Extremism’s Lone Warriors

Posted: January 4, 2010 in Guardian
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Another busy day – though in reality these have been percolating over the holiday period. This one instead for Comment is Free at the Guardian which is consequently already attracting some charming comments which appear to show evidence of having willfully ignored the article at hand and chosen instead to use the opportunity to vent off. Anyway, this is not the first time I have cited al Suri’s work – though it as ever remains hard to know how much people are actually using it as a guide. Any thoughts or pointers on this very welcome.


Extremism’s lone warriors

From Detroit to Denmark, terrorist strikes are increasingly the preserve of lone attackers inspired by jihadist groups

Raffaello Pantucci

guardian.co.uk, Monday 4 January 2010 20.00 GMT

The year has begun with a jihadist splash. Aside from massacres in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, just before New Year, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to bring down an airliner over Detroit. Now a young Somali resident of Copenhagen appears to have attempted to take vengeance on Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist behind 2006’s infamous Muhammad cartoons. While information on the two attacks is far from complete, the signs increasingly point to lone attackers with links to regional jihadist groups.

This is not entirely surprising – terrorist groups have long targeted aircraft, and extremist Islamists have repeatedly demonstrated that they are determined to seek revenge for perceived slights by artists to their religion. Salman Rushdie, Theo van Gogh and Sherry Jones, author of the Jewel of Medina, have all been targeted, and this is merely the latest plot against those associated with the Danish cartoons. In late 2009 FBI agents arrested plotters planning to mount an assault on the headquarters of Jyllands Posten, the newspaper that first ran the cartoons.

This last plot is particularly relevant as those involved, David Coleman Headley and Tawahhur Hussain Rana, had apparent links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist organisation held responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Soon after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was arrested, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video claiming him as one of their own, and soon after news of the attempted attack in Copenhagen, an al-Shabab spokesman praised the attempt. This connection was further strengthened by the fact that Danish security services claimed the individual was already part of an investigation into Danish groups linked to the Shabab (one report in the Danish press said he had been involved in a Shabab plot in Kenya which targeted Hilary Clinton). Another young Somali formerly of Denmark is believed to be behind a recent suicide bombing in Mogadishu.

In none of these cases is the hand of what might be described as “core al-Qaida” seen – instead, they involve individuals with connections to local groups with a similar ideology. This suggests either that these groups have decided to internationalise their causes (to seek support from the al-Qaida brand), or that al-Qaida is somehow working through these groups’ networks to carry out their goals. In either case, it is a sort of franchising of terrorism, with groups using each other’s images to further their own goals – AQAP has obviously borrowed its name from AQ; al-Shabab (“the youth”) have openly courted AQ and are increasingly borrowing their tactics; and there are strong connections between AQ and Lashkar-e-Taiba, both currently resident in Pakistan’s badlands. These extremist Islamist organisations are all ideological fellow travellers, rendering distinctions difficult.

In many ways this diversity of plots under one ideological banner is the realisation of the al-Qaida master tactician Abu Musab al-Suri‘s “global insurgency”. Al-Suri, whose current whereabouts in custody are unknown, wrote a 1600-page magnum opus, published online in late 2004, called the Global Islamic Resistance Call. Recognising connections and too many people as the most operationally risky elements when plotting terrorism, al-Suri argued that attacks should be carried out by small groups scattered around the world

In other words, lone attackers – such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Westergaard’s attacker – were to pop up all over the world in pursuit of the same goal. The idea is supported by the actions of individuals with even looser connections to global jihad, such as Nidal Malik Hasan in Fort Hood and Nicky Reilly in Exeter. Such attacks create the impression of a global assault by an army of believers scattered around the world: a vanguard that will light the flames of global jihad.

On one hand we can draw hope from the fact that both attacks failed and their connections to extremist groups are now being identified. Jason Burke has rightly seen that there are positive signs; but the reality remains that more extremist plots will occur and terror franchising will continue apace.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

  1. Josh says:

    A couple posts from my colleague DP at al Sahwa will likely assist your readers on the lone wolf theory. They are available at http://al-sahwa.blogspot.com/search?q=lone+wolf

    A couple of quick comments…
    I’m hesitant to believe that AQ has switched to Abu Musab al Suri’s theories. Last I heard Suri was largely marginalized by AQ Central Leadership due to his criticisms of the AQ movement. Suri was advocating that independent cells operate worldwide without reporting to anyone, financing themselves, etc…a global movement by the ummah.

    The Christmas Day plot should be considered transnational jihadism and not that of a lone wolf.

    • Hi Josh, thanks for the comments and links. I think you are right that Abdulmutallab should not be considered a Lone Wolf. My impression is that he is what we could describe him as a single cell, as in he is someone who is connected, but operationally an individual. I am writing something more substantial which draws the distinction better than I could in an op-ed sized piece.

      With regards Al Suri as an inspiration to the global jihad – it seems hard to know whether he was or he wasn’t. I personally find him most interesting as a person whose ideas appear to outline the strategy that AQ appear to be following, whether conciously or not. I would also question how easy it would be to definitively say one way or the other that he was an influence or not.

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