Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, a few weeks after Europe was racked by four separate incidents classified as terrorism: a truck-ramming in Limburg, Germany; a series of stabbings at a police station in Paris; a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany; and another set of stabbings at a shopping mall in Manchester, England. While the investigations are still under way, at this stage it doesn’t appear that any of these attacks had any structured link to a terrorist group like Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Most of the perpetrators displayed some awareness of an extremist ideology, but we don’t know that any of them were directed to do what they did.
What relevance does the death of Baghdadi have to any of these attackers, or to the terror threat at large? There is little historical evidence that decapitating terrorist groups destroys them. Leaders have networks around them built on personal contacts, and their deaths change those dynamics. Some particularly charismatic leaders drive groups forward by force of personality or personal narrative. Their removal can weaken the aura around their organizations, but it can’t promise eradication.
When leaders are abruptly lopped off, terror groups tend to fragment and become more radical. Pretenders to the throne or anointed successors want to establish their own brands and often use a spectacular attack to do it. One can look to Afghanistan, where repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership have only made the group more violent, or to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, attacked in 2013 by a rising al-Shabaab terrorist leader stamping his imprint on the world. Earlier that year, an attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria followed a similar pattern. Different factions often will forge their own paths away from the core organization, seizing the opportunity to change directions and employ new tactics.
But this tells us only about the classical terror threat—the large-scale plot, often directed from abroad. Such conspiracies still exist, and authorities are fighting them with success. Where they have found more difficulty, however, is in stopping the smaller incidents, in which attacks appear in sync with terrorist ideologies while lacking clear links to the groups propagating them. ISIS honed the art of directing lost individual acolytes around the globe to launch attacks in their immediate environments with whatever tools were at their disposal. This group was supplemented by a further cadre who launched attacks drawing on the ISIS methodology and interpreting its ideology without ever establishing contact with the organization.
Then there is the terrorist without an ideology, such as Salih Khater. On Aug. 14, 2018, he drove his car into pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament. Coming more than a year after Khalid Masood launched a similar attack near the same location, the attack set London on edge again.
In sentencing Mr. Khater, Justice Maura McGowan concluded that he had committed a terrorist act, but she couldn’t identify a clear ideology he was advancing: “You replicated the acts of others who undoubtedly have acted with terrorist motives. You deliberately copied those others. . . . You have never explained your actions and have not given any account, before or today, that is capable of dissuading me from drawing the conclusion that this offending had a terrorist connection.”
In a growing number of terrorism cases, ideology is at best an appendage to an act of planned, performative violence. These terrorists are people driven by personal demons or interactions on chat forums or online communities, people with social disorders or mental-health issues, or people with a desire to make statements in a world on which they have failed to make an impression.
Where was Baghdadi in Mr. Khater’s attempted car-ramming attack and others like it? In this new age of terror, ISIS provided only the background idea by popularizing the method of driving cars into pedestrians. The group generated the meme, or at least helped it become viral, making it easy for others to replicate.
It is too early to dismiss the structured terror of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Undoubtedly other groups, leaders and followers will emerge. But the West is moving into an age of isolated and even meaningless terrorism, an age when leaders contribute more conceptually than tactically. Before long, we may look back through rose-tinted glasses to the time when terrorism was made up of easily comprehensible networks and leaders.