As the authorities in Berlin search for the perpetrator of the Christmas Market attack and try to determine his motives and affiliation at least two things are already clear. First, the attack conforms to a pattern of terrorist violence we have witnessed over the past few years. Second, it is certain to feed the wave of anti-immigrant feeling rising in Germany.
Shortly after police released the young Pakistani asylum-seeker mistakenly believed to have driven the truck into the crowd of shoppers, killing 12 and injuring more than 50, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. They called the perpetrator, who is still at large, a solider for the cause, but they may know as little about him as the German police. The attack may have been planned by an ISIS cell in Europe, but it was more likely the work of lone-wolf striking a blow for the cause.
Lone-wolf terrorism has been on the rise over the past several years. Individuals who have self-radicalized or been recruited online decide on their own to strike a blow, which ISIS central then blesses. These individuals are much harder to identify and apprehend than members of a traditional terrorist cell, whose interaction with one another and communication with headquarters often creates a trail intelligence analysts can follow.
Lone-wolves have shown a decided preference for attacking events and venues. Crowds like those strolling through the Christmas Market provide a target-rich environment. While it takes skill to make and deploy a bomb, anyone with small arms or just a vehicle can perpetrate a mass-casualty incident with relative ease. The Berlin attack mimicked one carried out on Bastille day (July 14) in Nice France, killing 80 people.
The ease with which lone-wolves can strike and the abundance of targets a free and open society offers them makes these terrorists particularly effective. Their seeming ability to strike anywhere against anyone at any time maximizes their ability to spread fear. They cannot do serious damage to a country, but they can keep a society on edge.
The anger and frustration lone-wolf attacks engender results in a backlash against the ethnic group from which the perpetrator comes. Anger at immigrants in general and Muslim refugees in particular, fueled by the influx of almost 900,000 refugees last year, will probably intensify in Germany. ISIS certainly hopes so. Encouraging Islamophobia allows the Islamic State to cast Western efforts to defeat it as a war on Islam.
In Germany as in every other country victimized by terrorism, the best way to fight back is to carry on with life. Surrendering to either fear or hatred in the aftermath of an attack gives the terrorists a victory.