The Myth of the “Lone Wolf” Terrorist

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In an interconnected world, so-called “lone wolf” jihadists are almost always part of a lethal pack. And they will continue prowling for prey, undeterred, until we recognize them as such.

At around half past three in the afternoon on May 24, 2014, a man wearing a baseball cap and armed with a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun stormed the Jewish Museum in Brussels and opened fire. The attack lasted less than 90 seconds, but ended the lives of Emanuel and Miriam Riva, an Israeli couple on holiday from Tel Aviv, and a French woman named Dominique Sabrier. A young Belgian man who worked at the museum, Alexandre Strens, was critically wounded and taken to hospital where he died on June 6.

The suspect, Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national of Algerian origin, was arrested six days later in Marseille after a continent-wide manhunt. French Deputy Prosecutor Ine Van Wymersch said at the time that the perpetrator “probably acted alone, was armed and well prepared.” Her assessment was rapidly shared across international media outlets and Nemmouche was classified as a so-called “lone wolf” — an individual that acts alone and performs an act of terror separate from any named group.

However, he was anything but a “lone wolf.” Nemmouche had previously spent a year in Syria, where he fought with Islamic State and was known as a notorious torturer of prisoners. He had a history of criminal activity, although not related to terrorism, and previously served five years in prison for armed robbery, during which he was likely exposed to radical Islamic teachings. Just three weeks after his release in September 2012, Nemmouche traveled to Syria to join Islamic State and eventually returned to Belgium in 2013.

When Nemmouche was arrested, French police found in his possession an Islamic State flag and a 40-second tape recording claiming responsibility for the massacre at the Jewish Museum.  It was later revealed that Nemmouche’s path intersected with another “lone wolf,” Mohammad Merah, the man responsible for three gun attacks committed in March 2012, targeting French soldiers and children and teachers at a Jewish school in the cities of Montauban and Toulouse. A telephone recording also proved that he was in contact with Abdelhamid Abbaaoud, the ringleader of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris that took place on November 13, 2015.

The Eiffel Tower lit up with the colors of the French flag to honor victims of the deadly November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.

Nemmouche’s case mirrors the journey of many jihadists that are often wrongly characterized by politicians, journalists, and the general public as “lone wolves.” The nature of terrorism has changed significantly over the last decade. In the period after 9/11, authorities poured hundreds of millions into programs to detect cells of men handpicked by terrorist organizations to commit atrocities in our countries. Today, coordinated attacks have become less frequent and have been overtaken by attacks carried out by individuals.

To that end, Islamic State has introduced a two-tier system. They still work with sleeper cells in the West that receive direct instructions from their leadership in Syria and carry out attacks on their behalf. But they have also introduced a process whereby anyone can become a “soldier of the caliphate,” as they call it. The only obligation is to leave behind a pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Islamic State before carrying out an attack. It is this fluidity and capacity to adapt to new environments that makes terrorist groups so hard to defeat.

The shifting nature of terrorism has prompted a debate over how to accurately describe individuals that act independently of a terrorist organization’s chain of command. Some call them “micro terrorists.” Others “freelancers.” But the most established description for such individuals are “lone wolves” — a concept that is deeply flawed for it obscures both the complexities of political violence and minimizes the magnitude of the threat that we face.

Take for example the wave of terrorist attacks that has swept across Europe in recent years. There was the brutal beheading of Lee Rigby, an off-duty soldier hacked to death on the streets of Woolwich by two individuals. Terrorists rammed vehicles into pedestrians in Nice, Stockholm, Berlin, and London. An Afghan refugee assaulted passengers with an axe on a train in the German city of Würzburg and a week later another Syrian refugee blew himself up outside of a music festival in Ansbach. All of these acts of barbarism where classified as “lone wolf” attacks.

But they were nothing of the sort. The killers of Lee Rigby — Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo — both attended al-Muhajiroun events organized by Anjem Choudary, a notorious British hate preacher and Islamic State recruiter at the center of an international network of Islamic extremists that include Abdelhamid Abbaaoud and the perpetrators behind the London Bridge and Borough Market terror attack. Choudary and his circle are thought to have radicalized more than a 100 individuals that left for Syria and Iraq to fight with jihadist groups.

The shifting nature of terrorism has prompted a debate over how to accurately describe individuals that act independently of a terrorist organization’s chain of command.

Riaz Khan Ahmadzai and Mohammad Daleel, the Syrian refugees that carried out attacks in Germany, even received direct instructions from Islamic State operatives via social media applications in the immediate lead up to the attacks. The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published transcripts of the conversations Ahmadzai and Daleel had with their handlers, which reveal how closely Islamic State monitored their operations.

“I will carry out an attack with an axe in Germany today.” Riaz Ahmadzai told his handler. He replied: “If you’re going to commit the attack, Allah willing, Islamic State will claim responsibility for it.” Minutes later, Ahmadzai typed: “I am starting now” to which Islamic State’s man replied: “Now you go to paradise.”

The other terrorist, Mohammad Daleel, sent a photo of the music venue to his handler with the comment “This area will be full of people.” His instructor wrote back saying “Kill them all in a wide open space so they will lie on the ground.”

These examples show that even if an individual acts alone during an attack, in the sense that no other terrorist is physically present, they are certainly not “lone wolves” in any meaningful sense.

Radical material is consumed by a vast number of people and research has revealed that often it is the environment that makes the difference between individuals that only consume such material and those that eventually act on it. They often receive encouragement from their immediate surroundings, whether from family or friends, hate preachers or sermons in mosques, an online community of like-minded individuals or a network of terrorist recruiters.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University studied the behavior of 119 “lone wolf” terrorists and found that “In the time leading up to most lone-actor terrorist events, evidence suggests that other people generally knew about the offender’s grievance, extremist ideology, views and/or intent to engage in violence.”

For a large majority of offenders (83%), others had knowledge about the motives that later resulted in an act of violence. In a similar number of cases (79%), other individuals were aware that the offender followed an extremist ideology. Family and friends often (64%) knew of the individual’s intent to engage in terrorist-related activity because he had verbally told them. In more than half of the cases (58%), others were in possession of information about the offender’s research, planning, and/or preparation for the attack.

The study also found that a third of offenders were members of a group or organization engaged in political extremism. Just less than half of “lone wolves” interacted face-to-face with members of a wider extremist network and just over a third did so virtually. In the majority of cases (68%) there is evidence suggesting that the offender consumed extremist material produced by a wider movement.

Even if we were to leave aside for a moment the practical nature of terrorist attacks, it would be wrong to characterize them on an abstract level as a series of isolated incidents. An individual might act completely isolated from any external network, and yet he would still be linked to the global Islamist insurgency — from Hamas in Gaza to Islamic State in Syria to hate preachers in the West — via the ideological hinterland they all have in common: the commitment to enforce radical Islam by sword.

It is important to understand the character of an insurgency. It is a movement that does not necessarily require a centrally planned or coordinated effort. But it cannot exist without a common denominator that creates a sense of belonging by ideologically connecting individuals from the Syrian Desert to the Palestinian territories to remote islands in the South-China Sea. Radical Islamist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda frequently evoke images of the ummah — the commonwealth of Muslim believers — to pull individuals towards them under the banner of defending Muslims against the unbelievers.

It is an uncomfortable truth to accept for it sheds light on the real magnitude of the threat that we face. It is easier to retreat to a comfort zone and convince oneself that a disturbed, perhaps even mentally ill, individual carried out an attack in isolation than to admit that it was linked to a rampage of bloodshed that is ripping through the world. Admitting this would mean that, no, we are not united and an individual born and raised in the West is prepared to blow up children in cold blood at a pop concert in the name of the global Islamist insurgency.

The “lone wolf” paradigm also allows politicians to escape thorny cultural and political discussions. By pushing the narrative that an individual acted alone, his act of violence is isolated from the extremist ideology that forms the backbone of groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda and, in return, does not raise difficult questions about how the violence we experience is linked to Islam and the security implications entailed. How Germany framed the debate over the wave of attacks carried out by Syrian refugees in recent months, in light of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur-policy, is an example of how a government can manipulate public opinion by refusing to draw a connection between different extremist attacks.

The “lone wolf” myth also helps security services, which are overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of information, explain serious failures in intelligence that might have prevented an attack from taking place. Intelligence officers have identified 23,000 jihadists roaming freely in the UK. Due to capacity constraints, however, only 3,000 of them can be permanently monitored. Unlike terror cells that have to meet, or at least have members communicate with each other, lone wolves can operate without leaving behind any traces and are difficult, often impossible, to catch.

But true “lone wolf” attacks are extremely rare and in most cases there would have been information that intelligence services could have acted upon. An extreme example offers the case of the men behind the London Bridge and Bocharlrough Market attack. One of the attackers, Khuram Shazad Butt, last year appeared on Channel 4’s documentary called The Jihadis Next Door. At one point in the footage, the 27-year-old can be seen among a group of well-known British jihadists praying with a black Islamic State flag in London’s Regent’s Park.

Individuals that carry out an attack are often only the tip of the iceberg. They do not operate in a social vacuum and seldom act in complete isolation. If we are serious about getting at the roots of international terrorism, we must first acknowledge the true nature and magnitude of it.

We are facing a full-blown global Islamist insurgency that has declared war on our way of life and will likely take generations to confront and defeat. Its foot soldiers are not loners. They see themselves as part of a grand plan that imposes Islam by sword in the name of Allah.

“Terror is terror — anywhere in the world — and the free world must come together to fight evil. An attack in London is an attack against the values of freedom and democracy around the world,” the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, wrote in a letter sent to London mayor, Sadiq Khan, in the wake of the London Bridge and Borough Market attack. He could not have been more right. The “lone wolf” phenomenon is a myth and it needs to be debunked.

Banner Photo: Catholic Church England and Wales / flickr