It is probably not possible to know and therefore pointless to speculate why Khalid Masood carried out the attack on Westminster Bridge and the Palace of Westminster on 22 March. Better to focus our thoughts on sympathy with the victims of the attack and building the better society that can works against such behaviour.
Daesh were quick to claim that Masood was a soldier of the Caliphate, who had responded to their call. Masood was a “soldier” in the same sense that the attackers in Nice and Berlin were soldiers who attacked civilians using vehicles. In Masood’s case he also used a knife. Daesh can claim these attacks as coming out of their network; but there is no evidence that Masood had ever contacted them directly.
This is unlike the attacks in Paris in November 2015 which were coordinated by people who had ongoing links with Daesh inside “The Caliphate”. We do know that Masood was an Islamic convert who had worked in Saudi Arabia. MI5 say they knew who Masood was but nothing has so far been reported to suggest he was someone they believed to be a real risk.
Masood had a previous convictions for violence but also a history of being racially abused. He was know to have abused steroids and used cocaine. None of this behaviour could predict such an attack.
This sort of attack is very different to those that happened when Al Qaeda were the dominant force in international jihadism. Those earlier attacks required lengthy planning, used carefully curated video statements and more infrequent. Given the scaled-down nature of the current attacks, it is surprising that more of them don’t happen. Nonetheless they are happening more frequently, and then wall-to-wall media coverage makes them seem more terrifying still.
These attacks are increasingly random. They contrast strongly with those carried out by the IRA in Britain. They often killed civilians, but generally aimed at state or business targets, had a stated political aim, could be ended by political changes. The much more random and chaotic violence of jihadists, yet the ability of these groups to find sympathisers without ever having talked to them, is a distinctly modern development.
The attack by Masood parallels that of James Harris Jackson who stabbed to death Timothy Caughman, seemingly just because he was black. Jackson had travelled to New York because it was the “media capital of the world” and he wanted to make a statement that “I hate blacks”. The police are uncertain whether Jackson had any formal links to hate groups. As with many Islamist killings, Masood’s actions blur the line between ideological violence and psychotic rage.
Some will view his action as proof of severe mental health issues, others as a clear terrorist attack. In the Guardian Kenan Malik argues that: “The social and moral boundaries that act as firewalls against such behaviour have weakened. Western societies have become socially atomised. The influence of institutions that once helped socialise individuals and inculcate them with a sense of obligation to others, from the church to trade unions, has declined. So has that of progressive movements that gave social grievance a political form.”
The government will not attempt to address some of the root causes of such violence. Their first action has been to claim the need for further powers to snoop into our private lives. This is doomed to failure. The government’s obsession of getting a “master key” to break through social media encryption is based on a big misunderstanding— encryption only exists if such a thing does not exist!
Their view that the “innocent have nothing to hide” is worrying. The right to a private life, space to think, breath and communicate with others, away from any dominating authority, is fundamental. But beyond that no one should have faith in the secret state can keep us safe or is even able to judge was is or is not appropriate about digital communication.