August 7, 2017

Terrorism or not? The Knife Attack in Hamburg

In the aftermath of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, I made the bold statement that it was not an act of terrorism. I argued that it was a personal attack, for which terrorism provided a cover rather than being the core motive. The response was surprisingly divided with many more agreeing with my arguments than I expected, and some calling my sanity and professionalism into question. I was reminded that “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck”.

A year later, Germany faces a similar situation, but it is a much more open debate. Indeed, on July 28, a man entered a supermarket, stabbed five people, killing one, and fled the scene before being arrested. The first reports were originally – as is now to be expected – completely off the mark, with the suspect being described as a refugee from the UAE. As of writing this text, the use by officials of the word “terrorism” has been carefully avoided since the attack, although the German general prosecutor (Generalbundesanwalt – GBA) found enough evidence to announce it was taking over the investigation on Monday. This is not insignificant as the GBA is responsible for investigating and prosecuting acts of terrorism, just like the Section anti-terroriste du Parquet de Paris takes over in France when an act of terrorism is committed. This is without a doubt the strongest admission that the Hamburg attack was an act of terrorism.

And yet the debate rages on. The attacker claims to have wanted to die a martyr and IS paraphernalia was found in his locker in the refugee shelter where he lived. Nevertheless, some experts oddly argue that labelling him a terrorist would be doing him a favour, while some journalists debate whether the attacker identifying himself as a terrorist is more relevant than his family members saying he is not.

The irony of this debate is that the terrorism label is historically applied by the victim and not the perpetrator. Terrorists never identify themselves as such, but as fighters. They believe in the righteousness of their actions, which is why many are willing to die for their beliefs. So if the official evidence appears to point towards terrorism, but no official uses the label, was the attack in Hamburg an act of terrorism?

Why it is not

I have argued numerous times over the last few years – including Orlando – that terrorism this century, and especially this decade, is about brand appropriation, and no terrorist organisation has done a better job at “open sourcing” its brand than IS. This resulted in providing many with a “legitimate” outlet to carry out attacks on what they believe to be the source of their problems. For example, some who felt they were unjustly oppressed by police used terrorism to take aim at police representatives, as seen in Magnanville in June 2016 or in Paris on April 20, 2017, and find a way to legitimise their actions through a religious or ideological justification. So if it is personal rather than political, is it terrorism? As terrorism is generally agreed upon to be a political act, then a personal motive would deny a legal or academic use of the term terrorism.

Another element why the use of the term terrorism could be problematic is the issue of mass killings. Over the last two years, the first reflex westerners have when they hear of car accidents with many casualties, as in New York, Amsterdam or Helsinki, or a mass attack like in Konstanz, is to assume it is terrorism. However, reality has reminded us time and again that accidents do happen, and mass killings are more often than not unrelated to terrorism, even if the expression “someone with psychological issues” is now derided as being the white way of addressing terrorism. We are still waiting for more evidence in the Hamburg case, so the possibility that it was not a terrorist attack is still there, albeit small.

Finally, there is the legal technicality under German law that an act of terrorism requires affiliation to a terrorist organisation consisting of at least three people, as the trial of the right-extremist NSU member Beate Zschäpe exemplifies. If the Hamburg attacker acted alone, planned alone and pledged allegiance to no one, legally he would not be considered a terrorist, and he would be tried for murder and attempted murder, even if the act was politically motivated. This legal technicality was applied in the case of the attacker of Cologne mayor Henriette Reker and to the case of the killer of British MP Jo Cox in the UK. So legally speaking, the attack in Hamburg – if no links to a group or individuals are found – would not be considered terrorism.

Why it is

I mentioned above that the Generalbundesanwalt taking over the investigation is already a pretty big sign that the attack was terrorism. Its statement mentions that evidence suggests a radical Islamist motivation, which would make the attack politically motivated.

The other aspect of course is that the perpetrator claimed wanting to die as a martyr, and the type of attack certainly emulates other terrorist attacks where mass stabbing was used, although the MO of the attack is so generic – mass stabbings are a recent phenomenon in terrorism – that it is by no means an indicator of terrorism. In addition, if more material was found suggesting that the attacker may have been inspired by IS, it would strengthen the assumption further that the motive behind the attack was political and therefore in line with what could be described as terrorism. If actual links to IS are found, then affiliation to a terrorist organisation will have been established, thereby making it an act of terrorism from a legal perspective.

The attacker’s motive

Other than wanting to die as a martyr, nothing has been said about the attacker’s motives, but often mass attackers are emotionally triggered to take the step from extremism to violence, and early reports suggest a spontaneous decision to commit the attack. Much has been said about the attacker being denied his refugee status, and it is possible that this acted as a trigger.

However, I would like to suggest another possible trigger: The rioting and conflict that occurred in Jerusalem last week about the access to the Al Aqsa mosque. Six people died and dozens were injured in the protests against the metal detectors and age restriction imposed by the Israeli government. The move was condemned and despite the removal of the restrictions, the damage had been done, and many Arabs and Palestinians had additional grievances against Israel. Could it be then that the Hamburg attacker, who is Palestinian, was triggered to act by the violence occurring at the Temple Mount?

This is pure speculation at this point, but taking into consideration the key roles the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the broader tensions between Muslims and Jews play in extremist rhetoric, and how it has already proven to be a trigger for terrorist attacks in the past, the probability that the Hamburg attack was triggered by the al Aqsa clashes exists. Furthermore, the timing of the attack – its spontaneity – would further support this argument, and remind us once again that the “butterfly effect” is very real when it comes to political violence.

So what is it?

Based on the current available information, I would classify the attack on the supermarket in Hamburg as an act of terrorism. I understand the reluctance of defining an attack as terrorist until all the facts are in, especially in the context of an election campaign and itchy headline and social media fingers, but there are enough elements here to strongly suggest terrorism.

Germany will hold national elections seven weeks from now on September 24. As we already witnessed this year in France and especially the UK, elections are a fertile period for terrorist attacks hence the extra caution around labelling a crime terrorism. If an attack is publicly recognised as a terrorist attack, will it produce a claim even if the attacker fully acted alone? Is the caution also part of the security strategy to wait out if a terrorist organisation will claim? Or is the question about the Hamburg attack’s categorisation about limiting media exposure, thereby limiting inspiration for would be attackers? In fact, it is likely all of the above and more.

The debate about what is terrorism and what is not is essentially academic and legal, hence the hundreds of definitions about it. While the debate can get heated at times, it remains fairly inconsequential. Its use by elected and security officials however is not. It makes terrorism “real”, because it is defined by its victim, not its perpetrator. As such, if German security and political officials refuse to use the terrorism label for the Hamburg attack, even if the evidence suggests otherwise, then it is strategically sound in the current context as it disarms the true potency of the attack. And that may be the real question stemming from the Hamburg attack: Does it exist if you do not mention it?

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