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Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Utility of Lone Wolves, Or Lack Thereof

The death of Osama bin Laden came and went, and nary a midnight howl was heard from the lone wolf terrorists of the American jihadist movement.

Now the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attack has come and gone, and the lone wolves again stayed in their lairs.

What can we conclude from this?

There's no question that the phenomenon of lone wolf terrorism kills. In the United States, 17 Americans have died in acts of "individual jihad" by Al Qaeda sympathizers. We have also seen a number of near misses, from the jihadist movement and others, such as the averted Martin Luther King Day bombing attempt carried out in Spokane by a white supremacist.

If there were any doubts that lone wolves can be deadly, they were dispelled by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian anti-Muslim crusader who in July killed 69 young people in a coordinated attack using guns and a car bomb.

But there's a difference between being deadly and being the Number One threat to U.S. national security. Lone wolves are perhaps the most likely form of terrorist attack, and the most common, but not the most existentially important issue in the world of challenges this country faces.

The failure of lone wolf jihadists to strike at important moments, such as the 9/11 anniversary or after the death of bin Laden, keenly illustrates the current limitations of the "individual jihad" movement endorsed by such al Qaeda ideologues as Abu Musab Al Suri and Anwar Awlaki. The individual jihad has also been encouraged by Al Qaeda's central command, including in a video released earlier this year.

But the major events (or rather non-events) of this year illustrate that the methodology of individual jihad is neither strategic nor tactical in its current form. If individual jihadists can't be relied on to act when the stakes are obviously high, such as the death of bin Laden or the most-watched anniversary of 9/11, they probably can't achieve meaningful goals for Al Qaeda and its supporters.

How useful would U.S. drones be if they only fired missiles at random intervals and couldn't be directed to the right place at the right time? Individual jihadists have not demonstrated their ability to target and act with timely strategic or tactical intent.

Again, I want to stress, that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous. They have killed before and will kill again, and Brevik has demonstrated that the lone wolves of today can carry out attacks on a scale previously unimagined.

But the lone wolves have repeatedly highlighted their weaknesses, including the aforementioned failure to act when they can have the most impact and a failure to follow the guidelines Al Qaeda has laid out for them.

What we are left with is a series of radicalized but ultimately weak individuals who usually fail in their efforts to carry out even modest attacks on U.S. soil, and who create no synergy with other Al Qaeda ventures or communications.

Their efforts often seem to casual observers to be motivated more by mental illness than ideology. Their inadequacy inspires more contempt than fear. Their failure to show up when people are most afraid of them diminishes their impact when they eventually get around to acting.

So what real threat does the lone wolf jihadist present to America? There are three ways that they can cause significant damage going forward:

1) Al Qaeda might figure out the right approach to make the lone wolves conform more closely to its priorities. We've seen distinct efforts to accomplish this, including the As-Sahab video linked above and recent issues of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Pensinsula's Inspire magazine. So far, it hasn't been working all that well, but Al Qaeda will continue to adapt its approach.

2) Lone wolves may follow the example of Anders Breivik and become more ambitious and effective in their attacks, magnifying the impact of their efforts. This is the biggest concern, in my opinion, and we need to closely monitor the impact of that event.

3) The U.S. may choose to take a counterproductive approach to dealing with the legitimate threat of lone wolf terrorism by overemphasizing its prevalence or its relationship to mainstream Islam.

On the last point, I will refer back to some of my previous comments about "countering violent extremism" initiatives.

Al Qaeda has always been most effective when it could manipulate us into taking actions which reinforce its worldview. The most obvious risks are an excessive emphasis on lone wolves as being representative of American Muslims in general or a concerted government effort to create "acceptable" forms of Islam in the United States through counterradicalization programs that delve too deeply into religion at the expense of focusing preventing on acts of violence through law enforcement and disrupting nodes of radical activity.

For more about American jihadists and lone wolf terrorism, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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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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