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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Can "Lone Wolves" Travel In Packs?

By J.M. Berger

The death of Osama bin Laden has a lot of people worried about Al Qaeda's revenge. How will the terrorist organization respond to the death of its leader? Will there be new attacks on America?

It's not a simple question. The central Al Qaeda organization -- the group of men based in Afghanistan and Pakistan who attacked us on September 11 -- was already under pressure before bin Laden's death, and it's going to be under a lot more pressure once U.S. intelligence finishes reading the computer hard drives they seized from bin Laden's house.

Then there are Al Qaeda's affiliates abroad, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Shabab. These organizations may have better capacity for an attack, but they also have distractions -- namely revolutions in their backyards. Some or all of these groups are likely to attempt something, but the nature and timing of such attacks could take any number of forms.

The biggest question mark comes from the group uniquely positioned to avenge Osama bin Laden's death -- the homegrown American terrorists commonly referred to as "lone wolves."

Since September 11, U.S. authorities have become increasingly concerned about the terrorist threat from radicalized American Muslims who are willing and able to carry out acts of violence without institutional support from a formal terrorist network such as Al Qaeda. My new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, looks at the few successes and significant failures of the lone-wolf crowd.

In truth, most of the American lone wolves were not truly alone; they are loosely networked with each other and with various Al Qaeda franchises. Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan was guided by Anwar Awlaki, who is tied to Al Qaeda in Yemen. Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was trained and financed by the Pakistani Taliban. The would-be Portland Christmas bomber Mohamed Mohamud thought he was being helped by al Qaeda Central, but his helpers turned out to be FBI agents. The same thing happened to Antonio Martinez, who hoped to bomb a U.S. military recruiting station near Baltimore.

Worries about these homegrown terrorists acting alone, or with minimal support and supervision, can be traced back to the writings of a jihadist ideologue whom not many Americans have heard of -- Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, better known by his nom de jihad, Abu Musab Al Suri.

Al Suri is an Al Qaeda member who produced massive amount of jihadist training material in video and in books. His works, which are currently being reprinted in serialized form by Al Qaeda in Yemen's English language magazine "Inspire," call for individual Muslims to take up the banner of jihad without waiting for support from a formal terrorist organization.

This is most commonly referred to today as "leaderless jihad," and it takes more than a few pages from a concept known as "leaderless resistance," which was championed by white supremacist Louis Beam for use in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s.

Thus far, leaderless jihad -- like leaderless resistance before it -- has been a perennial underachiever. While a fairly impressive number of radicals have attempted to act on their own, most have crafted terrorist attacks that were doomed to fail, and even the most successful "leaderless" events (like Hasan's shooting spree) have been small in comparison to September 11 or the Al Qaeda's 1998 East African embassy bombings.

There are a lot of factors holding back leaderless jihadists. For one thing, terrorism tends not to be easy, especially if you're trying to build a bomb or pull off a complicated stunt. Money and training -- of the sort provided by a formal terrorist organization -- exponentially increase the effectiveness of a would-be terrorist.

And the people most likely to have been influenced by Al Suri's ideas tend to be, well, let's call it "kinetically challenged." They spend a lot of time banging on keyboards in darkened rooms. They tend to be young. Very few have any real experience or training in fighting, unlike the American jihadists of the pre-9/11 era, who were often military veterans.

But the leaderless jihad has now arrived at a crossroads with the death of Osama bin Laden.

Louis Beam's "leaderless" followers shared a common conception. One day, they imagined, a pivotal event would cause all of the leaderless cells to step forward and take action, inspired by a common provocation, and sweep over the country, kicking ass, taking names and generally overthrowing the status quo.

The invasion of Panama was seen as such a precipitating event. When it happened, there was a lot of talk, but no one acted. The Oklahoma City bombing (inspired in part by Beam's philosophy) was exactly the sort of thing that was supposed to launch the revolution. When it happened, they didn't even talk. Virtually all of the racist and anti-government militia groups crawled into the deepest, darkest holes they could find and stayed there for about 10 years. The lesson learned is this: When you don't have a leader, it's pretty easy to stay home.

The death of Osama bin Laden has raised the specter of reprisals. Some sort of response from institutional Al Qaeda and its affiliates is a real possibility, but there are also compelling tactical arguments for them to keep their powder dry. And the culture of jihadist terrorist organizations skews toward long-term thinking. Such reprisals are a serious concern but not a fait accompli. And of course, these organizations are constantly planning terror attacks, with or without provocation, so to some extent, it's just business as usual for them.

The tactical arguments that might slow institutional terrorists don't apply to American "lone wolves," however. Their actions are simpler, and they lack the weight of Al Qaeda's not-insignificant bureaucracy on their shoulders. They are already living next to their targets; the logistics are much simpler.

And so we come to the day of reckoning, the killing by American forces of the global jihad's most important patron, Osama bin Laden. If the lone wolves are a force to contend with, this must be their moment. The opportunity cost for action is negligible. The affront to their sensibilities is enormous.

We really don't have a good handle on how many potential lone wolves might be out there. We know that the number of Americans who take part in jihadist online forums runs at least into the hundreds and most likely into the thousands. A 2007 survey of American Muslims by Pew found that 5 percent admitted to having a favorable view of Al Qaeda, which translates into tens of thousands of people.

But not all of those sympathetic people are likely to act out with violence. So far the number has been extraordinarily small, a fraction of one percent of the total U.S. Muslim population. The open question is how many of these are close to acting and just waiting for the right combination of considerations.

We're about to find out whether the threat from leaderless lone wolves is destined to remain a trickle of malcontents lashing out sporadically, or whether Abu Musab Al Suri's vision of an organically synchronized jihad without borders or affiliations has real legs to carry it into the 21st century.

If not now, when?

We don't know whether the lone wolves have what it takes to make a lasting impact, and that lack of knowledge is more unsettling than comforting. It might be time to try out that new terror alert system. It seems like the right moment for an ounce of prevention.

J.M. Berger is author of the new book, "Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam," available from For videos and documents related to the book, check out Follow @intelwire on Twitter for updates about American jihadists.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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