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No Lone Wolves in Cyberspace

As lone-wolf terrorists plot online, waiting for instructions, authorities follow the trails

By Gabriel Weimann Created: January 8, 2013 Last Updated: January 16, 2013
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A journalist in Washington, DC looks at the FBI website announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden, on May 2, 2011. Terrorists have changed tactics in the post-Bin Laden era, writes Gabriel Weimann. (Karen BleierAFP/Getty Images)

A journalist in Washington, DC looks at the FBI website announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden, on May 2, 2011. Terrorists have changed tactics in the post-Bin Laden era, writes Gabriel Weimann. (Karen BleierAFP/Getty Images)

While politicians in the West debate whether, following the death of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda is “decimated” or not, the terrorist organization has successfully applied a tactic that makes prevention against attacks more difficult. 

Lone-wolf terrorism is the fastest growing form of this new kind of terrorism. A lone wolf is an individual or a small group of individuals who uses traditional terrorist tactics, but who acts without membership in or cooperation with an official or unofficial terrorist organization, cell or group.  

President Barack Obama has expressed unease at this trend. In an August 2011 speech, he argued, “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.”

But are these wolves really so alone? In nature, wolves do not hunt alone. They hunt in packs. So, too, with the lone-wolf terrorists: There is a virtual pack, an active social network, behind them. They may operate alone, but they are recruited, radicalized, taught, trained and directed by others. They seem to be alone, and yet there are online social ties linking them to others.

U.S. Terrorist

A recent example illustrates the process. In 2011, Jose Pimentel was arrested for planning attacks with homemade pipe bombs against police vehicles and postal facilities in New York and New Jersey. Pimentel, a native of the Dominican Republic who had come to the U.S. at age 8, was an unemployed, 27-year-old Muslim convert and Al Qaeda sympathizer who lived in Manhattan. 

He was charged with five counts of building pipe bombs targeting returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. He was not part of any known Al Qaeda organization. However, the inspiration for his planned bombing attacks came from reading instructions in the online Inspire magazine produced by Al Qaeda and the American-born cleric Sheik Anwar al-Awlaki on the Arabian Peninsula. 

Pimentel was not just radicalized by the magazine; in its pages, he also found the instructions for building the pipe bombs, thanks to a notorious article in English entitled “How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” Analysis of Pimentel’s online footprints reveals direct links online to known extremists, connected to some hundreds of likeminded individuals.

Pimentel is just one of many lone wolf terrorists who use the internet and its platforms—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook—to connect to their operators and guides. A 2012 report by the General Intelligence and Security Service in the Netherlands, AIVD, Jihadism on the Web—A Breeding Ground for Jihad in the Modern Age, came to the conclusion: “The AIVD is aware of the fact that lone wolves often plot and carry out a (violent) act on their own, but has found that they rarely radicalize in complete isolation. . . In the aftermath of such events, it is often discovered that lone wolves hardly had any contact with like-minded individuals in real life, but did maintain active contact with people on the Internet. 

In retrospect, it is then concluded that these contacts, as well as the consumption of jihadist propaganda and the online discourse, have contributed to their radicalization and (may also) have inspired them to commit such a (violent) act.”

With the ongoing loss of leadership, Al Qaeda has now thrown its weight fully behind “lone” terrorism. As early as 2003, an article was published on an extremist internet forum called “Sada al Jihad,” or “Echoes of Jihad,” in which bin Laden sympathizers were encouraged to take action without waiting for instructions. In 2006, a text authored by Al Qaeda member Abu Jihad al-Masri, “How to fight alone,” circulated widely in jihadist websites. 

Terror Promotion

Another prominent Salafi writer, Abu Musab al-Suri, 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,” featuring American-born spokesperson Adam Gadahn. 

The video, directed at jihadists in the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom, 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…”

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 promotes “open-source jihad,” a new tactic that emerged in the decade following 9/11. Each edition of the magazine has a special section intended to equip aspiring jihadist attackers with tools for conducting attacks without traveling to jihadist training camps. 

There is convincing evidence of the impact of Inspire magazine among lone wolves. A growing number of lone-wolves have been linked with this online magazine, including Pimentel, Naser Jason Abdo and Hakan Ertarkan. The latter, arrested in London 12 April 2011, was found to be in possession of a CD issue of Inspire. Germans Christian Emde and Robert Baum, were arrested 15 July 2011, when they tried to enter Britain in possession of electronic copies of Inspire, and several others were arrested in Britain 24 April 2012 and accused of working to recruit others, taking their lead from Inspire and possessing copies.

Other recent titles in Inspire include “Tips for our brothers in the United States of America,” “Targeting Dar al-Harb populations,” “The convoy of martyrs: Rise up and board with us” and “Qualities of an urban assassin.”

Difficult to identify, find and arrest, lone-wolf terrorists present a nightmare for counterterrorism organizations, the police and intelligence communities. However, the fact that lone wolves are not completely alone may lead to potential counterterrorism measures, or CT. 

If the process of recruiting, supporting and training lone wolves relies on online platforms, these sites can be monitored and studied. The outreach by law enforcement into radical, extremist, jihadist and other terrorist communities is key to providing early warnings of threats. Such warning signs include ties individuals may have developed with known radicals or online interactions through radical websites.

Another CT 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, including that of Abdel Hameed Shehadeh. Authorities have alleged that he attempted to travel overseas to Somalia to fight for a local Al Qaeda group.

An indication of the potential utility of these measures is the number of lone wolves found in possession of terrorism material acquired by accessing online sources. These cases demonstrate not only the growing threat posed by individuals who self-radicalize without any physical interactions with established terrorist groups, but also their reliance on online communications, which may be used against them. 

Gabriel Weimann is a professor of communication at Haifa University, Israel, and the author of eight books and 160 scientific articles. His recent books on terrorism and the media include The Theater of Terror, Terror on the Internet and Freedom and Terror. With permission from YaleGlobal Online. Copyright © 2012, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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