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stephanie carvin

Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and a former national security analyst with the federal government.

Even before the deadly attack in Nice, the international community was already shocked at the violence Islamic State unleashed during Ramadan. The past six weeks saw devastation in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa – although it is important to note that most of the attacks were concentrated in the Middle East, targeting Muslim populations there.

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Nevertheless, the impact of the Nice attack has been devastating. Footage of individuals fleeing the attacker and running in terror down the streets will no doubt please Islamic State, whether or not they were directly behind the attack.

While there is still much we do not know, the method used, driving a truck into a crowd at high speed over two kilometres, is telling. Unlike the November 2015 incident in Paris that involved a series of well co-ordinated explosions and gun attacks, the Nice incident is relatively unsophisticated and appears to have been conducted by only one actor. While we know the Paris attackers had been in Syria and received support and advice from Islamic State networks in Europe, we do not yet know how this individual became radicalized, or if he was assisted or facilitated by others.

There has been much made of the challenges of stopping attacks by a small group or lone actors in the West. However, the Nice attack highlights another risk for security services – namely, what Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute calls "cascading terrorism", where successful terrorist attacks beget more attacks.

With the launch of Inspire magazine in the late 2000s, al-Qaeda encouraged its youthful followers to engage in "low-cost" attacks at home, such as driving into crowds or taking a gun to a mall. However, this call was largely unheeded in the West. Documents captured as a part of the Osama bin Laden raid may provide part of the answer: The terrorist leader was appalled at these ideas, describing them as "indiscriminate" and likely to offend the very Muslim population he was trying to recruit.

Islamic State, however, shares none of bin Laden's concerns about indiscriminate attacks and has regularly encouraged and inspired its followers to conduct these "low-cost" operations around the world. And as we have seen a series of successful incidents of this nature in 2016, it is possible that other lone actors will be inspired by not just the hateful message of Islamic State but also the success of its followers. This goes beyond "copycat" activities and will become a more systemic problem that governments around the world will struggle to counter. As such, a cascade of low-cost and lone actor terrorist attacks could follow that mirror the ones we have seen in the last six weeks: bombings, hostage takings, shooters and assassinations of police and law enforcement officials.

Additionally, whereas al-Qaeda is a self-consciously elitist organization that is cautious about who is allowed to join their ranks and seeks to maintain a greater degree of control over its operations, Islamic State more closely resembles a mass movement with a low barrier to entry. As such, thousands have rushed to join its ranks in Syria, or align their cause with the group. That Islamic State also actively embraces those who carry out attacks in its name, regardless of how tenuous that connection may be, or how long they have been a follower, could be a catalyst for those who seek to give meaning to a violent outburst.

In this way, Islamic State is able to rely upon its foreign fighter networks and inspired wannabes to bolster its numbers, but also enhance the appearance of its global reach, even as it loses ground in Syria. As such, the cascade of inspired attacks continues.

It is, of course, important to keep things in perspective: In comparison to the rest of the world, North America has been lucky with a relatively small number of active cases and cells. And it is worth remembering that the severity of the threat in France is different than Canada. For example, the Soufan Group estimates that at least 1,700 French foreign fighters have travelled to Syria versus 170 Canadians estimated by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

But at a time when Islamic State is collapsing, and the group is actively encouraging its followers to act at home rather than abroad, the risk of "cascading terrorism" may further heighten the risk to Canada.

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