Lone Wolf Terrorists: A Scary Breed

By Patrick J. Brosnan

Lets start with the facts, as disturbing as they are in hindsight. For many years we have lulled ourselves with the idea that radicalization was not happening inside the United States. We believed American Muslims were immune to radicalization because, unlike their European counterparts, they are socially and economically well-integrated into society. We were seriously wrong. However, it is important to note that radicalization- the process of acquiring and holding jihadist beliefs- is not illegal in the United States. The First Amendment ensures that nicety; however, once violence is attached to these radicalized beliefs, the transformation to a violent jihadist is complete. And thus the birth of the lone wolf terrorist. A virtually invisible but deadly threat to the United States.

It is extremely difficult for law enforcement to identify the lone wolf. They are increasingly self-radicalizing online with no physical interactions with terrorist groups or cells. This anonymity coupled with the fact that they become involved in technically uncomplicated plots with no known connection to a terrorist group- like the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston bombing- makes them invisible to law enforcement. They are on no one’s radar. The fact that historically there are very few, if any, commonalities shared by these lone wolves makes early identification extremely difficult for law enforcement. They have been high school dropouts, graduate students, very wealthy, destitute, first and second generation, and with varied ethnic backgrounds. Virtually zero patterns for law enforcement to pursue. They are, in effect, needles in a pile of needles. But how does one become a lone wolf. Sadly, with relative ease and guaranteed anonymity. In the past, plots were directed by foreign terrorist organizations and recruitment generally required some direct, face-to- face interaction with terrorist operatives. Today, Intermediaries, social networks, the Internet and prison play the key roles in the radicalization process. The virtual network created in message boards and private forums- anonymous rooms where aspiring terrorists can plan attacks and share information on weapons and targets- is like gasoline on a smoldering fire. But it is the internet that plays the most crucial role in the radicalization process. It allows budding Jihadists to meet, form virtual relationships and share intelligence. It also provides terrorism training manuals through online magazines like Inspire and Resurgence. It was an article in Inspire – “How To Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom”- that provided the Boston Bombers the details to make two pressure cooker bombs. Lone wolves are generally not funded by a cell and operate on shoestring budgets. However, unlike the 9/11 attacks where the hijackers spent an estimated $450,000 for flight training, living expenses, travel and tickets for the planes they hijacked, lone wolf attacks are inexpensive. For under $500 bucks the Boston Bombers constructed two deadly bombs that killed three and injured 260. Lone wolves are a scary breed: virtually invisible, blinded by a twisted ideology and, logistically, at a great advantage- they are already living in the target nation. And the sobering fact is that all four of the successful attacks since 9/11 have been conducted by lone wolves ( Nidal Hasan, Abdulhakim Muhammed, Hasan Akabar and Mohammed Taheri-Azar.

How can these invisible monsters be identified? What can we, as law-abiding, and increasingly terrified, citizens do? Thankfully, we can do a lot. First, and foremost, we must become hyper-vigilant. We must watch closely for changes in friends, neighbors, colleagues and even strangers who we periodically interact with. These budding terrorists do not live in a vacuum: they go to restaurants, shop at stores, get gas, drop off dry cleaning and perform all the mundane tasks that all Americans do daily. We must have the intelligence to identify when someone’s behavior has changed drastically and may be embracing violent Islamic ideology. Whether its a change in clothing and general appearance that is markedly different or a shift in mindset whereby previously law-abiding, unremarkable, individuals are now spewing Jihadist propaganda. The fact is someone, somewhere, is aware of these not-subtle changes. They must have the courage to notify law enforcement. They must uncuff themselves from outdated, and dangerous, notions regarding political correctness and profiling. They must, at all times, report their observations to the authorities. It is the collective eyes and ears of a concerned populace, a committed populace, that will identify these invisible terrorists. There is no other way.

Patrick J Brosnan

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