Posts Tagged ‘Lone wolf’

Still catching up on old things I failed to post when they landed, this time a report on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) community engagement programme that I undertook and wrote with some RUSI colleagues (Charlie and Calum) as part of Canada’s Kanishka funding programme – thanks again to Kanishka for the support. The project was initially more focused on Lone Actor terrorism, using them as a vector through which to understand how community engagement and policing could be improved. The logic of this flows that given Lone Actors isolation and detachment from known terrorist networks, they do not necessarily set off the usual intelligence or police tripwires. Therefore it is important to try to develop and embed these tripwires within communities, hence the importance of community policing within this context. I have a larger project on Lone Actors in the more classic sense currently underway which should start producing material soon. In the meantime, any thoughts or comments welcome.

Out of Reach? The Role of Community Policing in Preventing Terrorism in Canada

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The terrorist attacks of October 2014 in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, demonstrated that the historically relatively benign security environment within Canada has given way to a much more uncertain present.

Download the report here (PDF)

The nature of the terrorism threat to Canada has come to reflect broader terrorism trends experienced by other Western countries. While overall cases remain rare, the number of terrorist incidents involving lone actors in both Europe and North America appears to be increasing, attributed to a number of drivers and motivated by a diversity of violent ideologies.

Canada’s approach to counter-terrorism warrants closer attention in light of this changing threat picture and the evolving threat of lone actors – not least because the risk of lone-actor terrorism puts Canadian citizens on the front line of any future response.

Drawing on first-hand interviews with practitioners and policy-makers, as well as wider literature, this report looks specifically at the phenomenon of lone-actor terrorism in Canada alongside the community engagement programme of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It examines case studies in recent Canadian history to highlight the issues surrounding community engagement pre and post attack, and provides recommendations to improve the programme, offering insights to other countries facing similar threats.

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A very belated posting of an article that came out a while ago for the CTC Sentinel. It has been a very hectic and busy time and I have let things slip, but am going to try to finally catch up. A few longer pieces are working their way through the system and should land soon, and far more exciting my book on Jihad in the UK is finally done and printed. So look to a lot more in that direction soon. To catch up on a few conversations I had with the media, I spoke to ITN about a recent case which is featured in this article, Brutschom Ziamani, to the Washington Post about terrorists getting guns in Europe, to Channel 4 about ISIS, Aftenposten about UK terrorism, spoke to Foreign Policy about terrorism in Xinjiang, to McClatchy about Uighurs going to join ISIS, and a longer interview for NPR in the US about responses and the threat in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Britain’s Terror Threat From The Levant

January 20, 2015

Author(s): Raffaello Pantucci

On January 8, 2014, in the immediate wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, MI5 Director-General Andrew Parker gave his second public speech, during which, among other things, he outlined the nature of the threat that the United Kingdom faces from Syria. As he put it, “Terrorists based in Syria harbour [terrorist] ambitions towards the United Kingdom, trying to direct attacks against our country and exhorting extremists here to act independently.”[1] He highlighted how the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has tried to “direct terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere from Syria” as well as “seeking through propaganda to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent acts here.”[2] He also highlighted how the threat faced was one that comes not only from ISIL extremists, but also “that a group of core al-Qa’ida terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West.”[3]

So far, there have been five publicly identifiable, alleged plots disrupted in the United Kingdom as well as a number of scares. The alleged plotting dates back to October 14, 2013, when British police in London conducted a series of dramatic arrests to foil what was at the time characterized as a “suspected Islamist terror plot to attack London.”[4] Almost exactly a year later, the trial against the two defendants charged in the wake of the arrests (two other individuals were released without charge) took place, providing Britain with the most detailed look yet into the nature of the threat that Britain’s security services see emanating from Syria. Ultimately, one of the men pleaded guilty while the jury could not reach a verdict in the other case. Amplifying the perception of the threat to the United Kingdom, as the trial was underway, police arrested another group of individuals who stand accused of plotting terrorism,[5] and the United Kingdom experienced its first reported suicide bomber in Iraq.[6]

This article will examine the current landscape of Islamist terror activity linked to Syria and Iraq in the United Kingdom, examining both recent plotting on the domestic front and the growing role of Britons in Syria and Iraq. It concludes that the lines and links between these two categories of radicalized Britons present a fluid and complicated community that is continuing to produce a steady stream of plots and networks of concern to security services. Both are building on significant challenges that have been extant in the United Kingdom for some time and that were most recently highlighted in a parliamentary report into the May 2013 murder of Lee Rigby by Islamist extremists.[7] That plot, and the parliamentary investigation, showed the complexity of the lone-actor terrorist threat the United Kingdom faces from both isolated individuals and those already on the radar screen of intelligence services, something that is increasingly also seen among the pool of potential threats emerging from radicalization of Britons in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[8]

The threat from Syria and Iraq is increasingly maturing and following a trajectory that reflects broader trends that have been visible in the United Kingdom for some time. Syria and Iraq and the associated foreign fighter flow is something that British security services expect will occupy their attention for the immediate future.

Mumbai-Style Plot
The trial of Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, a 26-year-old British national of Algerian descent, and Erol Incedal, a 26-year-old of Turkish origin, opened October 8, 2014, at the Old Bailey. Initially, the trial was to be held in secret with the two defendants listed anonymously as AB and CD, but after a media-led battle in the courts, it was decided that only some of the trial would be held in secret and that the two defendants would be named.[9] On the eve of the trial, Rarmoul-Bouhadjar pleaded guilty to possessing a “document containing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, namely a document entitled ‘Bomb making.’”[10] A second charge of improperly obtaining an identity document was dropped.[11] Incedal, on the other hand, fought the case, and after a month long trial a jury was unable to reach a verdict. The judge dismissed the jury and the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) declared it would seek a retrial.

Much of Incedal’s defense was held behind closed doors, while the prosecution was able to lay its case out publicly. Incedal had been in possession of a Secure Digital card taped to his mobile phone, in which the same bomb-making material that Rarmoul-Bouhadjar owned was saved, labeled “good stuff.” According to expert-witness testimony provided during the trial, the instructions contained in the document would have made an extremely sensitive mix of triacetone triperoxide (TATP). As the witness stated on the stand, the document “generally contains correct information that could be used to produce viable devices. However, it lacks detail and further information might be required.”[12] In a further reference to bomb-making, another file on the memory card stated, “The first rule of bomb-making is that your first mistake will be your last.”[13]

Incedal was born to a Kurdish family in Turkey, where his father, an active communist, died when he was six weeks old. His mother, an Alawite, moved to Britain when Incedal was a year old, leaving her children to join her later in the UK. His older sister joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party[14] and died fighting alongside the group, while his older brother was later sectioned (taken into a secure mental hospital) under the mental health act. As a young man in the United Kingdom, Incedal was involved in gangs and arrested for attempted theft in October 2001. A year or so later he became religious, and soon afterward was drawn to Tablighi Jamaat,[15] enjoying the brotherhood it provided. He traveled with the group to Greece, India, Bangladesh, and New York, and met his co-defendant Rarmoul-Bouhadjar in Tablighi Jamaat.[16] Sometime in 2011 he became connected to the now-jailed sons of cleric Abu Hamza, Hamza, Sufyan, and Yaasir, with whom he was allegedly planning frauds and armed robberies of post offices.[17] It is not clear what became of these plans.

The prosecution’s case centered on the accusation that the defendants were planning a Mumbai-style attack[18]or possibly a targeted assassination of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.[19] In Skype conversations in which he used the name Fatima Hamoodi to communicate with an individual abroad who called himself Zaynab Alawi, Incedal wrote, “These straps are not the little ones, they are like the ones we have here – y knw k 1122aa shhh etc.” “Straps” was believed to refer to guns (a traditional terminology amongst urban youth in London) and “k 1122aa shhh” to Kalashnikov.[20] Later in the Skype conversation the two Skype accounts were recorded discussing, “If they’re able to get these type and it works, may want you to MO 88M 55BAY style,” something the prosecution interpreted as being a reference to the Mumbai attacks of 2008.[21] However, at the time of their arrests the men were not found in possession of any guns, though they were overheard through a police listening device discussing purchasing one in their car, using the slang “sausage” to refer to a gun and “sauce” for bullets.[22]

The plotting around the assassination of Tony Blair was far more circumstantial. Incedal was pulled over under the guise of a traffic stop in September, during which time authorities searched his car. In the process they found a Versace glasses case, which contained one of Tony Blair’s addresses. This same case was then later found at a second flat that Incedal failed to report to authorities when he was arrested. They also found evidence of multiple inhabitants and the computer on which Incedal was talking to someone abroad.[23]

At another moment during the trial, the two defendants were overheard seeming to refer to their time in Syria. In a conversation recorded in their vehicle Rarmoul-Bouhadjar was heard saying, “In Syria the weather was . . .” before Incedal interrupts saying, “Wallahi [I swear] it was like minus 20 degrees because we were on a mountain.”[24] At another moment while the men were overheard watching extremist videos in which men were shooting, Incedal comments “we used that,” while in another moment Incedal reports that ISIL undertakes a lot of “drive by shootings” that he finds inspiring: “They do it a love bruv. And they’ve got this special like machine Uzi gun like and silence on it – its nuts.”[25]

It is unclear why the jury returned an inconclusive verdict, though likely the absence of weaponry or a clearly defined plan of attack left some major gaps in the prosecution’s case. It is likely that Incedal’s defense will eventually be revealed, though at this point it is being kept behind the veil of secrecy. The re-trial is expected to occur sometime this year.

Targeting of Officials
This is the not the only plot that British security services believe they have intercepted. In early October 2014, police arrested five individuals believed to be involved in a plot targeting police officers with a Russian-made Baikal machine gun and ammunition.[26] Tarik Hassane, 21, a medical student at university in Sudan; Suhaib Majeed, 20, a physics student at King’s College London; Momen Motasim, 21; and Nyall Hamlett, 24, all stand accused of planning to use the gun and a moped to conduct a drive-by shooting of security officers. A fifth man charged alongside them was accused of supplying the gun.[27] The men were believed to be inspired by ISIL and had allegedly downloaded ISIL spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s fatwa calling on followers to launch attacks, taken pictures of police officers, discussed ISIL online, undertaken online reconnaissance of a police station in west London, and pledged allegiance to the group.[28] Charged with planning a terrorist attack, the men face trial this year.

More recently, on the eve of the 2014 November 11th Remembrance Day celebrations in the United Kingdom, police arrested a further four men in raids that were believed to be linked to a plot to target security officials at a public event.[29] The main suspect in the case, Yousaf Syed, is a 19-year-old who had his passport canceled after security services believed he tried to travel to Pakistan in 2013 for “terrorist purposes” and then in 2014 attempted to go to Syria.[30] On November 20, 2014, three men (Yousaf Syed, Yousaf’s cousin Nadir Ali Sayed, and Haseeb Hamayoon) were charged with plotting to behead a member of the public on the streets of Britain.[31] The men were reported to have “laughed hysterically” as the charges against them were read out in court and were reported in court to have been inspired by ISIL.[32] They also face trial this year.

Reflecting a threat picture that from the security services’ perspective has widened beyond networks of people plotting attacks to include “lone actor” terrorists, police separately arrested 19-year-old Brustchom Ziamani and 18-year-old Kazi Jawad Islam. Both men stand accused of planning to launch attacks against government security forces, though in different ways. Jawad Islam was arrested in east London on August 13, 2014, having reportedly given the order to unknown others to kill a British soldier. In court he was reported to have been overheard saying, “When I give the order I want you to kill a soldier.” He is alleged to have searched for materials to help him produce an improvised explosive device as well as possessed a document entitled “How to Make Semtex.”[33]

A Congolese-British convert, Ziamani was also arrested in August in the wake of the release of the ISIL video in which the American reporter James Foley was beheaded. Accused of planning an attack similar to the one against British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013, Ziamani was arrested with a knife and a hammer wrapped in an Islamic flag in a bag on his back. In presenting Ziamani to the court, the prosecution stated that “he is 19 and of previous good character. He said to (a female teenager) he is going to commit a … terrorist atrocity either on troops or members of the government.”[34] He was further accused of wanting to go to Syria to fight alongside ISIL. Both men are due to stand trial this year.

The lone-actor plot, in particular targeting authorities, has become the heart of the threat that British security services currently see. In early December 2014, a threat believed to have come through social media ignited concern that police officers in Birmingham were to be targeted for attack. One man was arrested as a result.[35] This concern escalated further around Christmas with armed police standing guard outside prominent locations in London where formal sentries stand to attention in dress uniform (such as Buckingham Palace or the famous Horseguards Parade), while service personnel were told not to wear their uniforms to and from work.[36]

Britain’s Levantine Connection Strengthens
This escalating number of plots took place against a backdrop of revelations that British fighters were killed in U.S. airstrikes against Khorasan Group camps near Aleppo on September 23, 2014;[37] that a number of Britons died fighting alongside ISIL in Kobane, Syria;[38] and that a Briton was involved in a suicide bombing attack alongside the group in Iraq. The suicide bomber was Derby-born Kabir Ahmed, who was revealed to have been previously convicted of hate crimes, and had gone to Syria in 2012.[39] Ahmed is the second British suicide bomber to have been publicly revealed as dying in Iraq or Syria, though it is believed more than 30 Britons have died in total during the conflict so far.[40]

Furthermore, British-linked fighters are believed to be rising in the ranks of groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, most prominently in the case of the infamous “Jihadi John,” who is accused of being the executioner in the ISIL beheading videos and separately as the leader of a group called Kateeba al Kawthar. In proscribing the latter group, British Minister James Brokenshire described its leader as an individual with a British accent who is featured in recruitment videos under the name Abu Musab but whose true name was revealed as Rabah Tahari.[41] Tahari’s wife and son were arrested and charged in Birmingham, accused of sending goods to him in Syria.[42] Ultimately, charges against both of them were dropped, and Tahari is believed to continue to be out of  the United Kingdom. All of this presents a worrying picture for security services who are concerned about the fact that British nationals are being radicalized, are fighting alongside numerous different groups, and are taking leadership roles in some cases.

At the same time, the public debate in the United Kingdom has been increasingly colored by and focused on the question of what to do with returning fighters. This debate became livelier with the revelations in early September 2014 that a group of British fighters in Syria contacted researchers at King’s College and asked them to facilitate their return to the UK.[43] Other groups of fighters have also allegedly been identified, though it is unclear the degree to which these clusters of individuals are real fighters or are British nationals who went out under the auspices of aid work and ended up becoming embroiled in the fighting and now find themselves with nowhere to go. The dilemma of what to do with returnees is something that security forces balance against the number of disrupted plots that they have faced. One report to emerge in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris stated that “more than 30 ISIS fighters in the UK have been placed under surveillance by MI5 because they are considered a serious threat” and that “a further 120 who retain ‘extremist’ views but have escaped detailed scrutiny will be reassessed amid fears that they have the firearms training to commit a copycat attack.”[44]

Conclusion
It is not clear whether the plots discussed in this article were directed by foreign groups or networks like ISIL, al-Nusra Front, or the cluster identified as the Khorasan Group on the battlefield in Syria or Iraq. In Incedal’s case, it seems that he was discussing his plans with someone abroad, but in the other cases no evidence of direction from overseas has yet been provided, though clearly the head of MI5 has identified that his service has seen such active plotting. Instead, the publicly identified and detailed plots appear to bear the hallmarks of being inspired by ISIL or potentially loosely linked to individuals with direct experience on the battlefield.

The plots appear to be the product of a fusion of trends, of lone actors and foreign fighters, with some individuals seemingly heeding al-Adnani’s call to “kill a disbelieving American or European–especially the spiteful and filthy French–or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be….Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.”[45]

Having already experienced the Woolwich incident, in which a pair of radicalized individuals who were longstanding subjects of counterterrorism investigations abruptly decided to run over in a car and brutally butcher an off-duty soldier, British forces are already alert to the possible threat from such small-cell or lone-actor terrorist activity. But given the potential numbers of individuals of concern connected with Syria and Iraq (of whom about 250-300 are believed to have returned home), the threat picture is one that has multiplied significantly.

Distinguishing the fighters who are genuine in their desire to return home to ordinary lives from those who might pose a terrorist threat is a major challenge. However, given the current trend of plots that appear to have loose connections to the battlefield but limited direction, British security forces seem to be dealing with two distinct groups. One group within the United Kingdom seems to be radicalizing and, inspired by narratives that ISIL is broadcasting, is choosing to plot terrorist attacks at home. The other is choosing to go abroad to fight with some possibly returning home to plan attacks. The line between these two groups is unclear, but what does seem clear is that these two parallel trends, and their increasing collision together, will cause major counterterrorism challenges for the next several years at least.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

[1] Andrew Parker, “Terrorism, Technology and Accountability,” Address by the Director-General of the Security Service, Andrew Parker, to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Thames House, January 9, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Justin Davenport, “Police foil ‘major Islamist terror plot’ after armed raids across London,” The Evening Standard, October 15, 2013.
[5] Patrick Sawer, Nicola Harley, and Tom Whitehead, “Armed police arrest four men amid fears of Islamist Remembrance Day terror plot,” The Telegraph, November 7, 2014.
[6] Martin Naylor, “Suicide Bomber: report claims Islamic State suicide bomber in Kabir Ahmed, of Normanton, Derby,” Derby Telegraph, November 10, 2014.
[7] “Report on the intelligence relating the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby,” Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, November 25, 2014.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Guardian News and Media Ltd vs AB CD, Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, Case No: 2014/02393C1, judgment handed down June 12, 2014.
[10] “Defendant in UK’s first secret trial pleads guilty,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2014.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect had ‘reasonable excuse’ for having bomb-making plans,’” The Times, October 27, 2014.
[13] Sean O’Neill, “Armed police hunted Mercedes of terror suspect and blew out tires,” The Times, October 15, 2014.
[14] In Kurdish, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK).
[15] Tablighi Jamaat is a Muslim movement whose name literally translates as “society for spreading faith” and is an off-shoot of the Deobandi movement in South Asia.
[16] Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect had ‘reasonable excuse’ for having bomb-making plans,” The Times, October 27, 2014.
[17] Tom Whitehead, “Secret terror trial hears Erol Incedal considered joining forces with Abu Hamza’s sons,” The Telegraph, November 3, 2014.
[18] This refers to the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, during which teams of Lashkar-i-Tayyiba attackers assaulted multiple targets in Mumbai using small arms and taking hostages, ultimately killing 164 people (including 10 attackers).
[19] Sean O’Neill, “Tony Blair was a ‘terror target,’” The Times, October 14, 2014.
[20] Tom Whitehead, “Erol Incedal secret terror trial: jury discharged and retrial ordered,” The Telegraph, November 11, 2014.
[21] Sean O’Neill, “Armed police hunted Mercedes of terror suspect and blew out tires,” The Times, October 15, 2014.
[22] Victoria Ward, “Secret terror trial hears Erol Incedal used code word ‘sausage’ to buy a gun,” The Telegraph, October 16, 2014.
[23] Victoria Ward, “Tony and Cherie Blair named in secret terror trial as potential targets,” The Telegraph, October 14, 2014.
[24] Sean O’Neill and Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect ‘discussed Syria and buying firearm,’” The Times, October 17, 2014.
[25] “Terror accused ‘praised jihadist battles in Syria and Iraq,’” BBC News, October 15, 2014.
[26] Fiona Hamilton and Sean O’Neill, “Terror suspects charged with moped plot to shoot police,” The Times, October 18, 2014.
[27] Fiona Hamilton and Sean O’Neill, “Terror suspects charged with moped plot to shoot police,” The Times, October 18, 2014.
[28] Victoria Ward and Nicola Harley, “ISIL terror suspect Tarik Hassane offered place at top UK university,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2014.
[29] Michael Powell and Duncan Gardham, “Teenage suspect in ‘Poppy terror plot’ tried to travel to Syria six months ago to ‘take part in extremist activity,’” The Mail on Sunday, November 8, 2014.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Martin Evans, “Terror suspects plotted to behead member of the public, court hears,” The Telegraph, November 20, 2014.
[32] Ibid.
[33] “Islam: Teenager Gave ‘Kill Solider’ Order,” Court News UK, December 4, 2014.
[34] Martin Robinson, “British-born Muslim convert ‘plotted atrocity and had a knife and hammer wrapped in an Islamic flag,’” Daily Mail, August 21, 2014.
[35] Vikram Dodd, “Man arrested in West Midlands after police warning of security threat,” The Guardian, December 9, 2014.
[36] Abul Taher and Mark Nichol, “Retreating of the Queen’s Guard: End of an era as palace sentries fall back in face of mounting fears of new ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack,” The Mail on Sunday, December 27, 2014.
[37] Secunder Kermani, “Friend of British jihadist Ibrahim Kamara tells of fight,” BBC Newsnight, September 25, 2014.
[38] Patrick Sawer and Duncan Gardham, “Portsmouth private school jihadi killed in Syria,” The Telegraph, October 25, 2014.
[39] Martin Naylor, “Derby would-be suicide bomber: He is dad Kabir Ahmed with gay-hatred convictions,” Derby Telegraph, July 24, 2014.
[40] Tom Whitehead, John Bingham, and Sarah Knapton, “Up to 30 British jihadists now dead in Syria but toll will rise with ISIS lure,” The Telegraph, October 15, 2014.
[41] Hansard Parliamentary record, June 19, 2014.
[42] “Tahari: Mum and Son Bailed Over Syria Terrorism Charges,” Court News UK, March 17, 2014.
[43] Tom Coghlan, “Let us come home, say young British jihadists,” The Times, September 5, 2014.
[44] Tim Shipman, Richard Kerbaj, Dipesh Gadher, and Tom Harper, “Terror alert over 150 UK jihadists,” The Sunday Times, January 11, 2015.
[45] Helen Davidson, “ISIS instructs followers to kill Australians and other ‘disbelievers,’” The Guardian, September 23, 2014.

A guest column in this weekend’s Sunday Times looking at the question of lone actor terrorism and how it fits into perceptions of the threat picture at home. Given the work I have done on this topic, it might seem I am contradicting myself, but I think the point is that all of these threats have to be kept into perspective. Lone actor terrorism is going to be a growing priority (as the end of this year has brought into sharp focus), but when held up against the sort of plotting we have seen in the past (and might still face in the future), we are dealing with a very different threat and this ought to be reflected in threat perceptions. This aside, spoke to the International Business Times about ISIS’s year.

Stand firm, the lone-wolf strike is a sign of reduced terror

Despite isolated incidents of extremism, we are safer than we think, writes Raffaello Pantucci

The Sunday Times Published: 28 December 2014

The year has ended with a sharp increase in “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. A threat that had been growing for some time finally found its feet in 2014’s closing months with incidents in Canada, America, Australia and France as well as disrupted plots in Britain and elsewhere. Yet while it feels like the threat is on the rise and security services are working at full strength to counter the risk, we are actually safer from the threat of terrorism at home.

None of this is to say that lone terrorists are not a danger. Sometimes these individuals are able to summon the wherewithal to launch attacks that kill many. The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is the best example with his 2011 bombing and shooting campaign in Oslo and on Utoya island that killed 77 within a few hours. However, he is a rarity and most lone-wolf plots pale in comparison with al-Qaeda’s former ambitions.

For example, in August 2006 British police disrupted an al-Qaeda plan to bring down transatlantic flights with liquid bombs. But while the security services continue to worry about such ambitious plots, they are able to disrupt them. Plots involving lots of people mean communications and other activities that set off intelligence tripwires.

In contrast, an individual planning to stab a random policeman using a knife he already has at home is a hard target to pick up unless he has told someone else. And it is not always the case that the person he is telling will report it or realise what they are being told. This sort of threat slips under the radar, as in the case of the men responsible for the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby last year in Woolwich, southeast London, or like Man Haron Monis, the Sydney siege gunman, this month. In the first case the two attackers were hard to separate from the larger antisocial, but legal, community of radicals in the UK. The Australian case shows the difficulty of spotting prior to an attack an individual angry at society who adopts the appearance of a terrorist to express himself more loudly.

The real question, though, is whether we should react in the same way to these incidents as we did to the July 7, 2005, bombings of London’s transport system. The deaths of more than 50 commuters is surely more menacing to society than the death of a single off-duty soldier in Woolwich, as tragic as any loss is. Almost a decade since the July 7 bombings we are now facing a terrorist threat that is only really able to express itself in the form of lone-wolf attacks. And while such attacks will lead to great suffering for those directly involved, they will affect many fewer people than, for example, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Abroad, it remains a different matter. As the year ended, the Pakistani Taliban launched an attack on a school in Peshawar, killing more than 140, and Boko Haram murdered dozens and kidnapped another 180 people in Nigeria. Terrorism on a large scale is still the aim but it is a goal that is increasingly hard to achieve in western countries and capitals. Instead groups push for their supporters to carry out attacks without direct communication.

Individuals who are part of networks, and who are launching attacks with terrorist motives and intent, become confused with deranged or unstable people who see lone-wolf terrorism as their way of joining a larger cause or bringing attention to themselves. However, while the attacks seem more frequent, the casualties at home are less. If work by the security services has managed to reduce the threat down to lone-wolf terrorists or deranged individuals then things are not necessarily as bad as they seem.

The concern caused by lone-wolf terrorism is understandable. The rash of seemingly random incidents towards the end of the year gives the impression of a rising tide. But it must be kept in context. Terrorist groups continue to want to attack the West, yet find it increasingly hard to do so.

The lone-wolf terrorists we have seen are a mix of individuals with connections to other terrorists (but little evidence of direction in launching their attacks), or socially awkward, troubled individuals who demonstrate little ability to do much more (in most cases) than kill or injure a couple of people and try to dress it up as an organised plot.

Terrorist groups continue to be unable to carry out large plots on the scale of the July 7 bombings, though they continue to try. In fact it is even possible that the hyperventilation around lone wolves is helping to attract more people to the idea and exacerbating the problem. If people notice that these sorts of attacks attract attention, then they might want to emulate them to direct some of the spotlight onto their own personal cause. The current lone-wolf panic might ultimately be instigating the very sort of incidents we are all worried about.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

More on an old theme that continues to be unresolved, Lone Wolf terrorism, this time for Jane’s. I have a few more academic pieces on the pipeline on this topic and am possibly exploring some larger projects on the theme. Apologies as this one is behind a paywall. Am asking whether I can repost it here, but in the meantime let me know if you really want to read it. UPDATE (10/26/2012): Thanks to Jane’s IHS for agreeing to let me re-post the text here!

The Power  of One – Western Lone Wolf Terrorism

10/4/2012

The sentencing of Mohammed and Shasta Khan – a recently married couple convicted in July of plotting an attack on the local Jewish community in Oldham in the north of the UK – marked the end of a case which offered a new perspective on the problem of so-called lone wolf terrorism.

The trial uncovered little evidence that the pair had been directed to carry out their attack by anyone, and what direction they had appeared to have come from Inspire – an English-language jihadist magazine produced by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with precisely the aim of encouraging and facilitating the kind of ‘individual jihad’ against the West being planned by the Khans.

The case was merely the latest of a number in Europe and the United States in recent years in which prosecutors have cited the role played by Inspire in facilitating plots by home-grown, grassroots jihadists, and individual jihad waged by lone wolves or hybrid ‘lone wolf packs’ such as the Khans currently represents a significant potential threat.

The Khans

The case against the Khans came together in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Police were initially called to their residence in the Waterhead area of Oldham late on 22 July 2011 in response to an alleged assault by Mohammed Khan against his father-in-law. While questioning the family, one of Shasta Khan’s brothers reportedly told police he suspected Mohammed was “a home-grown terrorist”. When questioned, Shasta confirmed the allegation and accused her husband of planning an attack against the local Jewish community.

The North West Counter Terrorism Unit launched an investigation into the allegations, but as they dug into the couple’s lives they uncovered a far more complicated picture. The pair apparently met sometime in mid-2010 through the Muslim dating website singlemuslim.com. After corresponding a few times online they met at a Bradford food court on 19 July 2010, and a month later they were married. Although they met through a website that seeks to connect people for whom Islam is important, it is not entirely clear how pious the couple were prior to meeting. A photograph of the pair enjoying a boat trip during their honeymoon in Turkey shows Mohammed clean-shaven and Shasta wearing a short-sleeved top with her hair down, and it was revealed in court that Mohammed had previously been incarcerated for violent crime. On the other hand, in her account to police Shasta claimed to have started to read the Quran, pray five times a day, and wear a hijab six months before meeting Mohammed.

Irrespective, once married the process of radicalisation seems to have been relatively rapid. Mohammed told Shasta to reject western dress and the pair started to download and watch radical material together. Among their possessions were recordings of Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQAP ideologue Anwar al-Awlaqi, and radical Australian-Lebanese preacher Feiz Mohammed. The largest number of recordings in the couple’s collection was by Abdullah el-Faisal, the Jamaican preacher who has admitted that Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7 July 2005 London bomb plotters, was a student of his. Faisal was previously jailed in the UK and currently lives in Jamaica from where he broadcasts regularly. The couple also possessed at least two issues of Inspire magazine, as well as a profile of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar alias Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian jihadist ideologue noted for advocating “the jihad of individual terrorism” in which self-forming cells would carry out independent attacks without the need for any central command and control structure.

The Prestwich plot

Central to the prosecution’s case was the presence of Inspire magazine – particularly issues one and six which featured suggestions on how to construct explosive devices using easily sourced materials. Many of these materials, including Christmas lights that could be fashioned into a detonator, were found among the Khans’ possessions. There was further evidence on a laptop that someone had watched YouTube video clips that showed how to make potassium chlorate using bleach and salt substitute products with a high potassium chloride content. When police searched the couple’s premises they found a bowl and a metal pot in the garden with high levels of liquid chloride, sodium, potassium, and chlorate. When mixed with sugars, chlorates can be very explosive. According to forensic investigation, the chlorate in the vessels had been made three weeks prior to discovery.

The pair had further access to explosive ingredients through Shasta Khan’s work as a hairdresser. Inspire issue six includes detailed information about how to manufacture explosives from acetone peroxide, and in her initial confession to police Shasta claimed her husband had repeatedly asked her to source peroxide through her work. At the time of arrest, the pair were found to have at least five bottles of peroxide in their possession, as well as various items of safety wear that would be useful in concentrating the peroxide and mixing chemicals.

As a target, the pair appear to have chosen the Jewish community in the nearby town of Prestwich. In her initial confession – which she later retracted – Shasta Khan claimed her husband had a “massive problem” with Jews and would regularly make anti-Semitic comments. She claimed he had made her drive to the Jewish part of Prestwich to sit and watch Jews going in and out of the synagogue. This was confirmed by evidence discovered on a GPS device found in their possession, which showed that the pair had made a number of trips around Prestwich’s Jewish community and had specifically marked out the current and previous locations of the Jewish Agency, and the central location of the Jewish community.

UK lone wolves

The Khans are merely the latest in a growing list of UK nationals who have chosen to plot home-grown terrorist attacks with no outside direction. In May 2008, Nicky Reilly, an Asperger’s sufferer who had become radicalised after converting to Islam, attempted to blow himself up in a restaurant in Exeter with a device he had fashioned using recipes from the internet, but which failed to detonate properly. While police found Reilly had loose links to radical elements in his local community, it was ultimately concluded that he acted alone, albeit with some guidance from unknown individuals he appeared to have met online through YouTube discussion chains.

A month prior to Reilly’s attempt, police in Bristol were alerted by the local community to another young Muslim convert, Andrew Ibrahim, who had appeared at his local mosque talking about jihad and with very nasty burns on his hands. When police searched his home they found peroxide-based explosive Hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD) which he had made using online recipes, along with videos of him testing it, a suicide vest he had fashioned himself, and evidence on his mobile phone of him conducting reconnaissance at a local shopping mall.

Although Reilly and Ibrahim failed in their attempts, in May 2010 Roshonara Choudhry succeeded in carrying out an act of individual jihad when she stabbed MP Stephen Timms during his regular constituency meeting, narrowly failing to kill him. Choudhry subsequently explained she had targeted Timms for his support of the Iraq war, and claimed her inspiration came from having watched many hours of YouTube videos of Awlaqi and Abdullah Azzam. Again, there was no evidence Choudhry had been directed by anyone in conducting her attack, and Choudhry told police she had kept her plans secret “because nobody would understand, and… because I knew that if anybody else knew they would get in trouble because then they would be implicated in whatever I do”.

Choudhry’s act was widely celebrated within the online radical community, and a week after her conviction, Bilal Zaheer Ahmad, 23, was arrested in Wolverhampton for posting lists of MPs to be targeted on a website – revolutionmuslim.com – that Choudhry had frequented. Praising her actions, Ahmad not only offered a list of potential targets, but also provided a link to a supermarket website which sold the kind of knife Choudhry had used in her attack. Ahmad was later jailed for 12 years for soliciting murder, intent to stir up religious hatred, and collecting information likely to be of use to a terrorist.

Inspire

Choudhry’s attack was also celebrated by the editors of Inspire as an example of the kind of individual jihad – referred to as “open source jihad” – that AQAP had founded the magazine to encourage. An article dedicated to her in Inspire issue four, released online in January 2011, praised Choudhry as an example of “borderless loyalty” to Al-Qaeda’s cause, and stated: “The ummah [global Muslim community], and specifically its mujahedeen, are waiting to see more people of her calibre. No it is not the highly technical skills that we are referring to… it is the willpower to kill the disbelievers.”

This concept of open source jihad is something that Inspire has repeatedly advanced since its first issue. Drawing heavily on the work of Abu Musab al-Suri, it has argued that organised groups are not necessary and that individuals should simply take up the mantle of jihad and carry out attacks wherever they can. Such grassroots jihadists would operate according to the principle of commander’s intent, acting in accordance with strategic principles publicised by Al-Qaeda but without any actual contact with the group, which might expose them to security services.

However, while Inspire has become something of a feature among the possessions of recently arrested aspirant jihadists in Europe and the US in recent years, there is little evidence that the magazine’s call for individual jihad was what inspired them to act. Instead, other factors appear to have served as the motivation, with Inspire serving rather as a trusted and accessible bomb-making manual.

For example, in December 2010 police arrested a group of UK citizens – who later pleaded guilty to planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange – after hearing them discussing an infamous Inspire article entitled Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom. They had only recently downloaded the magazine and appeared to be figuring out how to source the materials it listed.

The same article was found in the possession of Naser Jason Abdo, a US soldier who went AWOL during the 4 July weekend in 2011, and who was arrested later that month after police found weapons and explosive materials in his hotel room. Abdo later confessed to planning to bomb a Chinese restaurant near the Fort Hood military base, Texas, and shooting survivors as they ran from the blast. In his court testimony, Abdo claimed he had been inspired by an earlier act of individual jihad allegedly carried out by Nidal Hassan Malik, a US Army major who is suspected of killing 13 people in a small-arms attack at Fort Hood in 2009, an act Abdo said he had hoped to “outdo”.

The company of wolves

Malik himself has become something of a celebrity in the roster of lone wolf jihadists as one of the most successful examples of the trend. However, despite the surface appearance of the case – in which Malik, driven to distraction by his pending posting to Afghanistan, decided to carry out an act of terrorism instead – the reality was more complex, and it was subsequently revealed that he had previously come to the attention of US intelligence after entering into email correspondence with Awlaqi.

As in the Malik case, there are a number of apparent lone wolf attacks where subsequent investigations reveal a level of networking inconsistent with the principles of open source jihad espoused by AQAP in Inspire. Indeed, the very Inspire article that celebrated Choudhry’s “borderless loyalty” to Al-Qaeda’s cause also highlighted the case of Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a young Iraqi who blew himself up in Stockholm in December 2010 in an unsuccessful attempt to attack a local shopping mall. Although the article represented him as a lone wolf like Choudhry, Iraqi officials have claimed that he was connected with insurgent groups in the country – although it is unclear with which particular group – and prior to the attack he allegedly telephoned several numbers in the country. In addition, a friend Abdaly had made while living in the UK – Naserine Menni – was convicted at Glasgow High Court in August 2012 of helping fund the attack as well as supporting Abdaly in building his device and sharing radical material with him.

Indeed, a distinctive feature of many lone wolf cases is that they do not in fact act entirely in isolation. This was also evident in the case of Mohammed Merah, who carried out a series of shootings in Toulouse, France, in March. Although repeatedly identified in the press as a lone wolf, Merah had familial connections to militant networks supporting the insurgency in Iraq as well as links to radicals in Algeria. According to US investigators, he also attended training camps in Pakistan. Indeed, in the aftermath of his attacks the North Waziristan-based Kazakh militant Islamist group Jund alKhilafah (JaK) claimed that Merah was affiliated with the group. US investigators later concluded that it was likely Merah had spent some time with the group in North Waziristan – although perhaps as little as an hour. While he may have chosen his targets and carried out his attacks alone, Merah was clearly on the periphery of a known network of extremists.

Even where no connection to militant networks exists, some connection can often be drawn to local radical communities or groups. The individuals who carry out lone wolf attacks tend not to be core members of these communities, but instead exist on their peripheries. For example, among the belongings of Mohammed and Shasta Khan was a black hooded top printed with the words “Al-Ghuraba” – the name of a proscribed UK Islamist extremist group which is descended from another proscribed group, Al-Muhajiroun – and their computer was found to have repeatedly been used to visit sites by UK radical preacher and Al-Muhajiroun alumni Anjem Choudhary. Similarly, Nicky Reilly was in contact with elements in the Plymouth radical scene, and Andrew Ibrahim repeatedly tried to make contact with radicals in the UK, who rebuffed him.

This trend is also evident beyond the community of jihadist lone wolves, with similar patterns of behaviour evident among right-wing extremists. Notably, Anders Behring Breivik, convicted in August 2012 of the July 2011 Utøya mass shooting and Oslo bombing, had previously been on the periphery of radical far-right and anti-Islamist communities, and also attended rallies in the UK. His unsupported claim that he was operating as part of a clandestine organisation, and his decision to email his 1,500 page manifesto to some 5,000 individuals he had identified as potential sympathisers, also suggests that despite acting alone Breivik sought to reach out to this particular community.

Tracking the threat

The apparent desire of many lone wolves to seek out the company of like-minded individuals offers security officials an avenue into countering the phenomenon. While the lone wolf is unlikely to be known to the security services, those they come into contact with may well be, and in some cases may be being monitored. Although the large number of people existing on the periphery of known radical circles would mean identifying the potential lone wolves among them would remain a significant challenge for the security services, in seeking out the company of others the lone wolf increases the risk of being exposed by those around him – as occurred in the cases of Reilly and Ibrahim – emphasising the importance of effective community policing.

However, not all lone wolves can be relied on to seek out company in this way. For example, in the cases of Choudhry and Abdo there is no evidence of contact with extremist communities – although further investigation may eventually uncover some connections. Nevertheless, even such true lone wolves remain vulnerable to exposure from within the community, with their very isolation presenting them with additional challenges and risks in preparing their operation. For example, the police search that uncovered Abdo’s plot was triggered by a tip-off from a local gun shop concerned by a recent purchase Abdo had made.

This was also evident in the case of Khalid M. Aldawsari, a Saudi student in the US who was arrested in Texas in February 2011 as he tried to build a bomb using chemicals purchased on the internet. Prior to his arrest Aldawsari had demonstrated no outward signs of radicalisation and he seems to have been operating alone and with no outside direction or contacts. In a diary recovered after his arrest, Aldawsari had written: “After mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad.” However, Aldawsari’s reliance on personally acquiring the materials he needed from regular commercial channels meant he raised the suspicions of his suppliers, and both a shipping company and a chemicals firm notified the FBI of their concerns, precipitating the investigation that uncovered his plot.

In an interesting parallel, Anders Behring Breivik had also triggered a similar warning to the Norwegian authorities following his attempt to purchase chemicals online from a Polish company. Although the alert was disregarded at the time, it again shows that the need for lone wolves to interact with others during the planning and preparation phase of their operation provides an opportunity for their plot to be uncovered, and provides another example of the value of effective education of chemical suppliers and other purveyors of products and logistics which may be of use in terrorist operations.

However, some cases seem almost impossible to detect, and illustrate the challenges lone wolves can potentially pose even the most vigilant of security services. Choudhry’s attempted murder of MP Stephen Timms is instructive in this regard. Seemingly in complete isolation, she radicalised, obtained her weapon, and selected her target. That the weapon she chose was a knife available at any number of shops meant security services would have had no way of detecting her through this purchase.

According to her own account, the only observably radical thing she did prior to her attack was to watch extremist videos online – an act so common as to have no intelligence significance when taken in isolation. Other potential signifiers that have been cited are that shortly before her attack she dropped out of a university course she had almost successfully completed, and that she had taken steps to pay off all her debts. Again, however, such actions were too commonplace to raise suspicion in themselves.

Furthermore, even if analysing all these factors together might conceivably have raised a flag, the level of surveillance of ordinary citizens required to achieve such a feat would almost certainly be rejected by Western electorates. As such, the problem of lone wolf terrorism, much like the broader problem of terrorism, is something that will require management rather than eradication for the immediate future.

©2012 IHS, all rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor.

A post for a long ignored outlet, ICSR’s Free Rad!cals blog. This one touches on my old hobby horse of Lone Wolves, looking at the spate of mass shootings in the US and the Breivik case a year on. Naturally, I would point you to my ICSR report on this topic for more, but also my earlier journal article on Breivik if you are looking for more detail on that specific case. A lot more on this subject in the pipeline.

Terrorist or Crazed Loner?

Filed under: Homegrown extremism, Terrorism

Almost a year to the day that Anders Behring Breivik carried out his deadly attack in Oslo, James Holmes donned his body armor, picked up the arsenal he had been accumulating over the previous months, primed a bomb at home designed to kill whoever walked in and headed off to the cinema. Once there he launched an as of now unexplained attack during a midnight screening of the new Batman movie.

Two weeks later, another tragedy struck America when Wade M. Page carried out a shooting at a Sikh Temple killing six members of its congregation. The question people have been asking since is whether any or all of these individuals are terrorists – or to be more precise, Lone Wolf terrorists.

In Holmes’ case, it is still unclear what drove him to carry out his action. Making his first appearance in a courtroom a couple of weeks ago, the immediate focus was on the color of Holmes hair and the fact that he is reported to have told arresting officers that he was the Joker – a fictional Batman nemesis. According to NYPD police chief Raymond Kelly, police apparently found some Batman paraphernalia in Holmes’ residence, and a local gun club owner said that ‘he got a “bizarre” Batman-inspired voice-mail message from Holmes that led him to issue a club-wide ban on the 24-year-old.’ All of this hints at a motive of some sort, but a tenuous one at best (the Joker, for example, did not have orange hair).

None of this points to any sort of a political motive. In fact, as time has passed, we have discovered Holmes was under psychiatric evaluation and that his doctor had tried to contact authorities about him. Whilst the case remains to be heard, it increasingly looks as though Holmes was a disjointed individual who found killing others as some sort of release.

On the other hand, with both Breivik and Page there was some sort of a political or ideological motive. This is important in defining whether this is an act of terrorism in the sense that we would commonly use it. If there was an underlying political motive, then it makes sense to characterise it as one-man political violence. If on the other hand there was no underlying motive beyond some imaginary world that the person has created, then it would seem to be missing the crucial element of political activism that is essential in an act of terrorism. This, put simply, is the action of a lunatic.

With both Breivik and Page there is a clear political motive. In Breivik’s case, we know about it since he wrote an epic and monotonous text telling us what he believed in, while with Page, we can only assume given his participation in white supremacist groups, musical tastes, and online activity. And both clearly come from an ideological ferment that seems to help explain their choice of targets. That in both cases, the communities they felt ideologically affiliated with have largely rejected them does not detract from the fact that the ideas influenced them.

The utility of understanding whether there is a political motive is that if there is, then it behooves national security services to understand it and be alert to the possible consequences. People had long watched the rise of the Eurabian fear mongering focused on conspiracy theories about a Muslim takeover of the West that was helped on by liberal governments weak on immigration, but the connection was never made that this could inspire people to violence. Not the radical right sort that most countries (except Germany it seems) have under good surveillance, but the new ideologies inspired in reaction to the rise of extremist Islamist ideas in Europe.

In the US, the notion of white supremacist/far-right groups moving into action seems to have been a concern, but resources were re-deployed from watching them in the wake of a scandal surrounding a report on the topic by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) back in 2009. More recently the single-minded focus on violent Islamists seems to have diverted people’s attention.

But what is confusing about these individuals who seem motivated by political ideology is that they decided to act on their own with such brutality and no direction. Terrorists see themselves as vanguard actors and they usually operate in a group that provides an echo chamber in which they can develop their identity. It helps them justify what they are doing and then gives them direction to do something about it. With Breivik and Page they seem to have been part of a broader community, but acted by themselves and did not necessarily expect anyone to rise up to follow them (Breivik even says he expects condemnation).

This is what makes them hard to understand. Their choice of target seems to have been dictated by their chosen ideologies. But the pointless nature of their assault and its subsequent lack of any follow-up makes it hard to comprehend. In the case of a terrorist cell performing an attack on behalf of al Qaeda, they are participating in an active global war in which their single attack is part of a bigger strike against society their group is conducting. And while Breivik and Page may see themselves in this role, from an outsiders perspective it is almost unfathomable that there is any sort of war on that these men see themselves part of and the absence of any direction seems to support this. At least with al Qaeda, we can see regular attacks by affiliates in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc, as well as periodic attempts elsewhere with connections back to these hubs.

Instead with Breivik and Page we are facing two men who killed a group of people seemingly detached from any clear group, but driven by a violent set of ideas. The fact they had an ideology of some sort distinguishes them from Holmes. And it is this that defines them as Lone Wolf terrorists rather than simply a crazy kid with a gun. They were seeking a goal that has a framework that exists outside their minds. This is not to explain or justify or glorify their actions in some way, but rather to say that in categorical terms it is more useful to understand them as politically motivated actors rather than deranged people with guns who act for no reason. And if we can understand the ideology and refine our other markers to some degree, it might be possible to identify such individuals.

A slightly delayed piece for CNN on a topic I have covered repeatedly, the subject of Lone Wolves and specifically the case of Mohammed Merah in France. It has also been a quiet period of late as I am travelling in a rather far-flung place, but more on that later.

In France, a new type of Lone Wolf Threat

Editor’s note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

Analysis from Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN

Mohammed Merah’s death has done little to clarify what motivated him to carry out his terrorist act.

The assassination of a series of North African French soldiers, followed by the cold-blooded shooting of Jewish children as they went to school, all show evidence of a mind twisted by hate that was motivated by Islamist ideas:  The soldiers had the audacity to be members of an army fighting against Islam while the children had the misfortune of being born into the wrong religious family.

But what is most disquieting about this is that it is unclear that anyone told him to carry out his specific act. While it now seems clear that he was living within a radical milieu and had tried to go and fight jihad abroad, he seems to have chosen to carry out his act by himself.  This is the action of a terrorist operating by himself, a lone wolf; one who has so firmly imbued his ideology that he no longer feels the need to receive orders to act upon, but is able to self-activate. Screaming about being linked to al Qaeda as he battled police, Merah clearly thought of himself as a mujahedeen for their cause.

What we do know of Merah so far is that he was in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region twice. Which group he sought out specifically is unclear.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed to have trained numerous Frenchmen, while Jund-al-Khalifah, a primarily Kazakh terror group, made a somewhat dubious claim of responsibility. He had possibly also fought in Iraq – at least one family member was involved in running a network sending fighters to the country. Back in France, he appears to have visited other radicals in prison and existed on the fringes of French radical group Forsane Alizza. But it is not clear that any of these organizations actively directed him into action.

This is not the first time that we have seen individuals of this sort on the European jihadist scene. Back in the early morning of January 1, 2010, Mohamed Geele came crashing through the front door of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s house in Aarhus, Denmark.  He had shaved and perfumed himself in the manner of a fighter expecting to die in the course of his action and used Google Earth to find the cartoonist’s home. Westergaard was able to hide before Geele got to him, and Danish police swiftly arrived and apprehended him after a brief shootout.

He was later identified as being a key member of a Scandinavian support network that was helping send money and fighters to Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab (“the youth”) and was spotted alongside another Somali-Dane who blew himself up in Mogadishu.  A few months before carrying out his attack, Geele had been repatriated after he was apprehended by Kenyan police on suspicion of being part of a plot to attack visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

But while Geele was clearly connected to the group, there is no particular evidence that it told him to act. When subsequently asked about the attack, Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahmud Raage said, “We appreciate the incident in which a Muslim Somali boy attacked the devil who abused our prophet” before going on to seemingly admit they knew of Geele, saying, “there could be some people who might say that boy was related to Shabaab.”  From information released during his trial, it seemed as though Geele was a radicalized young man who, once back in Denmark, fell back into his old ideologies and decided that it was his duty to punish the cartoonist.

While the whole story about Merah has not yet been told, there is a pattern like Geele’s that is possible to identify: Young men enraptured by the lure of jihad become involved in international terrorism, and then find themselves adrift and decide to act by themselves, following the outlines of what they considered to be a correct targeting package.  Like Geele, Merah seems to have been known within a community of radicals and was a known entity to local intelligence agencies.  Unlike Geele (who in court claimed it would be easy for him to get a gun), Merah seems to have been able to accumulate quite an arsenal.  And also unlike his Danish predecessor, he was able to carry out grim killings before he was caught. He was also planning on broadcasting his act posthumously, having created a video that he had sent to news organizations – though it is unclear whether Merah or someone else sent it.

Merah is also clearly quite distinct from some others who have been called lone wolf Islamist terrorists recently.  He is different from British student Roshonara Choudhry, who tried to stab an member of Parliament for his support of the Iraq War.  He is also different from Arid Uka, the 21-year-old Kosovar living in Germany who shot two American servicemen as they waited at Frankfurt Airport in revenge for what he believed American soldiers were doing in Afghanistan.  In both of those cases, the individuals involved were not particularly connected to any radical group (except through the Internet), but chose to carry out their acts of political violence by themselves, aiming at targets they thought would be justified.

Merah is clearly a more dangerous proposition; not only since he was more successful, but also because to some degree he seems to have been able to operate using effective operational security.  Clearly, French intelligence will have some explaining to do about how someone it was attentive to was able to accumulate such an arsenal, and also about how he was able to stay on the loose.  Whether this is the product of a more trained or a more dedicated mind is unclear, but what it does show is that intelligence services need to be more attentive to people who they may have considered peripheral figures on terrorist networks.  Previously, they would have been able to focus on the core, and leave the more fragmentary elements of the network on a looser leash.  But with the growing instance of individuals like Merah and Geele, and their increasing lethality, it will have to be reconsidered which individuals are of concern.

The question becomes how such individuals can be effectively focused on and how intelligence services can distinguish them from the large community of individuals that exist on the periphery of known terrorist networks but who never move into action.  While much has been made of the French tendency toward human rather than electronic intelligence as a potential reason why Merah was able to seemingly accumulate his armory and was able to stay below the radar for so long, it is unclear that greater electronic information would have necessarily uncovered him.

Within the United States, where electronic intelligence is the foundation of counter-terrorism work, individuals have managed to proceed quite far staying beneath the eyes of electronic watchers. Whatever the case, the key lesson is that it is increasingly becoming the norm that individuals less central to terrorist networks are going to move to the heart of terrorist operations. Figuring out how to distinguish them from the noise surrounding them is going to be a challenge for the next few years.