Let’s stop being naive about the threat posed by Islamic State

Now that even Hongkongers have become victims in this terrible cycle of violence, basic trust and assumptions about humanity can no longer be taken for granted

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 2:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 2:01am

Islamic State’s borderless reign of terror has got personal. While we are still reeling with the rest of the world from the inhuman horror of the slaughter by truck among a festive crowd in Nice, France, our thoughts have turned to four Hong Kong victims and their loved ones after an axe attack by an Afghan youth on a German train. The attack on a couple, their daughter and her boyfriend drove home the reality of Nice and other random attacks linked to Islamic State – there is no conventional defence against haphazard terror, or even those who are simply deranged. We must learn to live with the threat.

An Islamic State mouthpiece has claimed that the truck killer was an IS soldier answering calls to target nationals of the coalition that is fighting IS. The French police knew Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, 31, only as a petty criminal. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had apparently undergone a “very rapid radicalisation” into someone capable of extreme violence.

Two Hongkongers critically hurt in German axe attack by Afghan refugee who kept Islamic State flag at home

This raises a number of concerns. Intelligence is key to fighting terrorism. Few if any democracies have the unfettered electronic snooping powers at the command of the French state. Yet the authorities could not prevent the atrocity in Nice.

The use of an ordinary truck, the sort of thing IS has suggested using as a killing machine or platform, plays on the fearful uncertainty created by random acts of barbarity. In this respect, it is not unlike use of scheduled commercial aircraft for the 9/11 attacks. The pervasive security around civilian aviation is a lasting legacy. But how do you mount security around delivery vehicles?

Just as it is said that the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of random acts of terrorism is trust. Undermining the trust that binds a society, and particularly trust in authority and law and order, is fundamental to the goals of IS. It may yet transpire that but for distrust between disaffected Muslims and French police, the authorities might have received a precious scrap or two of intelligence about Lahouaiej-Bouhlel.

That said, the latest attacks have left us none the wiser about how to make ourselves safer. Even a country on a high state of alert like France cannot protect its citizens. Basic trust and assumptions about humanity can no longer be taken for granted. Take the Nice promenade where at least 84 lost their lives. Barricades were not seen to be necessary since people are not expected to drive on the footpath. The loss of innocence with which we might place faith in such assumptions, and heightened awareness of our surroundings and the demeanour of people in them, might make it a little harder for IS to cultivate extremism and violence among Muslim populations.