Lesson From Nice: To Fight ISIS, Focus on Motive Over Means

A terrorist’s favored 'weapon of war' is anything that kills

NICE, FRANCE - JULY 15: A man reacts as people visit the scene and lay tributes to the victims of a terror attack on the Promenade des Anglais on July 15, 2016 in Nice, France. A French-Tunisian attacker killed 84 people as he drove a lorry through crowds, gathered to watch a firework display during Bastille Day Celebrations. The attacker then opened fire on people in the crowd before being shot dead by police.
A man reacts at the scene of a terror attack on the Promenade des Anglais on July 15, 2016 in Nice, France.

ISIS called jihadists to arms in spring 2015 with a message directed to the “small firewood” of the Sinai who were expected to ignite “huge flames” with their lone attacks.

A terrorist, they explained, doesn’t need “strength or muscle” or “huge experience in jihad work,” and “each wolf chooses what suits him and what fits his goal and location of the implementation of the action.”

Embrace one’s personal expertise and connections, ISIS advised, and “diversify the weapon used.”

The brutal attack in Nice, while stunning to many in its simplicity coupled with a devastating death toll, is a sober reminder that counter-terrorism policy must focus on the motive—taking down the jihadists, the organizations, the ideology—over the means.

Terror groups have long encouraged would-be jihadists to use what works for their skill set and the target, and to pick a weapon whose acquisition will arouse the least suspicion so as not to spoil the plot.

In a video released by ISIS in Afghanistan after the Orlando attack, an English-speaking jihadist directed Western Muslims who believe in the caliphate to “try your level-best to destroy kuffar,” or disbelievers.

“By any means, slaughter them—hit them by your car, give them poison, stab them with a knife, punch them, or at least spit on them,” the jihadist said.

That’s far from new advice, even if the non-lethal saliva is a new spin.

Take the pot roast out of the pressure cooker and make a bomb, as the Boston Marathon terrorists learned from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s step-by-step tutorial. Take a knife and ambush a secularist as he walks to the bus stop in the morning or browses a book fair, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has demonstrated in their string of grisly assassinations. Take a box cutter and hijack a plane.

After Orlando, much of the focus—particularly on Capitol Hill—has been on the weapons Omar Mateen used to open fire in the Pulse nightclub. The hashtag #DisarmHate trended on Twitter, and a longstanding legislative effort to ban those on the no-fly list from purchasing a gun was revived. Mateen had fallen under FBI scrutiny but was cleared of terror ties; he also worked continuously as an armed security guard.

“Being tough on terrorism, particularly the sorts of homegrown terrorism that we’ve seen now in Orlando and San Bernardino, means making it harder for people who want to kill Americans to get their hands on assault weapons that are capable of killing dozens of innocents as quickly as possible,” President Obama said in his weekly address after the nightclub attack.

But what is a terrorist’s favored “weapon of war”? Anything that kills. The more innocuous, the better. Jihadists were positively giddy on social media the night that a simple delivery truck became a lethal weapon. After all, who’s going to screen customers renting a moving van?

Nobody wants aspiring jihadis to be packing firepower. If Mateen had been turned away at the gun store counter, though, he would have resorted to a different source, like the black market, or a different means to conduct a massacre, like the driver in France. That’s what terror groups teach all recruits, whether in a lone operation or at the training camp—that the calling to kill can and should overcome supply hurdles. “Choose what suits” and “diversify.”

When there’s a will as strong as the desire to commit jihad—something they believe is a calling from Allah—you’d better believe they’ll find a way. Online terror networks, from social media to the recesses of the dark web, aren’t just moral support forums there to cheerlead jihad. They are support networks. If attacks need to be discussed, they provide the encryption means to enable discussion that’s less likely to be intercepted by the authorities. If a would-be jihadi wants to come to the Islamic State, the support network might provide financial aid or hook him up with safe houses in Turkey. If the prospective attacker needs some weapons, there’s a black market or acquisition ideas for that.

And when a prospective jihadi is hedging about whether he (or she) has the right tools for jihad, he’s told to stop worrying and just do it.

In 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani told supporters to “kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever” in “any manner or way.”

“Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him,” Adnani said.

In the fervent debate about the means by which terrorists in the U.S. have taken lives, it’s critical to remember that to stop terrorism in a country ripe with soft-target opportunities, addressing the motive has to come first.

Bridget Johnson is a fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center and D.C. bureau chief for PJ Media. 

Lesson From Nice: To Fight ISIS, Focus on Motive Over Means