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People gather at a makeshift memorial at the scene of a terror attack in Vienna, Austria, on Nov. 5, 2020.

Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images

On Monday, a young Austrian man stood on a street outside a synagogue in Vienna with firearms and a fake suicide belt. Within an hour, he and four other people were dead, and many others wounded. The shooter left a video pledging his allegiance to an extremist group.

Slightly more than a year earlier, a young German man stood on a street outside a synagogue in the city of Halle with improvised firearms. Within an hour, he had killed two people and injured two more. During the attack, he recorded a video promoting extremist movements and their ideas.

Both men started out as violent-minded youngsters without specific beliefs, and appeared to have picked up their hateful ideologies from internet posts by extremist organizations and authors, as well as from local social circles loyal to those movements. Both were locals who became radicalized at home, mainly online. Both copied the actions of even bloodier lone terrorists in other countries. And while it is still not clear whether the Vienna synagogue was the attacker’s intended target, both men held views that saw their Jewish neighbours as hated civilizational outsiders.

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They were from different movements. But the similarities in their backgrounds and influences can teach us how to apprehend and fend off emerging waves of terrorism. There’s been a pointless debate this week, one that’s drawn in the presidents of France and Turkey, about whether extremism is somehow a response to secularism or immigration or mockery of religion. The lives of these killers show how faulty this reasoning is.

The German gunman was part of a grisly wave of terrorist attacks, starting around 2016, inspired by right-wing notions of racial and religious intolerance circulating on the internet and in electoral politics. It included dozens of awful attacks in places such as Quebec City, Pittsburgh and Christchurch, N.Z.; the Halle attacker said these killers inspired him.

The Vienna killings were the latest in a new wave of jihadist terrorist attacks that includes the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty outside Paris on Oct. 16, recent incidents in Nice and Dresden, and warnings of planned attacks in Britain. This follows a long period – from 2016 to 2020 – when major Islamic terrorist incidents in the West had declined sharply.

But these attacks are similar to the more violent ones that shook Europe between 2012 and 2016, including the horrendous Paris shootings and bombings in November of 2015. Both waves were mainly comprised of young men inspired by the ideas and literature of the terrorist army that calls itself Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).

Few, however, have ever actually met anyone from the group. The Vienna shooter came the closest, having attempted to travel to Syria as a teenager; he was instead intercepted in Europe and imprisoned (and had been praised for completing a “deradicalization” program). The young man who killed Mr. Paty was not a European – a rarity – but a Tunisian who appears to have come to France specifically to commit the crime. Reports suggest that he, too, had no exposure to IS, and instead picked up the ideas at home.

Many organizations had warned that the military defeat of IS in Syria would lead to new terrorism in Western countries, either because it would send fighters to the West in acts of revenge, or because some of the thousands of foreign fighters who went to Syria would return to their home countries and become extremists.

In fact, neither has happened to any significant degree, and the collapse of Western jihadist terrorism over the last four years has confounded those predictions. This may in part be due to the vigilance of Western intelligence agencies. But it’s also because Islamic State and similar organizations function most successfully abroad not as organized armies, but as sources of information and propaganda aimed at converting the angry and vulnerable. The jihadist terrorists in Europe during the past decade have not generally been foreign-trained fighters; rather, they are mostly locals inspired by the group’s ideas.

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Those ideas have become pressing and frantic in the year since IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by U.S. forces in Syria, and messages of revenge against the West have risen to the fore.

It is highly likely that most, if not all, of the current European attackers had read the widely circulated editorial IS published on March 19 in its weekly newsletter Al-Naba. It described the COVID-19 pandemic as a great opportunity to attack and weaken “crusader nations” at a moment when their “security and medical institutions have reached the limits of their capacity.” Followers, it said, have a “duty” to attack and weaken the “infidels” and “apostates” of Europe and North America through acts of violent “jihad”; in doing so, the editorial claimed, they’d be spared coronavirus infection.

If we want to prevent further atrocities, we should be looking not for organized groups or rational plans, or “causes” in our surroundings, but for messed-up young men who’ve become regular consumers of ideas such as these, whatever their origin.

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