NOTE: This article went to press prior to President Donald Trump’s controversial refugee ban temporarily suspending all refugees from the majority-Muslim nations of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
It’s been three years since the Islamic State seized control of vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, which helped the then-emerging terrorist group convince scores of disenfranchised young Muslim men to join in building a “historic” caliphate.
Since then, a U.S.-led coalition has hammered the Islamic State with an intense bombardment campaign — which by some estimates has killed as many as 50,000 fighters — and retaken control of much of the territory the extremist Muslim group once held. The group, which is also under fire from Russian, Turkish, Iraqi and other armed forces, is clinging to its remaining strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, after largely being dislodged from its redoubt in Libya.
But the Islamic State is nothing if not determined, so its leaders have shifted tactics, focusing less on amassing territory to plan carefully coordinated attacks involving multiple actors. The deadly organization is also increasingly relying on high-profile but relatively unsophisticated assaults that grab attention and involve lone wolves whose ties to the group are tenuous.
In June 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a terrorist attack inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. A month later, a Tunisian-born French resident suspected to be affiliated with the Islamic State drove a truck into a crowd of people in Nice, France, killing 86. The deadly scenario repeated itself in Germany just before Christmas when another radicalized Tunisian killed 12 with a truck in Berlin.
The Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) claimed responsibility for the rampages, although the degree to which it directs such assaults varies widely. The group has called on sympathizers around the world to attack the West using whatever means are available to them — whether guns or trucks or crudely assembled bombs — allowing it to take credit for attacks that are only loosely inspired by its ideology. Unlike attacks that involved meticulous planning and foreign training — such as the November 2015 series of mass shootings and suicide bombs in Paris that killed over 130 people — lone-wolf attacks require little effort from the Islamic State while boosting its prestige.
Indeed, many lone-wolf recruits appear to have had little or no direct communication with the group, possess questionable understanding of Islam and could have been motivated by a variety of factors. In targeting a gay nightclub, for instance, Mateen may have been driven as much by homophobia and anger issues as he was by the Islamic State, which he seemed to confuse with other terrorist organizations.
Daniel Benjamin, director of Dartmouth College’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding and the former counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department, says lone-wolf terrorism is “the new normal.”
“There is no question that both jihadi groups — ISIS and al-Qaeda — have said that believers should carry out, as they say, individual acts of jihad whenever they can,” Benjamin told The Diplomat in an interview. “That has had a profound effect.”
He said the U.S. and Europe, in particular, are vulnerable to these lone-wolf plots. Unlike Europe, however, the massive security infrastructure erected after the catastrophic Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 has prevented a large-scale attack on the U.S.
“There hasn’t been a directed attack [inside the U.S.] from a terror organization outside our borders during the Obama administration and in fact, there really hasn’t been one of note since 9/11,” Benjamin said.
The former counterterrorism coordinator said aggressive American counterterrorism efforts since 9/11 have reaped enormous domestic security advantages — at least in terms of stopping coordinated attacks.
“It’s been very difficult for anyone to have a real cell in the United States because of very successful intelligence work here,” he said. “And we’ve also had excellent border security despite the denunciations of [Donald Trump].
“In Europe, there is more of a hybrid model” of terrorist strategy, he said. “We have seen ISIS operatives coming into Europe and carrying out complex attacks, and because of their border security problems, I think Europe will have to continue to contend with that challenge.”
Benjamin attributed the increase in single-actor terrorist attacks in part to the Islamic State’s meteoric rise as it rapidly seized territory throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“For a long time there was a perception that ISIS was on a roll and I think a lot of people decided to show that they, too, were part of this historic development, even if they couldn’t make it all the way to Syria,” he said.
Indiana State University criminology professor Mark Hamm recently won a National Institute of Justice grant to study, in part, the roots of lone-wolf terrorism. The result of that research, described in the forthcoming May 2017 book “In the Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” is illuminating.
Hamm and his co-author, Ramón Spaaij, effectively map the pathways of lone-wolf radicalization. The academics reviewed comprehensive data on these actors, and the particulars of more than 200 terrorist incidents. They found a striking pattern.
“In single-actor attacks, it is often not just political grievances, but personal failure issues, that lead lone wolves to befriend online sympathizers — whether jihadists, white supremacists or other anti-government extremists,” the book says. “They often announce their intent to commit terror when triggered.”
Hamm said his research showed that lone-wolf perpetrators are “overwhelmingly young men in their late 20s,” which is older than the average age of al-Qaeda members, who tend to be in the 22- to 24-year-old age range.
Yet there is no universal profile of a would-be terrorist, whether a foreign-trained operative or a homegrown radical. New America’s International Security Program reviewed hundreds of terrorism cases in the U.S. since 9/11 and found that motivations “are difficult to disentangle.” Experts such as David Sterman and Peter Bergen examined this data and argue that terrorists are driven by a mix of factors. These include an admiration for militant Islam and dislike for U.S. policies in the Muslim world, but also various personal reasons, from the loss of a job or problems at home, to drug and alcohol abuse, to a lack of belonging and desire to do something “heroic.”
The New America study also found that “far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents…. In addition about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration.”
The study did note that social media played an important role in connecting people to extremist groups. At the same time, social media can tip authorities off to potential plots.
“In general lone-wolf attacks are very hard to stop,” said Daniel Byman, a professor in the Security Studies Program in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. “However, with social media many individuals broadcast their intention, which is one possible avenue [to thwarting attacks].”
Max Abrahms, a political science professor at Northeastern University and a senior fellow at the George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, has also studied terrorist trends closely.
He said the “vast majority” of terrorist attacks historically have been committed by “groups rather than by individuals.”
“But it’s common now, and it has been common for years, for senior U.S. officials to say the lone-wolf terror attack is what keeps them up at night,” Abrahms said. “It’s almost become a cliché.”
He said that makes sense given recent trends.
“In the U.S., we don’t have terrorist groups running around blowing things up,” he said. “When there is an attack, it is almost always an individual or a [small] cell. Furthermore, it is harder for law enforcement to prevent lone-wolf attacks than attacks by groups because the main way to thwart them is by picking up communications and if the person is alone, it’s much harder to find a footprint.”
Additionally, Abrahms said “there is no consensus, to say the least, about what a lone-wolf actor is.”
“Some terror commentators and experts reject the term outright,” Abrahms said. “It’s very misleading because what the data very often show is that lone-wolf actors often have a connection to other terrorists, and certainly ideologically, they’re not operating in a vacuum. They’re looking at right-wing websites for example.”
Hamm described a lone-wolf terrorist like this: “Lone-wolf terrorism is political violence perpetrated by individuals who act alone; who do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network; who act without the direct influence of a leader or hierarchy; and whose tactics and methods are conceived and carried out by the individual without any direct outside command or direction,” he said. “The purpose of such a narrow definition is to distinguish lone-wolf terrorism from terrorist actions carried out by large terrorist networks, small terrorist groups or states.”
So how can governments stop this particular type of terrorist? Hamm said the U.S. government takes a three-pronged approach to thwarting lone-wolf plots.
First, federal agents use so-called “digital diplomacy,” or cultivate an active, outward presence online to create messaging that counters violent extremism.
Law enforcement also goes into densely populated Muslim areas and tries to work with local community leaders to address the root causes of violent extremism and identify and reach out to those who might be susceptible. For example, the FBI employs extensive outreach and informant programs in large Arab communities such as Dearborn, Mich., to encourage residents to cooperate with law enforcement.
Finally, the FBI consistently uses secretive sting operations involving covert agents to draw would-be assassins into a plot — and then arrest them.
Yet law enforcement tactics have their limits. Some lone wolves radicalize quietly and quickly, flying below authorities’ radars. Even when law enforcement is tipped off, assailants can slip through the cracks of a system where, at any one time, overwhelmed authorities are keeping tabs on hundreds of possible suspects. For instance, Mateen, the Orlando shooter, had been investigated by the FBI twice for possible extremist ties but officials concluded he was not a threat. Likewise, the Tunisian man behind the Berlin Christmas market attack had been under surveillance and was supposed to have been deported from Germany, but his deportation was held up by red tape and he managed to easily travel through Europe’s porous borders.
FBI sting operations have also been criticized as a form of entrapment, manufacturing plots were none may have existed.
Several experts interviewed by The Diplomat, however, generally said that sting operations — in which law enforcement identifies a possible lone-wolf terrorist and then tries to draw him (and it’s almost always males) into taking action — are effective.
“I understand concerns about sting operations and I’m sure there have been some cases of entrapment, but we’ve broken up some terror plots and in the aggregate I think they’ve been useful,” Abrahms said.
“If you were to rate our counterterrorism abroad versus our counterterrorism at home, I think our counterterrorism at home has been more successful,” he added. “I’m surprised so many terrorists have been caught [domestically] with so little bloodshed.”
Matthew Harwood of the American Civil Liberties Union takes a different view. In a recent essay posted on the ACLU website, Harwood makes the case that the lone-wolf threat is overblown by law enforcement and the intelligence community.
“Like all violent crime, individual terrorism represents a genuine risk, just an exceedingly rare and minimal one,” Harwood wrote. “It’s not the sort of thing that the government should be able to build whole new, intrusive surveillance programs on or use as an excuse for sending in agents to infiltrate communities.
“National programs now being set up to combat lone-wolf terrorism have a way of wildly exaggerating its prevalence and dangers — and in the end are only likely to exacerbate the problem,” he added. “For Americans to concede more of their civil liberties in return for ‘security’ against lone wolves wouldn’t be a trade; it would be fraud.”
Hamm and Benjamin both said law enforcement experts are starting to consider alternatives to hardline prosecution of lone-wolf suspects, offering them “off-ramps” from their radical ideology. Once identified, these potential killers can sometimes be persuaded against violent action by a parent, sibling, imam or someone else important to them.
“A number of different pilot programs are going on around the country to explore what kind of constructive social interventions can be made among doctors, teachers, religious leaders, community leaders and the like,” Benjamin said. “If you have that ability [to intervene], you have fewer people hiding their problems because they don’t want their kids locked up.”
Hamm said the trend has potential.
“By virtue of FBI agents getting to know these people, they are in a position to use the full scale of their powers,” he said. “They don’t have to encourage an alienated, lonely young man to kill others … they can give them an off-ramp from radicalization.
“Why not take a soft-power approach to save a human life instead of a hard-power approach to wreck a life?” Hamm asked.
Byman of Georgetown University said the U.S. public should try to keep the dangers in perspective even as the media trumpets the lone-wolf threat, and terrorist threats in general. Guns alone, for example, kill over 30,000 Americans every year. Traffic accidents accounted for another 38,000 deaths in 2015, while drug overdoses killed over 50,000 Americans that year. And as many statisticians have pointed out, an American is more likely to be struck by lightning, drown in a bathtub, be mauled to death by a cow or horse, or be killed by the police than they are to be killed by a terrorist.
“We must accept that risk is part of living,” Byman said. “The actual threat from jihadist terrorism since 9/11 has been low. Only 94 Americans have died from jihadist terrorism in the U.S. homeland — not counting abroad. That’s 94 too many, but it’s far lower than anticipated and less than are killed by lightning.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.