There’s no such thing as a lone wolf in cyberspace

June 25, 2015
Handout photo of suspects in Boston Marathon shooting

FBI handout photo of Dzhokhar (L) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the lone-wolf terrorists behind the Boston Marathan bombing, April 18, 2013. REUTERS/FBI/Handout

“Lone wolf” terrorism is often cited as the biggest terrorist threat today. The problem with this label is none of the assailants act alone. They all belong to virtual wolf packs.

Law enforcement authorities in Boston, for example, described Usaamah Abdullah Rahim’s scheme to behead random police officers as the plot of a lone wolf. Police also applied the term to other recent terrorist assaults, among them the brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris that left 12 dead and the Boston Marathon bombing. In all these incidents, the assailants used traditional terror tactics, such as targeting civilians, but appeared to be acting independently of any organization.

The “lone wolf” metaphor is based on the image of a wolf alone in the wild. But this is incorrect, as my studies on terrorists reveal. Wolves never hunt alone — in nature or in terrorism.

In fact, wolves are among the most social of carnivores; they live and hunt in packs. Though the whole group is not always seen, their attacks rely on a well-coordinated circling and cornering of the victim. Lone-wolf terrorists are very similar.

They have their pack — but it’s a virtual one. The solo terrorists are often recruited, radicalized, trained and directed by others online. The current wave of lone-wolf attacks has been propelled by websites and online platforms that provide limitless opportunities for individuals to explore and locate their virtual pack.

Gunmen gesture as they return to their car after the attack outside the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo

Gunmen gesture as they return to their car after the attack on the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo (seen at rear), in this still image from amateur video shot in Paris, January 7, 2015. REUTERS/Reuters TV

An aspiring terrorist can use the Internet to find everything from instructions on how to build a bomb to diagrams of civic buildings that could be potential targets. Websites, Facebook pages, YouTube videos and Twitter postings all provide venues for cultivating extremism that was once possible only through clandestine face-to-face meetings.

In the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, for example, the lone-wolf killers used an explosive device they had learned to make on the Internet. And that is partly how they were radicalized as well.

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, according to FBI interrogators, subscribed to extremist Islamic beliefs developed through online material and messages. Tamerlan, the older brother, downloaded a significant amount of jihadist material, including a book about “disbelievers” with a foreword by the radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. He also downloaded the first issue of al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire, which contained detailed instructions for making a bomb from a pressure cooker.

Dzhokhar appears to have been largely influenced by his older brother Tamerlan, but he was also radicalized through online content.

An attempted May 3 assault in Garland, Texas, where Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi attacked a Mohammad art contest, was also labeled a lone-wolf attack. But Simpson and Soofi had their own virtual pack and they left clear footprint across various online platforms.

Simpson, a convert to Islam with a long history of extremism, regularly traded calls for violence on Twitter with Islamic State fighters and supporters. His Twitter virtual pack included Junaid Hussain, known as Abu Hussain al Britani, a British fighter with Islamic State in Syria, and Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, a Somali-American now in Somalia who uses the name Mujahid Miski and frequently promotes Islamic State.

Both recruiters were actively promoting terrorism online. Hassan even suggested the cartoon contest as a possible target. On April 23, 10 days before the Texas attack, Hassan praised the January attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and called on jihadists in the United States to follow that example.

“The brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attack did their part,” Hassan wrote in one post. “It’s time for brothers in the #US to do their part.”

Simpson’s last tweet, sent just minutes before the assault began, included the phrases “may Allah accept us as mujahideen” and “#TexasAttack.” An online statement from Islamic State soon after referred to the gunmen as “two soldiers from the soldiers of the caliphate.”

Tracking lone-wolf terrorists can be a nightmare for police and intelligence counterterrorism units. For they are extremely difficult to find, identify and arrest. Compared to group or network terrorism, lone wolves can often avoid detection before and even after their attacks because most do not publicly reveal their real inclinations or plans.

Yet they are traceable because they share common characteristics, despite their varied backgrounds. First, they are not really alone: They are connected online, where they often engage in robust conversations. Across a wide variety of sites and platforms, they can reveal a strong commitment to or identification with extremist movements.

In addition, their actions do not take place in a vacuum. Their virtual packs can be monitored and studied. Thorough outreach by law enforcement into radical, extremist and other terrorist communities is another key to find early warnings.

One countermeasure to locate potential lone-wolf attackers is with online undercover agents and informants, who already track the virtual footprints and activities of many suspected violent extremists. They regularly interact with them online to gauge any potential threat.

These security operations have proved successful in several cases. In 2011, for example, online tracking led to the arrest of Jose Pimentel for planning attacks with home-made pipe bombs against police vehicles and postal facilities in New York and New Jersey. Pimentel was not part of any known al Qaeda group. However, the inspiration for his planned bombing attacks came from reading al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine.

Pimentel was not just radicalized by the al Qaeda magazine, according to New York authorities; he also found the instructions he used to build the pipe bombs. The issue contained a now-notorious article in English, “How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.”

This virtual tracking requires that “online warriors” train professional cyber units in such tactics as monitoring, decoding and analyzing terrorist online chatter –including the Deep Web, online contents unreachable by regular search engines. Social-media companies such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram also need to set up and maintain stronger self-policing measures.

Most important, however, a careful balance must be established between security and liberty. For fighting terrorism online raises the issue of the price paid in terms of U.S. civil liberties.

President Barack Obama has talked about needed reforms for the National Security Agency. “In the absence of institutional requirements for regular debate and oversight that is public as well as private or classified,” Obama argued in 2014, “the danger of government overreach becomes more acute.”

This is particularly true at a time when surveillance technology and society’s reliance on digital information are evolving much faster than U.S. laws. The war on terrorism — especially on lone-wolf terrorism — requires new countermeasures. But also a well-defined set of rules and guidelines.

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