Last week, Khalid Masood, 52, launched an 82-second attack near the Palace of Westminster in London. He drove a vehicle into a crowd, killing three, then fatally stabbed an unarmed police officer before he was shot and killed by an armed police officer. It was random, sudden and savage.
Masood, a native Briton born Adrian Russell Elms, was a high school dropout and a heavy cocaine user by the age of 18. From 1983 on he did multiple stints in prison for possession of or acts of violence with knives. He reportedly changed his name and converted to Islam in 2005, possibly during a prison sentence (though there is no firm evidence of this). He began to teach English as a foreign language, and travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2015 allegedly to teach there.
As is customary after most of these attacks, the Islamic State’s news agency reported that the attack was conducted by “a solider of the Islamic State, executing the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations.” Despite not even naming him, many Western media outlets, especially those here in the United States, simply reported that ISIS had taken credit. The ISIS report claiming credit and the London authorities revelation of the attacker’s identity both took place on March 23, but it’s unclear which came first.
This is a pattern that we’ve seen with other terrorist attacks, including the Orlando Pulse nightclub mass shooting as well as the Ohio State and San Bernardino attacks in the United States. In many cases, the evidence over time has shown that perpetrators of such attacks have, more often than not, self-radicalized using materials found online and with personal networks sharing dubious connections to the actual organization that is ISIS.
Yet as these facts come to light, the national news media has usually already moved on to the next big story—whether it’s worthy of the coverage or not. The result is an American public that grossly overestimates the reach and power of ISIS’ leaders and people directly in their employ. It’s reckless to quickly give too much credit to the world’s most notorious terrorist organization without properly covering the deeper, murkier nuances of radicalism in the twenty-first century.
Without a clear understanding of this, many have come to believe ISIS’ terrorist army has a truly global reach, and imagine their leaders passing instructions directly to those who perpetrate attacks against innocent communities. There are certainly people who have made their way directly from Islamic State enclaves in the Middle East into European communities under the guise of refugees fleeing the very violence their leaders are responsible for, but many of these attackers are miserable loners who have obtained all of their guidance from Islamist websites, message boards, and Twitter feeds.
This warped understanding has consequences, from promoting a fear of all Muslims seeking to share in the American way of life, to demands that the military launch another expensive and reckless war in the Middle East against a foe with exaggerated strength and power. While it’s ridiculous to imply that American news media wants to amplify the reputation of the terrorists for the benefit of terrorists, but the news has unquestionably become a for-profit industry that understands fear boosts television ratings and page views.
The media needs to take responsibility for framing the discussion accurately and responsibly in many arenas. Radicalism and terrorism is just one of them. Until they give proper context to these senseless attacks, people will continue to gravitate towards the simplest answers no matter how inaccurate. The results could very well benefit ISIS and steer Western society down a path of more violence.