Why Lone Wolves Terrorists are Not So Alone Anymore

Dur-e-Aden is a PhD student at the University of Toronto

“Was Westminster attacker a lone wolf? (BBC News)”, “Manchester attack likely work of lone wolf than terror network (CNBC).” Headlines like these tend to flood our social media timelines after terror attacks where a single culprit is involved. According to its definition, a lone wolf is defined “as an individual who has no operational connection to a terrorist group or network but acts in its name or the name of the broader cause.” Therefore, anyone who can come under the influence of a group’s propaganda in front of his or her computer screen can carry out an attack. As a result, lone wolves’ attacks are very difficult to stop (or so the argument goes).

While it is true that in attacks such as the ones in Manchester and Westminster, there was only one person involved at the site of the attack, the details that emerge after such attacks increasingly show that these attackers are not acting completely on their own. Instead, they often receive direct instructions from ISIS virtual planners, sometimes till the last minutes of the attacks. For example, the Manchester attacker is reported to have been “remotely controlled” by the same group that was behind the Paris and Brussels attacks. Similarly, the Westminster attacker, Khalid Masood, sent a Whatsapp message just minutes before committing his attack, in which he “reportedly declared he was waging jihad in revenge against Western military action in Muslim countries in the Middle East.” While the police have not yet found evidence linking Masood directly with ISIS, he was hanging out with associates who had expressed interest in travelling abroad for jihad. 

According to experts, ISIS’ virtual planner model works as follows: Within ISIS central, there are specialized individuals whose job is to provide training and guidance to ISIS operatives outside of ISIS territory. In its initial stages, the group’s spokesman at the time, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “inspired” individuals by giving detailed instructions for conducting lone wolf attacks without directly contacting individuals. However, within a year, the group created a hierarchical external operations branch whose job was to directly communicate and coordinate attack with ISIS operators outside of its territory, sometimes down to the delivery of actual weapons. Furthermore, for the external operations branch, ISIS carefully selected individuals who possessed the cultural and linguistic background of its target audience, such as using a Bangladeshi operative for its messaging to a Bangladeshi audience or a French national to appeal to its French audience. It is important to keep in mind that this branch was created long before ISIS started to lose territory. Therefore, the current rise in ISIS related attacks in the West is not just a result of its weakening power in Iraq and Syria, as some have argued.

Secondly, ISIS’ virtual planners are only part of this story. These “lone wolf” attackers can also get ideological, tactical and strategic help from “jihadist entrepreneurs”. These entrepreneurs are not formally part of any terrorist organization, yet are sympathetic to their ideas and openly propagate them.  This enables them to not only evade law enforcement, but also help create networks of like-minded individuals who can then collaborate to carry out attacks involving either one or more than one individual. The case of Anjem Choudhary in UK is an example of this phenomenon, as both the Westminster attacker (Khalid Masood), and one of the attackers from the London bridge attack (Khuram Butt) were linked to his organization, Al-Muhajiron.

So, what does this mean?

First, from a law enforcement perspective, the increased cooperation between “lone wolves” and their local and foreign counterparts might not be a bad thing. While real lone wolf attacks are difficult to stop, direct communication between different individuals can increase the chances of it being intercepted, as well as the likelihood of thwarting these attacks. Additionally, it can also help isolate the influencers/ideologues from the followers, and resources can be better spent to focus on a few important persons of interest and their connections, rather than targeting a plethora of individuals.

Second, from a research perspective, looking at the detailed profiles of these attackers can provide more clarity regarding the debate surrounding these operatives suffering from mental health conditions. As experts have argued before, people suffering from mental health conditions often find it difficult to work with other people to meticulously plan and time attacks, all the while escaping law enforcement. On the other hand, radicalization is a “social phenomenon.” Individuals who are going through this process are therefore more likely to seek like-minded individuals and coordinate in some capacity for planning complex attacks. In short, they have more agency for their actions and are rationally making such a choice. 

Finally, the speed with which ISIS claims these attacks can provide valuable information regarding its involvement. It wouldn’t want to claim credit for every attack carried out in its name, since doing so could hurt its credibility later on if evidence proves otherwise, or if they have the potential to increase opposition to the organization (e.g. attacks on fellow Sunni Muslims). Therefore, Jean-Marc Rickli has argued that after such attacks, ISIS “does some kind of vetting process and background check to see if the person has been in contact with ISIS members in one way or another.” A quick acceptance of responsibility would indicate that it was able to confirm quickly that an individual was in direct contact with its operatives in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS is changing the definition of “lone wolves” to have more control over its operatives, including those located outside its territory.  For researchers and practitioners, this means employing a new frame of analysis that goes beyond fixating on the individual involved in the attack, and focuses on their social network. Moreover, the label of “lone wolf” should only be used after details (or lack thereof) regarding operational contacts of an individual attacker with ISIS central become clearer. In an era of this new terrorist innovation, while an individual might be a loner at the site of the attack, he or she is certainly not acting alone.  

Police Line” (CC BY -SA 2.0) by Neil Cummings


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