UNPACKING ‘LONE WOLF’ TERRORISM: AS THE HOWL GETS LOUDER

Kennedy Letlhogela

International Relations student majoring in National & Int Security

Nizhny Novgorod State University

Following the recent terror attacks in Europe the world has once again shifted its attention to strengthening counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.  Brussels, Paris and Turkey have raised fears that perhaps Europe may relive 1988, the most violent year in Western Europe where 270 people died in an attack on the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. With terrorism becoming even more multi-layered and intricate, the question now is: are the efforts on counter-terrorism sufficient and will Europe be able to understand the ominous kind of threat they are dealing with and ultimately marginalize terror attacks?

Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS) have claimed some atrocities in Europe such as the massacre in Paris in November of 2015. ISIS in 2013 branched away from Al- Qaeda to form its own organization, though it still inhabits core principles of Al Qaeda. Both their ideologies are drawn from similar schools of thought.  They were inspired by the works of medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya and 20th century Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb and later more contemporary scholars such as Abu Muhammas al Maqdidi who taught former Iraqi al leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Undeterred by ideological similarities the two have different views on strategy, significantly in how they approach violence, their ultimate goals as terrorist organizations and how they capitalize on anti-Western sentiments.

ISIS’ continued success is attributed to its robust media strategy. It has been able to use social media as a platform for its propaganda thus successfully reaching an assortment of people from different parts of the world. Disseminating their core principles and objectives through various media outlets ISIS has been able to broadcast their ideology to different corners of the world.  These individuals from around the world have instilled in their mind-sets the ‘caliphate’ way of thinking and have sworn allegiance formally and informally to ISIS. Ultimately this has transcended into a new wave of attacks deemed as ‘lone wolf’ attacks. This denotes attacks that are perpetuated by individuals in an isolated manner. Recently the world has witnessed killings carried out by individuals whom in most cases are not working on orders of Jihadist groups but are motivated by the ideology spread by propaganda of groups such as ISIS. It becomes evident that world governments have downplayed the danger and significance of ‘lone wolves’ in the surge of terrorism.

This summer there has been an alarming rate of deaths carried out by individuals. A single gunman who pledged solidarity with the Islamic State brutally killed 49 people in a club in Orlando.  On  July 14th a certain Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlele, a Tunisian national residing in France ran over and killed over 80 people and wounded even more using a 19-ton cargo truck  in Nice, France . Similarly there have been an alarming number of killings executed by individuals in different parts of Germany using various weapons including knives and axes. These incidents evidently show how the frequency of ‘Lone Wolf’ terrorist attacks is fast accelerating. The question the world has been asking is who are these individuals and how are they connected to terrorist groups and ultimately how do we work on stopping them?

The phenomenon gained traction in the 90s when two white supremacists: Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger encouraged individuals to carry out racist attacks individually to make their movement wide-spread. ‘Lone Wolves’ are individuals that act single handily or in a pack to carry out killings motivated by terrorist organizations though most may be out of the command of the organizations.

Scholars have discarded the notion that indeed ‘lone wolves’ work alone or are self-radicalized, arguing that these individuals are radicalized, recruited and taught by others. Today research proves that we may have two types of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists. The first group comprises those born and bred in Jihadist countries who move to the West and other countries with knowledge and thorough training, then start a network and spread the ideologies of these terrorist groups. The second category speaks to those who are born and bred in Western democracies but have found a way to receive training and spread knowledge and broaden the network back in their home countries. They have, as a result become sophisticated in their craft and using technological advancements at their disposal to communicate and form various networks. All these emerging trends in terrorism have somehow escaped the eye of security and intelligence institutions .The growing number of ‘lone wolves’ sympathetic to the Islamic State also brought a scare in Brazil where several Islamist militants were arrested following suspicions of plots to attack during the Rio Olympics. It was later discovered that these men were in fact amateurs who were unable to organize themselves and carry out an attack. However, this to Brazil and the world at large reflected the growing efforts by IS and other groups to seduce and radicalize potential militants through various social media platforms.

The current global events and changes in the global security climate, and the successful ISIS propaganda stand as potential cause-to-act for lone actors in terrorist attacks. Combined, the Orlando and Nice attacks left 133 people dead and several others wounded compared to the 130 killed in the November 2015 attacks in Paris that have been claimed by the Islamic State. The comparison indicates how treacherous the current situation is and what it can possibly transcend into when not immediately addressed.  This is perhaps the most complicated and unpredictable form of terrorism. The fight against ‘lone wolves’ makes the war against terror intricate. It is severely challenging to detect and prevent the radicalization process of single individuals who belong to and live in democratic and relatively stable societies. This presents a paradox: how do we effectively monitor terrorist activities in liberal societies without invoking a clash between the state’s role in mitigating terrorism and civil human liberties?? In the United States of America the Patriotic Act allows federal security institutions to do warrantless searches without informing the owner and no probable cause needs to be proven. To many this is a clear violation of the civil liberties.  And even more serpentine are self-radicalized sympathizers of ISIS who are working independently without any trail, making it even harder for the intelligence community to detect them until they have struck.

The only plausible route to fighting ‘lone wolves’ has given leeway to law enforcement agencies to constantly monitor and track activities of internet users. Could the next step in security intelligence be the actual need to search civilians in public areas and at what cost does that come with? Is the right to privacy, movement and freedom far much greater than risk to security the phenomenon poses? Does the need to preserve life supersede the values that come with life?  The pendulum between democracy and security has for years been able to balance in most western democracies. It is now tiling towards security at the obvious expense of certain human rights and fundamental values. Will the world be ready to conform?