What Can Be Done About Lone Wolves?

Posted: December 20, 2011 in HSToday
Tags: , , , , , ,

A short post for HSToday about Lone Wolves, this time offering some thoughts on the countering them aspect. Some more considered and substantial thoughts on this in the pipeline.

What Can Be Done About Lone Wolves?

By: Raffaello Pantucci

12/20/2011 ( 9:47am)

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently vocalized a threat that has preoccupied security planners. She said “the thing that’s most noticeable to me is the growth of the lone wolf.”

The threat from lone wolf terrorists isn’t new, but ever since Anders Behring Breivik’s successful massacre in Oslo in July, security planners’ concerns have been kicked up a gear as they realized just how grim an effective Lone Wolf attacker could be. And effectively countering them remains an elusive art.

Preventing lone wolves is something that is inherently difficult. An individual who sits at home passively consuming literature they find online and then decides to construct a bomb or some other lethal device using commonly available material is very hard to detect or prevent. The usual trip-wires that are in place to catch individuals who are in communication with networks of radicals abroad are not triggered. And if these individuals are careful enough, it is perfectly possible for them to stay under the radar until they decide to carry out their act.

Take for example Roshonara Choudhry, who, according to her own account, radicalized on a diet of Anwar Al Awlaki videos and tried to kill a Member of Parliament who’d voted for the Iraq War.

Similarly, Arid Uka radicalized online and traveled to Frankfurt airport where he shot dead two US servicemen deploying to Afghanistan.

Within the US, we’ve seen the reputed radicalization of Nidal Hassan and Abdulhakim Mujahid. Hassan was a disgruntled US Army officer who killed 13 in a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas. Abdulhakim Mujahid was a former convict who opened fire on a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and critically wounding another. Evidence indicates both men had some level of connection to Al Qaeda networks abroad. It’s unclear whether they were commanded by the terrorist group to carry out their alleged attacks.

The problem from a counterterrorist’s perspective is how do you detect and prevent radicalized individuals from engaging in jihad? If they’ve maintained good operational security, then the first time they will appear on radars will be when they carry out their plot – and that’s something that’s clearly too late for counterterrorists.

Consequently, there’s been a surge of efforts by different forces globally to engage this specific threat. In the United Kingdom, the approach has been to push community actors, social workers, teachers, hospital staff and others to be alert to the potential for disaffected individuals and to set up a program called the Channel Project under which at-risk individuals can be identified and dissuaded early from taking the path they seem to be headed toward.

Several hundred young people who were identified by their community have gone through the process. While this approach clearly also will snare individuals who might get involved in complex networks, the idea is to cast a net that is wide enough to identify individuals who might be operating beyond these networks.

In contrast, in France, a different approach is taken. There, individuals are arrested and prosecuted on the basis of being involved in terrorist plotting. No distinction is made as to whether they are acting alone or not – the focus is on the fact that they have broken the law, an approach that is reliant on radicalized persons showing up on law enforcement radar before they carry out a terrorist attack.

France moves to detain individuals on the basis of suspicion or loose contacts with extremists, and so far, this procedure seems to be working.

For the United States, the approach has been to identify individuals, usually through their online activity, and then send in teams of covert agents to establish what it is the individual might be planning. When an individual proves to be a radical who seems to be working on a terrorist attack, the federal undercover agents will usually assist the individual in order to establish a documented record of a person’s actions that can be used in court.

A perfect example of is the recent case of Jose Pimentel, a 27-year-old New Yorker who was arrested for building pipe bombs that he allegedly planned to use to avenge the death of his hero, Anwar al Awlaki.

A quintessential computer-jihadist, Pimentel operated a website where he posted radical material and spent considerable time gathering jihadist-related materials from the Internet. Alerted to him, police put him under surveillance two years ago. Eventually, police sent in an undercover agent to ascertain just how serious Pimentel was and to help authorities catch him on video building a bomb.

Currently awaiting trial, Pimentel appears to be a case of lone jihadi radicalization that has become all too familiar in the US.

But while this approach has proven very effective in catching would-be terrorists, it is not at all clear whether it is something that actually is eliminating – or accelerating – the problem of lone wolf terrorism. For example, a question that cannot be answered is whether Pimentel would have continued down his path in trying to carry out a terrorist attack without the instigation of the undercover police officer. By all accounts, Pimentel was an isolated individual who alarmed other radicals with his rants and rarely left his mother’s house where he lived and was an occasional drug user.

None of this, though, points to a hardened radical who would have been capable of mounting an attack like Anders Behring Breivik. However, once Pimentel had what he believed was a fellow plotter to conspire with, he moved into action. And this raises the awkward question of whether some lone wolves are actually being created by the very counterterrorist operations that are supposed to prevent them from becoming true lone wolf terrorists.

The approach of identifying possible lone wolves and then persuading them that they are part of a plot might be having the effect of turning armchair observers into active radicals. Who is to say they would have progressed to the point of actually carrying out an attack if they had not had the support of the network of undercover law enforcement operatives around them?

The problem of lone wolves is that it does not yet have a perfect solution. And as the problem evolves, many more strategies to try to counter them will be necessary. But the root of the problem continues to be the Al Qaeda ideology that many lone wolves claim to be followers of, and that continues to find resonance among young western Muslims.

Until this ideology fades, we will continue to see the emergence of more lone jihadists.

Raffaello Pantucci is London Correspondent for Homeland Security Today and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR). He is author of the recent report, A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists.

  1. David Ucko says:

    Raff, how about just calling them loners and accept that some loners kill other people, for various psychological or social reasons?

    The counter-radicalisation efforts are worthwhile, but probably where a shared grievance, if only loosely recognised, motivates a larger proportion of individuals toward violence, i.e. where there is a narrative we can deal with.

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for the comments. I think the discussion you are going into is a separate one, that is the difference between mass murderers and lone terrorist types. There is a distinction. Yep, the lone killers who go about killing people for random reasons is something that you cannot really do much about in any logical preventative way, except hope that the society around them is alert enough to maybe note that something is going on. This is similar with the Lone terrorist types, but with them, there usually is some evidence that they tried to make contact with groups – or even if there isn’t then they might think there was. Terrorism in which you buy into a particular ideological narrative is inherently a social activity, meaning that at some point you are going to pursue contact with others. The problem is that the contacts of an individual who goes on to do something are probably hard to distinguish from those of an individual who just sits at his computer passively consuming stuff online.

    There is also a larger political point to be made: the line you are pursuing in your comment goes down the path of saying: we need to accept that some people are not happy in society and will try to kill others in their society. Deal with it. As analysts beyond government, we can make such assessments (and within internal government planning they probably do too to some degree), but in times of peace no politician is going to get up and say people will die, there is nothing we can do.

    • David Ucko says:

      I agree with you, though as you say, there is a problem distinguishing passive consumer and passive consumer who goes on to kill people. The problem is insurmountable – or at least I can’t see a solution that will be worth its cost (in finances or in civil liberties). I am all for inoculating communities against radicalisation, but if we are talking about real *lone* wolves, what is there to do? I just don’t think there is a solution so we just have to learn to deal with the consequences of random acts of violence and hope that friends and family are, as you suggest, vigilant.

      I guess my point is that I am more pessimistic about ever finding a strategy. Saying so does not mean accepting that people will get killed, but to recognise that it is something governments do not have the power to eliminate (much like they do not have the power to eliminate the ca. 30,000 deaths caused by car accidents each year in the USA alone).

      • you are of course right, but there is a distinction between deaths the result of human frailty (car crashes, etc) and ones due to considered human acts (terrorism, war, etc). It may be true that these will be elements always present in our society in some way as part of human nature, but these are things that in theory we give governments tax money to do something about. Consequently, from a government perspective there is a need to be seen to be doing something and so a solution must be sought.

        Hammering messages home may in itself seem a bit repetitive, but at the same time, there is a habit for lessons that have been learned to be forgotten. For example, a lot of the on-the-ground tactics being deployed now to counter terrorism are exactly the same as those deployed a few years ago against left-wing groups or the IRA or ETA. The lessons were completely forgotten, however, when the groups went quiet for a while and people stopped fretting so much. Refreshing these is important.

        I too am relatively pessimistic about finding a strategy that provides a complete solution – my suspicion is that eliminate one form of political violence and another will eventually emerge. But at the same time, finding ways to make it harder for acts to be perpetrated or preventing them is undoubtedly still something to be pursued. The balance is to ensure one does this without tipping too far into infringing on civil liberties.

  3. […] in Xinjiang and Chinese cultural influence in Kyrgyzstan for Eurasianet. Also, my recent piece for HSToday about Lone Wolves has been reproduced in a few places, including this digested version of it for a specialist […]

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