The Real Problem with “Lone Wolf” Terrorism


adam_gadahn_traitor_pointing.jpgA rather unfortunately titled piece in today’s New York Times, “The Search for White Jihadists,” seeks to shed light on the growing problem of Al Qaeda seeking out seemingly non-traditional recruits in order to wage small-scale attacks on the United States. There are some pretty glaring problems with this article, but the following stood out. The author writes:

Appeals for nonmembers to carry out small-scale attacks are a departure for Al Qaeda, the global terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden. It maintained centralized command and training for many years, masterminding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After that, it pledged to trump the mass killing with even more spectacular assaults.
As the United States kept up pressure on Qaeda hide-outs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Qaeda leaders exercised less control over related organizations and have begun to encourage attacks by unaffiliated individuals…
…Enticing “lone-wolf” terrorists is a symptom of the “continued weakening of the core Al Qaeda group,” and the “trend toward decentralization,” Stratfor, a political-risk consulting company in Austin, Texas, said in a March report.
Atomization of holy war comes at a price, Stratfor added: The would-be killers may be less skillful than trained ones, and less committed.

For one thing, jihadist support for small-scale, loosely-organized terrorist attacks is hardly new. In 2006 a text authored by al Qaeda member Abu Jihad al-Masri, “How to fight alone”, circulated widely in jihadist forums, while New America Foundation Counterterrorism Fellow Brian Fishman has written about an al Qaeda recruitment manual released in the summer of 2008 that laid out tactics for recruiting individuals into the organization. And one need only look to Richard Reid to find an example of a terrorist operating alone who did not “fit the mold,” way back in December 2001.
But what is more worrisome is the idea that the recruitment of individuals to perpetrate small-scale terrorist attacks necessarily indicates a weakened al Qaeda forced out of necessity to change. While this may very well be true, and increased counterterrorism measures seem to have inhibited the ability of al Qaeda’s leadership to operate, there is another explanation for why al Qaeda may shy away from large-scale attacks in the future: smaller attacks do just as much damage.
The failed Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253 provides the perfect example of the damage even an unsuccessful attack can cause. Despite the limited scope of the plot, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s explosive malfunction caused what terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman called this week, “most extensive government review of our terrorism defenses since the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security seven years ago.”
Moreover, the increasingly strong rhetoric of some American leaders regarding Abdulmutallab and stark policy changes made by the government in the wake of the attempted bombing did not go unnoticed in extremist circles. As jihadist forum expert Jarret Brachman noted in January, many forum contributors shifted their views of a “successful” attack in the wake of the Abdulmutallab’s failure, noting that the outsized reaction of the United States and it’s potential impact around the world rendered the attack a success.
By overreacting in the face of an attack, the United States sent the message that we were vulnerable and would expend huge amounts of money and effort, while possibly antagonizing Muslims around the world and at home, to alleviate any risk. And until we ourselves become more resilient in the face of terrorism, that is a lesson al Qaeda will not forget.
— Andrew Lebovich


26 comments on “The Real Problem with “Lone Wolf” Terrorism

  1. Jerry says:

    The shoe bomber and the underwear bomber were both on commercial not military aircraft so ‘ordinary people’ would have been harmed.
    John, it is amazing the fairy tales you can come up with that you think illustrate your pov!
    Andrew, it does focus the publics attention to the fact that there is a still existing problem that needs to be dealt with.
    I’ll bet not many people in the U.S. know how many minors die in drinking and driving accidents.
    I agree about the verbiage; there is to much grandstanding at the expense of the population in general.


  2. JohnH says:

    “All the terrorist needs to do is to keep the targeted population on the edge of their seats…”
    No, that’s what politicians and special interests do to exploit terrorist attacks for private gain. Responsible leadership treats terrorist attacks as a serious event to be dealt with, like an earthquake, hurricane or tornado.
    I remember being in a hotel in the midst of a coup overseas, when a cheery young couple fresh off a plane bounded in and asked what was happening. I said, “Where are you from? And haven’t you heard? And if so, why did you come?”
    The man said dismissively, “Oh, we’re from Northern Ireland. Things always sound much worse than they are, so we don’t take such troubles too seriously.”
    Eventually, the “targeted population” learns to take it in stride. They come to realize that terrorists typically target prominent installations, police, military, and economic. (It’s false flag operations that target ordinary people.)


  3. Tom Marshall says:

    All the terrorist needs to do is to keep the targeted population on the edge of their seats, fearful of the next attack.
    I’m going to say they have been successful.


  4. JohnH says:

    “If killing 3000 people at WTC somehow results in the Americans not only invading Afghanistan, but also Iraq, this is extremely fortunate from Al Qaeda’s point of view.” America’s rivals and potential rivals must be elated to see America consumed by these misadventures and wasting gobs of time and resources and diverting them from other, more strategic issues. Even Latin America sees the benefits of American benign neglect, which has allowed democracies to flourish throughout the region, free from constant American meddling.
    In Iraq, one could at least see some strategic rationale for the effort, though no one would talk about it. In Afghanistan it’s hard to see any rationale for all the waste besides defense industry greed.
    After Iraq and Afghanistan, the world knows that they way to cripple America is by sending in a few terrorists, trigger a massive overreaction, and watch as America consumes and dissipates its resources on unwinnable wars.


  5. Maw of America says:

    “Which countries were “military occupied” by the US before 9/11, the first WTC bombing, the USS Cole attack etc…
    none (except some minor troop presence in Macedonia and Bosnia, but hardly an occupation. Same goes for granted bases in some countries).”
    One of my indelible memories was from working at a college radio station when the AP wire service started ringing like crazy with the news that over 300 Marines had been killed in a bombing in Beirut.
    I think that may qualify as a military occupation prior to 2001…


  6. Paul Norheim says:

    If killing 3000 people at WTC somehow results in the Americans
    not only invading Afghanistan, but also Iraq, this is extremely
    fortunate from Al Qaeda’s point of view.
    If the failed actions of a single person – the underwear bomber –
    results in the US opening up (or increasing their efforts drastically
    on) a new front in Yemen, this is also extremely fortunate from Al
    Qaeda’s point of view.
    I can’t see how stating this has anything to do with “identifying
    with the oppressor”.


  7. larry birnbaum says:

    I understand what you meant. My point was that you are making a Herculean effort — almost bizarrely so — to look at things from the terrorists’ point of view — or rather, what you imagine to be their point of view. In fact I think their motivations are at least as much psychological as political, or rather, the political ideology has been constructed as much to meet their psychological needs as anything else: Among other things, they like to kill people because it makes them feel powerful. So when we succeed in preventing them from killing people, I don’t think they view it as a “success” because we’re wasting money or political capital. On the contrary, it’s a success for US, because we have prevented them from killing people.


  8. Sweetness says:

    Andrew Lebovich writes: “And by overreacting the way we did to the NW 253 attempt, we showed that even “failed attempts to kill people by a raw recruit” can have an enormous impact. Which is something al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations want.”
    Yes, but…
    None of us wants to end up on the flight carrying the NEXT Abumuttalab who might have learned from the mistakes of the first and is more successful at detonating his bomb.
    So SOME response to plug the holes in an effective way is, I think, is a necessary reaction. So effectiveness is the operative word, no?
    Yes, it will cost us money. And nothing will be perfect. But who among us wants to read that the US failed to do X which could have saved the people, say our grandparents, who were flying home aboard the ill-fated Flight X?


  9. frenchconnection says:

    read my previous post. I am talking about the current, post-Nasserism situation. That the West has “screwed up” is no doubt about it. But it’s not only in the ME. Most of the screwed countries are not in the ME, they are in Asia and Africa or even Americas. Has it resulted in fundamentalistic religious terrorism against the West and most of all their own ? No. Some communist inspired guerilla wars, yes. Today they are all good capitalists who screws us by selling cheap crap, at least in Asia. And in Africa they screw eachother by trying to instaure a robbery precapitalism. But it’s not an attempt to go back of a former mythical kingdoms of the Queen of Shebah. Not even in Ethiopia.


  10. kotzabasis says:

    Those who counterfactually and unimaginatively argue that a policy of


  11. frenchconnection says:

    OBLs “gripe” was no more than a pretext. Convenient maybe, but still a pretext.
    The fundamental reason for Islamic terrorism is a religious fight between religious sectarian bigotry and “secular” tendencies in the Muslim world. As soon the West had an influence on those ideas (and it goes back centuries ago) the fight was on. The decadence of the “Enlighted Islam” or “Sheherazade Islam” is caused by the religious impossibility for some to adapt to capitalism. THe feeble Sultans were vanquished by more modern Ottomans, then by the West. A country like France could send a single gunboat and shoot some salvos in the sea and the whole Algeria surrendered (the US tried the same stuff in Tripoli, but it didn’t work). This created an immense frustration. But instead of finding an Islamic way to modernity (took 200 years for Christianity if you except Utah) the most virulent forces thought they could find salvation in the most obscure medievality.
    That’s why Islamists kill mostly muslims, the West in reality is peripheral, but useful as the Great Satan. The first aim is to recreate the Caliphate and disposess all current Muslim rulers. They of course have a second goal of universal conquest which is mixed with the first one and partly caused by interventions like Iraq, but the fight began at home, against the treacherous impure Saudis. It’s the reconquest of the Mecca that counts. Foreign occupation is more a result than a cause.
    When the French resistance fought the Nazis, they attacked the military and disrupted the conquered infrastructure. They didn’t go an blow up their fellow occupied citizens at the nearest market just to create havoc and more repression. It’s a common misconception that the Islamic masses support Al Quaeda or affiliates. During the Algerian war the islamp-communist killed and tortured far more Algerians than the French. All those who weren’t for them were pointed out as traitors, coerced, killed and tortured in ways that make Abu-Grahib really look like hazing at Skulls and Bones. Cutting of genitals and women’s breasts with a curbed knife (douk-douk) was common practice. The FIS in Algeria (civil war) put live babies in ovens. But what do our bleeding heart liberals know about that ?


  12. Carroll says:

    Posted by frenchconnection , Apr 20 2010, 11:03PM – Link
    I think you have totally confused yourself.
    There’s terrorism and then there’s terrorism,some isn’t even military, as in our, and Europe’s screwing around in and screwing over the ME for the better part of a century. The ME has been sliced and diced and uprooted and rearranged by the French, British and now the US. Naturally they are pissed. I am suprised we haven’t seen more backlash than we have.


  13. Andrew Lebovich says:

    What I meant in my post was not that the damage caused by 9/11 is equivalent in terms of horror, death, destruction, etc…to Abdulmutallab’s failed attack, but rather that small-scale attacks can still cause a very off-kilter and ultimately detrimental response. The failed NW 253 bombing has prompted tens of millions of dollars and countless hours to be spent on technological changes and new policies that either stand a high chance of not working or could even be detrimental to American efforts at engagement and counterterrorism/counterradicalization work around the world.
    Large-scale attacks have often cost terrorist organizations dearly, since the huge loss of life does not reflect well on them. A small-scale attack costs them little, but by provoking a major reaction can help create more anger and potentially attract followers to their cause, while weakening our own justifications for action. And by overreacting the way we did to the NW 253 attempt, we showed that even “failed attempts to kill people by a raw recruit” can have an enormous impact. Which is something al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations want.
    — Andrew Lebovich


  14. larry birnbaum says:

    Are you fucking kidding me? A failed attempt to kill people by a raw recruit did “just as much damage” as a successful effort by a practiced team that killed 3000? I’ve heard of Stockholm syndrome but this is something else entirely: someone who eagerly runs to identify with their oppressor.


  15. frenchconnection says:

    OK JohnH
    to refresh your memory (I’ll pick the major ones and probably forgot some)
    1) What US (or Western) “occupation of Palestine” ? If you are aiming at Israel it’s a completely different issue, related yes, but still different.
    2) Lebanon : what frigging occupation of Southern Lebanon ? Before the Israeli war of 2006 there was a bunch of UNIFIL soldiers mostly from Bangla Desh or wherever, caving in bunkers, who were mostly shot at by the Israelis, even resulting in severe casualties among them. After that a biffed UNIFIL, with OK a lot of French, constantly accused by the Israelis of turning their weapons towards Israel and not the Hezbollah, which is mostly true. And more or less harassed by Israelis even today. Ask the locals what they think about the “occupiers” risking their lives demining them from Israeli cluster-bombs thrown at them the last day of the war as a supreme lethal insult and with no military purpose.
    3) Now to the other side :
    Al Quaeda was born in Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood).
    Foreign military presence in Egypt = zero. Yes, the US provides a lot of weapons to Egypt (even sophisticated ones) but that the price to keep Egypt “neutral” towards Israel. Besides Russia and other countries do to. What I know of those weapons are not used against other Muslims. But a bunch of Islamic whacos don’t like the staus-quo.
    Result :
    – several severe attacks against Egyptian forces and completely innocent tourists, most of them not even US (Germans etc…)
    – the Wahhabi brotherhood attacks PILGRIMS in Saudi Arabia at the holiest city Mecca, 1979, causing hundreds of deaths and taking thousands as hostages (skipping the Iranian attack of 1987 at the same place causing 400 deaths)
    – starting the civil war in Algeria (FIS, GIA) which caused up to 200 000 casualties. Attacking France 1994 by hijacking a plane to crash it on the Eiffel Tower (foiled) and later by a serie of bombings 1995 to 1996 in France (8 deaths, hundred wounded including 14 Jewish kids at a targeted school), with the aim of PROVOKING a military intervention in Algeria. There were no French troops in Algeria at that time since 30 years.
    – 1992-1996 : Infiltrates Sudan, declares war on Saudi Arabia (jihad), tries to assassinate Egyptian president Mubarak.
    – 1992 bombings in Aden, Yemen, kills locals
    – WTC bombing 1993
    – attacks in November 1994 on the Philippine Airlines Flight 434
    – USS Cole attack
    – 3 US embassies bombing 1998 in Africa (killing many locals)
    US (or Western) military presence in THOSE countries = zero, outside a couple of bases in Kuweit and SA on invitation by legal regimes. UN sanctioned, as a consequence of Gulf War.
    US presence in Macedonia/Bosnia/Kosovo (1995-1999) but in secluded bases, at max 3000 men. Part of an international coalition to protect OVERWHELMINGLY MUSLIM populations against Serbians war criminals.
    After 9/11/Iraq 2003
    – Bombing attacks in Morocco, Tunisia (gas truck at synagogue causing many Tunisian lives)
    – Attack on turist resort at Sharm el Sheik, 2005, Egypt, causing 88 deaths and 200 wounded.
    – Several severe Indonesian attacks (Bali etc…)
    US troops in those places = zero, victims to 99% Muslims, locals
    – Foiled attack on the Strasbourg Christmas Market, France, among the most known one and against the most virulent US critic. No French troops in Iraq, minimal presence at that time in the Tadjik district (non-Taliban) in Afgnanistan.
    – Foiled attacks against Germany, a critic of the Iraqi war
    – Attack against the UK (civilians) in London. None of the plotters had “tortured relatives”.
    – Attack against Spain (Madrid) causing mass civilian casualties. Spain presence in Iraq mostly symbolic. None of the plotters had “US- tortured relatives” of if there were some it was by Moroccans
    – Foiled attacks in Italy with indeed some presence in Iraq, but with good ties to Lybia and Iran
    – Al Quaeda attacks in Iraq : overwhelmingly directed at Shias and Saddam’s Sunnis, or even Kurds causing a civil war between the communities resulting in the tenth thousands of deaths. AQ became so bothersome that the Sunnis turned them in to the US. “Quiet” since then despite still major US presence.
    – Taliban attacks in Afghanistan : causing far more Afghan casualties in indiscriminate bombings than ISAFs collateral damage (maybe a factor one to ten). Besides up to 2008, the coalition presence can hardly be considered as an “occupation” at for example the Russian level.
    – 2007 Algiers bombings killing 33, motives internal
    – 2008 Danish-embassy bombing killing 8, motive cartoons.
    So my point is still valid :
    Terrorism (Islamic) has roots in an ideology which is mostly aimed at destabilize “unpure” Muslim regimes and precedes any US “occupation” (Lebanon ? LFMAO). Countries attacked can be minor coalition partners (except maybe the UK) but neutral in the Israeli conflict and even openly critical to the US. 99% of the victims are locals and often Muslims. Shias are often targeted.
    A certain surge of terrorism can be caused by some elements in occupied areas like in mostly Iraq and a to a certain extent Afghanistan recently, yes, but that would be the only cases. Anyway it’s a post-2003 phenomenon (thanks GWB), Islamic terrorism predates since 1992 = 12 years before the Iraqi war, that is to say before the US occupation in a single country (Afghanistan 2001-2003 wasn’t a “terrorist heaven”). Most of the terrorist attacks in Europe have been caused by ideologically brainwashed locals, often with good education and completely foreign to the misery of a foreign occupation, maybe ostracized but not beaten or tortured.
    If you equal Israeli occupation with US occupation, it’s a strawman. That there is Islamic anger caused by the US position, it’s another story. Besides how could it explain Islamic attacks against the EU when all the EU countries involved have a neutral stance in that question and if there is one entity that pumps money to the Palestinians besides the Saudis, it’s well… the EU.
    So as I said, Don’s statement is simplistic and in reality no substance.


  16. Sweetness says:

    FC writes: “Which countries were “military occupied” by the US before 9/11, the first WTC bombing, the USS Cole attack etc…”
    I believe we had a present in Saudi Arabia, which was OBL’s principal gripe. Plus, of course, there’s the historic occupation, or control, of ME oil reserves by Western companies set against the historical background of former European empires.


  17. Sweetness says:

    JohnH: “That must explain the rise in right wing violence…”
    I think it does, in part.


  18. ... says:

    sanity – meant insanity, which is how i view the usa leadership and it’s extended neighbourhood…


  19. ... says:

    apparently they got another ”top 2” al qaeda members just the other day… how many years have we been told, or read about them getting some ”top” al qaeda leaders?? after a while it wears thin… their is either an endless supply of ”top” al qaeda leaders out their, or they keep on popping up quicker then the usa can create a gun to knock them off with – a chinese made gun no doubt….
    not living in the usa, i wonder – do they sell guns at walmart? i can imagine what happens when sanity seeps down to the mundane level in the usa… having only on the gov’t level is still not near as bad….


  20. JohnH says:

    Of course, frenchconnection has never read a word of Pape’s work or watched a lecture. So he can blithely assert that “Islamic terrorism existed well before any foreign occupation of countries with a potential recruiting base.” Of course, that statement conveniently excludes the Occupation of Palestine, the occupation of Southern Lebanon, etc. to make such a ridiculous claim.
    Since Pape has carefully researched the topic, while frenchconnection is shooting from the hip, I’ll take Pape’s conclusions anytime.


  21. frenchconnection says:

    “What terrorism there is, as has been shown, is mainly a result of US military occupations in countries where they aren’t wanted.”
    Which countries were “military occupied” by the US before 9/11, the first WTC bombing, the USS Cole attack etc…
    none (except some minor troop presence in Macedonia and Bosnia, but hardly an occupation. Same goes for granted bases in some countries).
    After and specially before the “occupation” of Afghanistan and the real one of Iraq, most terrorist attacks (foiked or not) have been aimed at :
    – other Muslim countries (the vast majority)
    – European Countries which before 9/11 didn’t even have any participation even in military bases
    in Muslim countries. Even towards countries critical to the Iraq war. And the Madrid and London bombers had no “kidnapped and tortured” relatives.
    Sorry, Don, there isn’t the slightest substance in your statement. Islamic terrorism existed well before any foreign occupation of countries with a potential recruiting base.


  22. questions says:

    One of Pape’s very interesting points is that crossing the suicide prohibition requires certain features including community support. The rituals of filming final videos, having post-martyrdom honors and the like all help with this process. Having the wider community help hide you, lie as needed, and boast afterward are also major helps in getting someone to commit suicide.
    Lone wolves lack these supports and in the case of Captain Underpants, his family didn’t boast, they reported him as a nutcase. People maybe get the message that they won’t be loved, they’ll be scorned.
    Of course it seems that it only takes one successful nutcase, but in fact it takes many more if there’s to be an actual sustained campaign of bombings. So a lone wolf actually needs to be in a wolfpack, and once there’s a pack, well, there isn’t a lone wolf any longer.
    So these people, without being able to boast, without being hidden by a community, without being trained to deal with their nerves, the possible slip ups and the like — without all the stuff one would need to overcome a pretty deep sense that suicide is unacceptable, and homicide isn’t so great either, aren’t likely to be able to sustain any kind of campaign.
    Of course, this is guesswork, as anything about the future is bound to be. But if Pape’s work stands up, then perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so worried about individual crazies.


  23. JohnH says:

    Yes, America’s leaders have the corporate media freaked out international terrorism, while being largely indifferent to the rising potential for right wing terrorism, deaths due to unaffordable health care, etc.
    There is clearly an agenda at work here.


  24. Don Bacon says:

    Americans have more need to become resilient in the face of bath-tub slips and lightning strikes than they do of terrorism, statistically speaking. But that wouldn’t jibe with the continuation of the bogus global war on terror which is being continued by this administration with the help of the NY Times, Stratfor and others.
    What terrorism there is, as has been shown, is mainly a result of US military occupations in countries where they aren’t wanted. It’s completely natural that any close relative of a person who has been a subject of US military brutality resulting in kidnapping, imprisonment, torture and/or death is going to be motivated toward retribution.


  25. JohnH says:

    “The United States sent the message that we were vulnerable.”
    That must explain the rise in right wing violence…


  26. Sweetness says:

    “By overreacting in the face of an attack, the United States sent the
    message that we were vulnerable and would expend huge amounts
    of money and effort, while possibly antagonizing Muslims around
    the world and at home, to alleviate any risk. And until we ourselves
    become more resilient in the face of terrorism, that is a lesson al
    Qaeda will not forget.”
    I think this is the key point.
    One reason why concerted, but non-public, non-publicized police
    and intelligence actions are the way to go.


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