Virtual Pack of Lone Wolf Terrorists
© 2013 FrontLine Security (Vol 8, No 2)

Wolves never hunt alone
Lone-wolf terrorism is the fastest-growing kind of terrorism. Contrary to the popular perception that most terror attacks are orchestrated and organized by groups, the lone wolf attacker has become the contemporary norm: The huge majority (90%) of terror plots in the West since the 1990s have come from people who decide to do it on their own and who don’t have links with the outside. A lone wolf is an individual or a small group that uses traditional terrorist tactics, including the targeting of civilians, but which acts without cooperation with any (official or unofficial) terrorist organization, cell or group. The Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bomber, the Norway attacker, the Fort Hood shooter, and more recently, the attackers of the Boston Marathon are clear examples of this new form of terrorism.

In nature, wolves do not hunt alone: they hunt in packs. So, too, with the lone wolf terrorists: there is a virtual pack, a social network, behind them. They may operate alone, but they are recruited, radicalized, taught, trained and directed by others. As Raffaello Pantucci concludes in his recent analysis of lone wolf terrorism:

“The Internet is clearly the running theme between most of the plots included in this dataset [on lone wolves] and it appears to be a very effective tool: it provides a locus in which they can obtain radicalizing material, training manuals and videos. It provides them with direct access to a community of like-minded individuals around the world with whom they can connect and in some cases can provide them with further instigation and direction to carry out activities. Many of the individuals in the dataset demonstrate some level of social alienation – within this context, the community provided by the internet can act as a replacement social environment that they are unable to locate in the real world around them.”

Wolves in cyberspace
As my study reveals, in all recent cases, it was evident that these lone wolves had minimal contact with like-minded individuals in real life, but did maintain active contact with people on the Internet. These contacts, as well as the consumption of online extremist propaganda and the online discourse, contributed to their radicalization and inspired them to commit their acts. According to my 15-year long monitoring of terrorist online presence, the Internet has become the principal means of communication for extremist groups. Online social networking platforms have become a powerful apparatus for attracting potential members and followers. These virtual communities are growing increasingly popular all over the world, especially among younger demographics. Jihadist terrorist groups are especially targeting youths for propaganda, incitement and recruitment purposes. Accordingly, terrorist groups and their sympathizers are exploiting more and more the predominately Western online communities such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and Second Life, to export their message.

Online social media sites attract high numbers of users. Internet forums are an effective means to address targeted audiences, including supporters who have no off-line links to terrorist organizations. Most forums restrict access, wholly or partially, to vetted members who need to prove their credentials and loyalty, or be recommended by established members before admission. Forum members are strongly advised by their moderators to use encryption software for direct communication.

Deas Kadyrbayef (left) with Dshokhar Tsarnaev.

Born in different republics of the former Soviet Union and eventually naturalized in the U.S., the April 15 Boston Marathon bombers were also active in online social networking. According to FBI interrogators, the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, suspects in the bombings that left three dead and hundreds severly injured, were motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs. Though not connected to known terrorist groups, they had been radicalized and taught to build explosive weapons by an online magazine published by al-Qaeda affiliates. Older brother Tamerlan (killed during the ensuing manhunt) had posted links to videos of fighters in the Syrian civil war and to Islamic web pages with titles like: “Salam world, my religion is Islam” and “There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts”. He also had links to pages calling for independence for the Chechen Republic (which has been trying to gain independence from Russia since the early 1990s). Moreover, it appears that the brothers both learned how to build their home-made bombs from online manuals. “How to Make a Bomb in Your Mom’s Kitchen,” published in a 2010 edition of the Jihadi online magazine Inspire, has been down- loaded by Islamist militants plotting terror- ist attacks in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Eight pages were devoted to building a basic but lethal device.

Calling Lone Wolves
One of the most difficult challenges faced by al-Qaeda today is the ongoing loss of a large part of its first-, second- and even third-generation leadership – some have been assassinated, others arrested, and others have dissociated themselves from the organization and its terrorist methods.

Partly out of necessity, al-Qaeda has now thrown its weight fully behind “lone wolf” terrorism. As early as 2003, an article was published on an extremist Internet forum called Sada al Jihad (Echoes of Jihad), in which Osama bin Laden sympathizers were encouraged to take action without waiting for instructions.

In 2006, a text authored by an al-Qaeda member, Abu Jihad al-Masri, “How to fight alone,” circulated widely in jihadist networks. Another prominent Salafi writer, Abu Musab al-Suri, advocated that acts of terrorism be carried out by small, autonomous cells or individuals. He outlined a strategy for global conflict that took the form of resistance by small cells or individuals and kept organizational links to an absolute minimum.

In March 2010, As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media wing, released an English-language video featuring American-born spokesperson, Adam Gadahn, entitled: “A Call to Arms.” The video, directed at jihadists in the United States, the Middle East, and the UK, highlights the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hasan, whom Gadahn describes in glowing terms (“a pioneer, a trailblazer and a role model who has opened a door, lit a path, and shown the way forward for every Muslim who finds himself among the unbelievers...”). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an al-Qaeda affiliate, has been especially vocal in encouraging lone acts of terrorism. Its online English-language magazine Inspire promotes “open-source jihad.” The magazine became an important tool for recruiting, informing and motivating these lone jihadists as the al-Qaeda leadership steadily vanished in the decade following 9/11.

The articles in Inspire clearly promote individual jihad; its Fall 2010 edition editorialized: “Spontaneous operations performed by individuals and cells here and there over the whole world, without connections between them, have put the local and international intelligence apparatus in a state of confusion, as arresting the members of aborted cells does not influence the operational activities of others who are not connected with them.” The ideas and methods for terror attacks are meant for anyone, including those without direct ties to al-Qaeda or affiliates.

Issue #9 includes an article entitled, “The Convoy of Martyrs: Rise Up and Board with Us,” that declares: “The objective of this workshop is to communicate with those seek[ing] martyrdom operations, or those who want to execute a slaughter to the enemies of Islam, [or] those who have no means of contacting their mujahideen brothers. Whatever the reason, the aim is to activate them in the midst of the enemy, weather [sic] the enemy is the Jews, the Christians or the apostates. It is becoming obvious to many that the concept of individual jihad, which [has] begun to appear recently, has been called for by the leaders of jihad.”

There is convincing evidence of the impact of Inspire magazine among lone wolves. A growing number of such individuals have been linked with this online magazine, including: Naser Jason Abdo, a Muslim U.S. soldier who allegedly plotted to attack the Fort Hood military base; Jose Pimentel, who had started making a pipe bomb based on the online recipe when he was arrested; and numerous others.

The Challenge
The alarming spread of lone wolf attacks highlights the challenge of counterterrorism measures. The fact that lone wolves are not completely alone and rely on online platforms and networks may lead to several potential countermeasures.

If the process of recruiting, supporting and training lone wolves relies on online platforms, these channels and sites can be monitored and studied. Outreach by law enforcement into radical, extremist, jihadist and other terrorist communities is also key to providing early warnings of threats. Warning signs can include ties that may have developed with known radicals or online interactions through radical websites and social networking.

Another tracking measure is the use of online undercover agents and informants. For example, the New York Police Department has developed a Cyber Intelligence Unit, in which undercover cyber agents track online activities of suspected violent extremists and interact with them to gauge the potential threat. The unit has played a key role in several recent terrorism investigations and arrests.

Not long ago, President Barack Obama expressed unease at this new trend. In an August 2011 speech, he argued, “The most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now ends up being more of a lone wolf operation than a large, well-coordinated terrorist attack.”

The challenge presented by virtual packs of lone wolf terrorists requires new hunters, new skills and newr egulations.

Dr. Gabriel Weimann is a Full Professor of Communication at Haifa University in Israel. His research interests include the study of media effects, political campaigns, new media technologies and their social impact, persuasion and influence, media and public opinion, modern terrorism and the mass media. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC.
© Frontline Security 2013