Despite growing criticism of the NSA’s spying, hacking, and eavesdropping, the tracking and finding of terrorists through the internet is legitimate and important, even if better regulation is warranted. Lone wolf terrorists, in particular, are recruited, radicalized, and trained on the web, so following them means following them on the web.
Who is the lone wolf?
A lone wolf acts without membership in, or cooperation with, an official or unofficial terrorist organization, cell, or group and uses traditional terrorist tactics—including the targeting of civilians—to achieve explicitly political or ideological goals. A lone wolf may be an individual or a small group of individuals.
Other terms used to describe comparable forms of political violence include “leaderless resistance” and “freelance terrorism.” The Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bomber, the Fort Hood shooter, the Oslo killer, and more recently the attackers of the Boston Marathon are examples of this form of terrorism.
Before 9/11, the largest terror threat came from men who went to terrorist camps and to Jihadi mosques where radical Imams preached jihad.
Today, the real threat comes from the single individual, the “lone wolf,” living next door, being radicalized on the Internet, and plotting strikes in the dark.
Lone wolf terrorism is the fastest growing kind of terrorism. Recent studies reveal an increased number of countries targeted by lone wolf terrorists, an increased number of fatalities and injuries caused by lone wolves, higher prevalence and success rates for lone wolf attackers than for other types of terrorism, and increased targeting of military personnel.
The United States is the most-targeted country, accounting for 63 percent of all global lone wolf attacks between 1990 and 2013, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany, and other Western countries. Acts of lone wolf terrorism have been reported in France, Spain, Italy, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, Denmark, Portugal, Poland, and Sweden.
In December 2013, al-Qaeda’s media outlet, as-Sahab, released a two-part video calling for lone wolf attacks in the West and highlighting individuals such as Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan as models.
The video, an updated version of a 2011 propaganda movie called Do Not Rely on Others, Take the Task Upon Yourself (La tukalafu ila nafsak), offered the April 2013 Boston bombings and the May 2013 Woolwich attack as models for Muslims to follow:
The Boston attacks brought a distant war back home to the heart of America… These attacks left a message for the American public that the $60 billion budget of the Directorate of National Intelligence, besides the trillions of dollars that the taxpayers money spent on the imperial wars abroad as well as homeland security, failed to protect them from a simple attack executed by two men who managed to breach America’s defenses, despite being on the FBI’s watch list since 2001.
With the Boston attacks, the method of an impregnable America in the post-9/11 era also evaporated into thin air.
The video also justified lone wolf attacks:
“The virtue of this type of jihad in our religion: following our virtuous predecessors; expansion of the theatre of war; the onslaught of the enemy against the Ummah from all directions; dispersed interests of the enemy, whether in the enemy’s own land or Muslim lands; ease of targeting such enemy interests and its relatively huge impact.”
Packs of lone wolves
The metaphor of the lone wolf is misleading in terrorism as in nature. Wolves never hunt alone—they hunt in packs.
Lone wolf terrorists are not completely out of contact. They are recruited, radicalized, taught, trained, and directed by others. They connect, communicate, and share information, know-how, and guidance exclusively online, through the “Dark Web.”
Online, an aspiring terrorist can find everything from instructions on how to build a homemade bomb to maps and diagrams of potential targets. In addition, websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and chat rooms all provide easy venues for cultivating extremism in a way that was previously possible only through in-person gatherings.
Wolves in cyberspace
I began monitoring the internet for the presence of online terrorists fifteen years ago. Since then the internet has become the principal means of communication for extremist groups.
All recent lone wolf cases were people who had hardly any contact with like-minded individuals in real life but maintained active contact with people on the net. These contacts, as well as extremist propaganda and online discourse, contributed to the radicalization of lone wolves and inspired them to commit their acts.
Online social networking platforms have become a powerful apparatus for terrorists to attract potential members and followers. Because of the increasing popularity of these virtual communities all over the world, especially among the young, jihadist terrorist groups use them to target youths for propaganda, recruitment, and incitement.
The internet has been the meeting ground of all of the lone wolf cases of recent years, and it appears to be very effective. It provides a locus in which lone wolves can access radicalizing material, instruction manuals, and videos. It also gives them direct access to a community of like-minded individuals around the world with whom they can connect, who in some cases provide them further instigation and direction for carrying out terrorist activities.
Although there is no specific psychological profile of a lone wolf, many reveal some level of social alienation with feelings of being socially isolated, living in a hostile society, disenfranchisement, and being victimized by an unfair social system. Within this context, the community provided by the internet can act as a replacement social environment that the lone wolves cannot locate in the real world around them.
Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, suspected in the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 (which left three dead) and in the shooting that resulted in the death of an MIT police officer on April 18, were motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs, according to FBI interrogators. They were active on social networks.
On Facebook, Tamerlan posted links to videos of fighters in the Syrian civil war and to Islamic web pages with titles like “Salamworld, 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 Chechnya, the region of Russia that lost its bid for secession after two wars in the 1990s.
Tamerlan’s YouTube screen name was “muazseyfullah,” which combines the names of two prominent militant leaders in Russia’s North Caucasus where Chechnya is found. “Seyfullah,” the second part, also translates as “sword of Allah.”
Though not connected to any known terrorist groups, Dzhokhar and his brother were radicalized and taught to build explosive weapons by Inspire, an online magazine published by al-Qaeda affiliates.
Al-Qaeda calls in the lone wolves
Al-Qaeda has now thrown its weight fully behind lone wolf terrorism, partly driven by the loss of much of its leadership to arrest, assassination, or alienation. As early as 2003, an article was published on an extremist Internet forum called Sada al-Jihad (Echoes of Jihad), in which 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, also 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 entitled A Call to Arms, which featured an American-born spokesperson, Adam Gadahn. The video is directed at jihadists in the United States, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom.
It 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.”
Inspire, an online magazine
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 became an important tool for recruiting, informing, and motivating these lone jihadists.
Each edition of the magazine has a special section, called “Open Source Jihad,” which is intended to equip aspiring jihadist attackers with the tools they need to conduct attacks without traveling to jihadist training camps. It helps terrorist sympathizers in the West carry out attacks by including, among other pieces of advice, bomb-making recipes.
Since its foundation, Inspire has advocated the concept that jihadists living in the West should conduct attacks there, rather than travel to places like Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen, since such travel might bring them to the attention of the authorities. Indeed, Inspire views attacking in the West as “striking at the heart of the unbelievers.”
The October 2010 issue included “Tips for Our Brothers in the United States of America,” which contained this recommendation:
“We strongly encourage our brothers to fight jihad on US soil. . . . [A] random shooting rampage at a crowded restaurant in Washington D.C. at lunch hour, for example, might end up knocking out a few government employees [and] would attract additional media attention.”
In May 2012, the eighth and ninth issues of Inspire were released on jihadist forums. Both issues reinforce al-Qaeda’s promotion of lone-wolf attacks, but each presents different arguments and directions.
The eighth, carrying the cover headline, “Targeting Dar al-Harb Populations,” advocates the lone wolf model for non-Muslim lands, details plans for new attack methods, and presents the culmination of Anwar al-Awlaki’s justifications for killing American civilians.
The ninth issue, entitled “Winning on the Ground,” includes instructions for individuals wishing to carry out lone wolf jihad attacks. The article “The Convoy of Martyrs: Rise Up and Board with Us” 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.”
There is convincing evidence of the impact of Inspire magazine among lone wolves.
Raees Qazi, arrested in 2012 with his brother, Sheheryar Qazi, for allegedly plotting a bomb attack against unspecified targets in New York City, reportedly admitted having read Inspire, and a search of his home turned up bomb-making components consistent with instructions in Inspire.
Jose Pimentel (a.k.a. Muhammad Yusuf) was arrested in November 2011 and charged in New York with planning to attack returning U.S. military personnel, post office and police targets. Pimentel allegedly came close to completing three bombs based on an Inspire design. Pimentel’s website, “True Islam,” also reposted PDF copies of Inspire.
Naser Jason Abdo was arrested In July 2011 at a motel in Killeen, Texas, where authorities claimed that he was plotting to attack a restaurant frequented by military personnel based at Fort Hood. Bomb-making components were recovered from the motel room, as was the article “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” from the inaugural issue of Inspire magazine.
Adel Daoud, who was arrested in September 2012 and charged with plotting to bomb a Chicago-area bar, sent his friends copies of the magazine and called Inspire “the best magazine I have read.”
The Boston Marathon bombers were also linked to Inspire.
In the weeks after the attacks, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told investigators that he and his brother learned to make pressure-cooker bombs from the magazine.
The Tsarnaevs seem to have followed Inspire’s tips for using gunpowder emptied from fireworks, shrapnel glued inside a pressure cooker, and a commercial remote control as detonator.
“The pressurized cooker should be placed in crowded areas and left to blow up,” the manual says. “More than one of these could be planted to explode at the same time.”
The target and style of the attack mirrored instructions for “solo jihad” released in Inspire by one of al-Qaeda’s leading strategic thinkers and trainers, Abu Musab al-Suri.
The younger Tsarnaev also said he felt inspired by the online sermons of al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was the first editor of the magazine, until he was killed in Yemen by drone strike.
After the Boston attack, al-Qaeda’s online propaganda machinery took credit for Inspire’s influence.
The eleventh issue of the Inspire magazine, published in June 2013, devoted almost all of its forty-odd pages to glorifying what it called the “BBB”—the “Blessed Boston Bombings.”
In an article on the links between Inspire and the Boston bombings, the magazine’s new editor Yahya Ibrahim bragged, “Yes, the [Tsarnaev] brothers have been inspired by Inspire. This is not only because Inspire offers bomb recipes, but also because of the contents of the magazine as a whole.”
In March 2013, the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen published a 64-page compilation of Inspire’s English-language do-it-yourself online articles: the Lone Mujahid Pocketbook.
The Lone Mujahid Pocketbook pairs Inspire’s instructional ‘DIY terrorism’ guides with professionally-designed graphics, canned stock photos, and SMS-influenced pop jargon aimed at a young audience:
“R U dreamin’ of wagin’ jihadi attacks against kuffar [non-believers]?
Have u been lookin’ 4 a way to join the mujahideen in frontlines, but you haven’t found any?
Well, there’s no need to travel abroad, coz the frontline has come to you.”
Recruiting lone wolves online
The recruitment of lone wolves terrorist relies on online platforms and requires a gradual transition through numerous phases.
The first step is the “net,” which views the whole population as primed for recruitment, and exposes it to an online message, video, taped lecture, etc.
The target audience is viewed as homogeneous enough and receptive enough to be approached with a single undifferentiated pitch, to which some members will respond positively, others negatively.
For this “netting” stage, all online platforms may be used, from Facebook pages to personal mail, from YouTube video clips to Twitter or official websites.
Second is the “funnel.” The potential recruits who start at one end of the process, after some culling along the way, are transformed into dedicated members when they emerge at the other end.
When a recruiter believes a target individual is ripe for recruitment yet requires a significant transformation in identity and motivation, he or she uses an incremental, or phased, approach that capitalizes on a wealth of techniques well studied in cognitive, social, and clinical psychology.
This stage relies on a social bonding (though a virtual one), based on the target’s alienation, social frustration, solitude, and personal pessimism. It involves online exchanges and further exposure to religious, political, or ideological material.
Next is the “infection” in which selected target members who are dissatisfied with their social status or have a grudge against their political or religious system are directed to self-radicalization. The lone wolves-in-training, following only online sources, gradually advance in commitment and extremism.
The infection stage often relies on “seed crystal” practice, comparable to the lowering of the temperature of a glass of water until ice crystals form as the seeds of a complete freeze.
In “seed crystal” recruitment, different types of additional forces can be used to ‘chill the glass,’ and increase the ‘hardness’ of the ‘freeze.’ These forces may include an advanced radicalization by continuous exposure to online radical material and by virtual online guidance. In terms of al-Qaeda, the seed crystal approach is most successful in diasporas or populations where open recruiting is difficult or impossible.
The final stage, “activation,” launches the lone wolf.
This includes practical instructions through online manuals on using explosives, weapons, poisons and chemicals; directions regarding the selection of target, location, and timing; and the final send-off.
Tracking the lone wolves in cyberspace
The alarming spread of lone wolf attacks raises the challenge of counterterrorism measures. Lone wolves are extremely difficult to detect and to defend against.
You cannot profile lone wolves. They can be young or old, male or female, in different locations, and of different faiths.
It is very hard to find them and to identify their motives, activities, and targets, and they do not go to training camps or mosques or meet anyone.
The fact, however, that lone wolves are not completely alone and that they rely on online platforms and networks creates 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 can provide early warnings of threats. Warning signs include ties individuals may have developed with known radicals or interactions through radical websites and social networks.
Another measure to track down potential lone wolf attackers 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.
Some counterterrorism efforts not only track lone wolves online, but set traps, presenting themselves as terrorism organizations.
Many lone wolves have been arrested worldwide, often just before they were about to launch attacks. Most of these arrests were possible because the terrorists were tracked online by agencies monitoring them.
Not long ago, President Barack Obama expressed unease at this new trend of lone wolf terrorism. In an August 2011 speech, he suggested that “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 need to answer the challenge presented by the virtual packs of lone wolf terrorists requires new hunters, new skills, and new regulations.
While there is a crucial need to regulate NSA’s surveillance practices, we should remember that the only way to find and stop the lone wolf terrorists is by online monitoring, tracking their virtual packs, and finding their footsteps in cyberspace.
Written by Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a Fellow at the Wilson Center and Professor of Communication at the University of Haifa in Israel.
Video: For more on lone wolf terrorism, watch the author’s recent appearance on Wilson Now.