As London woke up to the news that yet another vehicle had collided with pedestrians in their city early Monday, there were indications that the incident might have been a deliberate, anti-Muslim attack.
The van plowed into a crowd outside two of North London's mosques, leaving one dead and injuring 10 others. “I want to kill more Muslims,” the driver shouted, according to witnesses. London Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said on Monday morning that the incident was “another appalling attack on our city,” and that there was an “ongoing investigation by our Counter Terrorism Command to establish why this attack was carried out.” Additional officers were sent to Muslim places of worship around London early Monday morning.
Even if investigators end up asserting that the incident was not motivated by Islamophobic beliefs, the community’s anger is unlikely to simply disappear. In the early morning hours, social media was already filled with questions about why it took authorities so long to publicly raise the possibility of an anti-Muslim terrorist attack, indicating that any investigation outcome to the contrary would like be met with skepticism.
It is yet another incident in which there is one group which has little to lose, but a lot to gain: the so-called Islamic State.
Some fear that the apparent attack on Monday morning could ultimately play into the hands of extremists, especially if the van driver adhered to right-wing ideology.
Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, 28-year old bystander Hassan Yassin said he feared that the likely attack would only contribute to a cycle of violence. “This will only fuel Muslim extremists to carry out more attacks. They will use that as a justification to carry out more attacks,” he said.
In a handbook released two years ago, authors associated with the Islamic State terrorist group openly hoped for such a scenario to provoke more violence. “When Muslims and Mosques will be attacked by neo-Nazis in protests, Muslims will do counter-protests,” the propaganda book’s authors speculated. There are so far no indications that a neo-Nazi or right-wing sympathizer was behind Monday morning's attack, even though it was a notion which was frequently implied on social media.
“This is how the future Jihad in Europe will begin,” the handbook went on to explain, urging its sympathizers to mix with Muslim protesters to fuel the violence. “People in between will be caught in crossfire and will have to pick sides.”
In other publications, the Islamic State has similarly stated its goal of provoking an anti-Muslim backlash in Western society to attract more sympathizers or recruits. After the January 2015 attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, the group explained that the attacks would “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the gray zone themselves,” referring to an overreaction by governments following large-scale terrorist attacks which could alienate Muslim communities.
Critics have raised the question of whether British Prime Minister Theresa May has fallen into such a trap already. Earlier this month, she promised a tougher counterterrorism approach and pledged to test the limits of legislation. Speaking to the Sun tabloid newspaper ahead of the general elections, May said that “if human rights laws get in the way” of protecting Britain, she would change those laws — comments that raised concerns in some Muslim communities.
Two years ago, ISIS propaganda outlets laid out how the group hoped that more repressive governmental reactions could fuel anti-Muslim hatred among the wider population.
“Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens,” the authors of an ISIS-associated propaganda publication wrote at the time.
In the two years since, access routes to the Islamic State’s territory in Syria and Iraq have been mostly closed, leading to a strategy change. The group now encourages its supporters to carry out low-tech but high-impact attacks in their Western home countries instead of risking the journey abroad.
So far, that approach has not had the full impact the Islamic State had hoped for. Contrary to prevalent predictions, far-right parties have undergone a surprising decline. France’s National Front lost this year’s election, whereas the right-wing populist UKIP party has virtually disappeared from Britain's political stage. But whereas ISIS has so far failed to divide Europe's electorate, it has provoked tensions on the more extreme sides of the political spectrum.
In Germany, right-wing arsonists have been blamed for allegedly burning down hundreds of asylum shelters since 2015. The tensions have worried German authorities, who warned last year that anti-refugee sentiments could easily escalate: “Apart from physical harm, one has to reckon with murders,” authorities concluded.
Although it remains unclear whether the London attack was fueled by anti-Muslim ideology, authorities there sought to prevent possible similar tensions Monday morning. Neil Basu, the Senior National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, said that Londoners should remain united amid what was currently being treated as a terrorist attack.
“Now is a time once again for London to stand together to face those who seek to divide us,” Basu said.