well. Like Younes Abouyaaquoub, the perpetrators of the vehicle rammings in Berlin and Stockholm fled the scene after having killed several innocent victims. In some cases there even was an escape plan of sorts. The Charlie Hebdo-shooters escaped by car, and Spanish police believe that Abouyaaquoub used a getaway vehicle as well. Moreover, the list of self-preserving attacks could easily be expanded by including numerous stabbings and shootings, especially in France and the US, that have drawn less media attention. It is true that some terrorists do not directly kill themselves, but rather behave in such a way that the police is forced to kill them, but they by no means outnumber the attackers who simply want to live.

At this point, any explanation of this trend towards self-preserving attacks has to remain speculative, but it is certainly noteworthy that most suicide terrorists are acting on the orders of the Islamic State or another major organisation in the Arab world. Cases in point include the attacks in Paris in November 2015, the attacks in Brussels in March 2016 and probably the suicide bombing in Manchester earlier this year, as well as two smaller suicide attacks in Germany last year. In other words, larger organisations that are directly involved in the planning of attacks in the West usually want their operatives to die in the attack. Left to their own devices, however, jihadists tend to shy away from making the ultimate sacrifice. Suicide doesn’t come easy to most people, and apparently even committed jihadists needs to be pushed into doing it. But as the Islamic State’s capacity for training and planning attacks is degrading, the group has to rely more on terrorists they are not in direct contact with, which means that self-preserving attacks are becoming more likely.

In this regard, the attacks in Catalonia fit a larger pattern. The Islamic State’s claim that they were behind Thursday’s carnage was vague and generic and had to be updated after the second attack, which suggests that they did not know how the attack was going to unfold. And indeed, there are no indications that the perpetrators wanted to die. Abouyaaquoub escape through a nearby mall and was killed after four days on the run, while the suicide vests worn by his fellow jihadists in Cambrils were fake, meaning they were only meant to scare people off.

Much of the media coverage and analysis in the wake of the Catalonia attacks has understandably been focused on the fact that this was yet another vehicle attack. Predictably, the first response was a call for placing obstacles in well-known crowded places. Such solutions are highly problematic for a number of reasons, but more importantly, they take only one aspect of the current jihadist modus operandi into account. An exclusive focus on the weaponisation of vehicles obscures the other, broader trend of the self-preserving jihadi, which is at least as important and has some important implications of its own.

First of all, terrorist attacks are becoming more prolonged affairs in the sense that there are perpetrators that need to be apprehended or even neutralised, which includes the risk of violent confrontations and escalation. Obviously, this needs to be taken into account in the protocols and training scenarios of counterterrorism forces. On a brighter note though, it also means that there will be more opportunities to use perpetrators of attacks as sources of information. Men like Abouyaaquoub may be determined and dangerous, but they are essentially amateurs who, unlike the members of the IRA, have had no counterinterrogation training. Professional interrogators should be able to crack them and learn more about why, how and with whom they plan their attacks.

The fight against terrorism is far from over, but if knowing your enemy is as important as it is made out to be, dealing with the self-preserving jihadi the right way might just help us get the upper hand.