Barcelona, one of Europe’s the most picturesque cities, was rattled on Thursday after a van slammed into pedestrians, killing at least 13 people and injuring over 80. The attack in the Catalan city was the sixth time in recent years that terrorists wielded vehicles to mow down civilians on European streets.
The Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for the episode that was the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain in over a decade. Although ISIS assumed responsibility, it is unclear if the Barcelona attack was directed or influenced by them. In either case, it indicates the widening of the space being occupied by the terrorist group both geographically and psychologically.
If it were directed by ISIS, it would fit in within the broader approach adopted by the terrorist group of extending its attacks beyond Iraq and Syria into the heartlands of Europe to instill the maximum of fear. And the decision is not linked to the physical distance between the ISIS territory that is fast shrinking but the expected impact it would have on those directly or indirectly affected.
Let us remember the attacks on Paris (November 2015), Nice (July 2016), Manchester attacks of May 2017 that killed young and innocent audience at Ariana Grande concert, and the attacks on the London Bridge of June 2017 in which 8 unsuspecting individuals lost their lives. They were all part of the ISIS strategy which aims at communicating to the audience (be they physically present or watching on the social and other media) that the organization has not lost the battle and is willing to take the fight to the doorsteps of those active in curtailing its power.
Why Barcelona? It fits within this picture as the site where people feel safe and comfortable, learn Spanish from around the world and visit the place in large numbers during the glorious summer days. An attack in Barcelona would communicate a message to people from all over Europe and the wider Western world that ISIS can still target them.
Add to this the fetish with recreating a lost history of Islam’s glorious days and it is understandable why ISIS would direct an attack in a Spanish city once under Muslim control. After all, Barcelona was under the control of the Moors in the 8th century even if for less than a century. And then there is the history of Al-Andulus with stories of Muslim influence in Cordoba and Granada. The Barcelona attack would reinforce the claim that the terrorist group is helping the Muslim community inch back to its glory in what was once part of the Muslim Empire.
Equally concerning is the prospect of it being an ‘inspired’ attack. With the focus on ISIS as the threat to the West and global stability, it has taken the space previously occupied by Al Qaeda as the oppositional force that stands up to the assumed oppressor. In essence, it is similar to the position communist ideology and organizations occupied in the 20th century.
Those who want to feel empowered, significant and influential take it upon themselves to commit acts that place them squarely on the side of the ISIS. They do not have to be Sunni Muslims. A Shi’ite could adopt the idea as was the case in Sydney’s Lindt Cafe siege of December 2015 when Man Haron Monis of Iranian background used the ISIS flag while holding hostages in the café.
They do not have to be Muslims either: they could convert to Islam and join the space that apparently gives them the power and significance. That their acts of empowerment could rely on the use of machetes, knives or cars makes it even more concerning. The sheer impossibility of predicting who would be the terrorist adds a dimension of fear that adds to their power and contributes to fear around the world.
Finally, it is important to reflect on the possible motive linked to the recent Charlottesville attack which was so ignorantly accepted, condemned and then indirectly condoned by U.S. President Donald J. Trump. That the attack by an ultra-right supremacist was not categorically condemned could have emboldened the ‘inspired’ attacker in Barcelona: if mowing down the opponents can be acceptable in the U.S., it could also be acceptable elsewhere.