Terrorism After 9/11: Dealing With Lone Wolves

ISIS Urging Lone Wolf Attacks
A masked man speaks in this still frame from a video released by Islamic State militants in September 2014. FBI/Handout via Reuters

Several days before Friday’s 14th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton testified before a congressional committee on the changing face of terrorism.

Among his key points were that “lone wolf” attackers are of particular concern and that “in many respects, we currently face a greater likelihood of attack than we have seen in years.” Bratton said there have been more than 20 terrorist plots against New York City since 9/11.

Bratton and the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, John Miller,  “have said many times that the ‘lone wolf’ type of potential attack seems to be a more likely scenario” than the larger-scale attacks typically organized by Al-Qaeda, Stephen P. Davis, the NYPD's deputy commissioner of public information, tells Newsweek in an e-mail. This would include lone wolves inspired by the terrorist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS, or ISIL).  

The commissioner said at the hearing that ISIS has “embraced a diffuse, 'lone wolf' model, which encourages unaffiliated independent operators to do whatever damage they can with whatever is at hand.”

He added: “This threat is decentralized and much harder to detect than threats orchestrated by Al-Qaeda. ISIL’s alarmingly effective messaging—as refined as anything found on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood—reaches marginalized, solitary actors. These are terrorists who largely operate outside the kind of command-and-control systems, or cells, that we have learned to penetrate and dismantle.”

Heightened concern about lone wolf terrorists isn’t unique to the New York Police Department.

Newsweek spoke with several terrorism experts to learn more about lone-wolf attackers.

Tom Neer is a retired Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who spent most of his time in the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU). After September 11, he focused on terrorism, examining the actors from a behavioral standpoint—the same way he had analyzed rapists, kidnappers and serial killers in the BAU.

Over the last few decades, there’s been a gradual movement away from state-sponsored terrorism to non-state actors (like Al-Qaeda), splinter groups of these non-state actors (like Al-Qaeda offshoots) and smaller, unaffiliated cells, Neer says. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, in an audio recording posted online Sunday, implored “young Muslim men in the United States and other Western countries” to use lone wolf attacks there, according to Reuters.

The increase in lone actors has been “tremendous,” he says. From the 1970s to the 2000s, lone wolf terrorism comprised some  2 percent of terror attacks. There were 30 lone wolf attacks in the 1970s—but there have been some 140 since 2000, Neer says.

Some of the first to pursue this small-cell approach were white supremacists in the U.S. In the 1960s and 1970s, white supremacist hate groups were infiltrated by law enforcement. These groups figured this out several decades later and decided it was safer to operate in loosely affiliated cells. Louis Beam, one of the most influential modern white supremacists, called this “leaderless resistance.”

“It’s harder to detect small groups than it is big groups,” Neer says. “I think some of the international groups have realized the same thing—they’ve come to the same conclusion that the white supremacist leader did.”

He also says of today’s would be terrorists: “People don’t have to take the risk of joining a group that may have been infiltrated by law enforcement, of traveling to join a group. They can just get online, and through a Facebook group or Twitter, they can get radicalized.”

Moreover, Internet-based radicalization could appeal to a wider range of would-be attackers. From the comfort of home, or wherever there’s web access, they can gain access to a virtual buffet of beliefs—and they don’t have to abide by a higher-up whose own radicalism may not jibe with theirs.

“They don’t have to buy into everything that a radical organization believes,” he says. “They can cherry pick the parts of what they're hearing that they like and [that] supports their cause.”

There’s no single profile of a lone wolf. Rather, it’s more that those who become lone wolves often share a similar path toward extremism, and many carry with them a personal grievance.

Combined with a “precipitating event,” such as a political event, individuals with grievances reflect on their frustrations and what they perceive to be unfairness. They’re looking for an explanation, Neer says. There’s also  what’s called a “cognitive opening.” The individual becomes receptive to radical ideas and, potentially, actions.  Often, one in this position has or will blame the grievance on a group. If the individual chooses to pursue radical ideology, then he or she might become a lone wolf.

Extremists often project anger or blame on a given group. So it’s only fitting that possible lone wolf-types would be susceptible to radicalization. While this makes them susceptible to extremists’ messages, it does not mean that their radicalization will turn violent. This is another reason why the lone wolf represents a difficult target for law enforcement.  In addition, a lone wolf might be violent -- or  might just be a big talker -- compounding the difficulties of threat assessment.

“The big challenge for the public is, how do you recognize these people without stigmatizing any group?” Neer says.

Intercepting potential lone-wolf terrorists is not as easy as going undercover in a chat room. However, several behaviors do indicate that a would-be radical might represent a threat, such as trying to acquire weapons and telling people about a desire to kill. Similar to a school shooter, a lone wolf might also show warning signs such as social media posts alluding to an attack.

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson,  a non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,  expressed similar ideas.  

“Before the advent of the Internet and social media, if you wanted to become a terrorist, you had to meet in person, you had a paper trail,” he says, explaining that now, “I can be sitting in my basement in Minneapolis—nobody knows who I am—and I can be recruited, trained and inspired to attack all without leaving my basement.”

He said: “What do we do about it and how do we stop it? That’s a very, very difficult question.”

The challenge is figuring out whether someone has crossed a line or is simply bloviating.

“The only way you can identify if someone’s going to commit an act of violence is if you catch them in the act of planning,” he says.

The NYPD also recognizes the Internet's role in self-radicalization.

“‘Lone wolves’ are not always easy to identify due to the nature of the environment in which they operate.  Often they are ‘loners’ who spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet.(Thus a more limited amount of in-person social interactions). Many of them are not identified until after the carry out a violent act,” Davis says. “As far as how to identify them, law enforcement can review open source Internet postings and sites, chat rooms, etc. Otherwise, where probable cause exists, they can seek legal authority to conduct surveillance in accordance with court-approved measures.”