The Strasbourg attack is a brutal reminder of how terrorism has changed

The fevered conspiracy theories that emerged after Tuesday's violence show how a generation of radicalised criminals has sown distrust in society

Kevin McDonald
Thursday 13 December 2018 11:26
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Manhunt under way after three killed in shooting near Strasbourg Christmas market

The attack at the Strasbourg Christmas market has highlighted the changing face of radicalised violence in Europe.

Early on Tuesday morning, a man wanted on a charge of attempted murder following a botched armed robbery, succeeded in evading French police after they raided his flat. Later that evening he launched a rampage attack on the Christmas market, armed with an automatic pistol and knife. Three people were killed, one left brain dead and 12 others wounded, some with life-threatening injuries.

Last night the suspect, Cherif Chekatt, was killed in the Neudorf district of Strasbourg following what police described as a counter terror operation. Chekatt was on France’s S-list of potential security threats. He has 27 previous convictions, served two prison sentences in France, and most recently was released from prison in Germany after serving time for burglary. It has become a familiar picture.

In the years following the attacks of 11 September, 2001, it was widely believed that the origins of extremist violence lay in religion and in misunderstandings of religious texts. Concerns were expressed about so-called “fundamentalists”. This view is still widely held in France, where many “deradicalisation” programmes are made up of seminars and lectures on the Quran.

However, the background of the Strasbourg attacker mirrors those involved in the Paris attacks of November 2015. Almost all had previous criminal convictions for offences ranging from drug dealing to armed robbery and attempted murder. The attacker who killed pedestrians and police in Carcassonne, France in March this year also had convictions for drug dealing.

Despite this, radicalisation in France remains largely framed by the lens of laïcité – France’s assertive brand of secularism – and is still fundamentally seen as a problem of religion. More and more, however, it is becoming clear that this most deadly form of radicalisation involves a mutation of mundane criminality.

Certain parts of criminal culture increasingly celebrate a “war” against society, where the police are stupid, the law is illegitimate, and the suffering of the victim is justified. Crime is celebrated as power and suffused with military metaphors. We see this when young people in criminal groups describe themselves as “soldiers,” and when the aim of violence is to humiliate opponents.

In the case of France, this war against society is becoming “sacralised” – the term for when actions are imbued with the power of sacred ritual. The spoils of theft are considered religiously-sanctioned “booty” – an idea originally popularised by Isis.

Certain kinds of violence, such as we saw in London in Borough Market in June 2017, aim to kill as many people as possible before the killers themselves die. In Borough Market the killers all wore fake suicide vests to ensure that they would not be taken alive.

This violence mirrors that of a school shooter who wants to show the world who they are. For them, this is only possible through violence that fractures reality through the scale of killing. The end point of rampage violence is the death of the attacker. We can see it with Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at a LGBT+ nightclub in Orlando in 2016, and who set out to “purify himself through death.

Our inability to understand such violence, poses an extraordinary risk to our politics and culture. In many countries in Europe, religious devotion – if you are a Muslim – has become grounds for suspicion. Women’s headscarf choices have become seen by some as a marker of extremist tendencies.

The corrosive effect of this violence is not only evident in attitudes towards Islam. It helps make the world more dangerous and less intelligible and we can see this in widespread indicators of a decline in social trust. One of the most obvious of these, is the rise of conspiracy theories, which quickly emerged in response to the killings in Strasbourg.

One of the first warnings tweeted by French police about Tuesday evening’s attacks included a picture of the unfolding events with a timestamp of 11.47am. However the attack itself began around 8.00pm. The reason for this time difference lies in a Twitter setting that may default to US Pacific Time.

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However, this discrepancy has been widely taken up on social media in France as proof that Tuesday’s attack either did not happen, or was orchestrated by the French state, the most common explanation being as an attempt to distract from the gilets jaunes protests directed against the Macron government.

This theory has become so widespread on gilets jaunes Facebook sites, that administrators have suspended comments in an attempt to control the flood of posts proposing different versions of the conspiracy. It is far from sure that this will succeed.

This points to one of the less obvious impacts of such attacks: Spree killings set out not only to kill and maim, they also set out to destroy our ability to live together with strangers, with people who are different from us. This is what cities celebrate, and this is why it is cities that are so often the target of such murderous violence.

Kevin McDonald is professor of Sociology at Middlesex University, London. His most recent book, Radicalization, was published in October

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