A Conspiracy of One
By William Tucker
First you feel nervous about riding the bus. Then you wonder about going to a mall. Then you think twice about sitting for long at your favorite café. Then nowhere seems safe. Terrorist groups have a strategy—to shrink to nothing the areas in which people move freely—and suicide bombers, inexpensive and reliably lethal, are their latest weapons. Israel has learned to recognize and disrupt the steps on the path to suicide attacks. We must learn too.
–BRUCE HOFFMAN 2003
When it comes to terrorism – and any form of mass violence – the carnage of a successful attack can be contagious. What this means is that other societal outsiders will try to replicate or expand upon a successful attack. Whether it is a horrific school shooting or a suicide bomber so focused on killing that they willingly sacrifice themselves in the act, terrorists, either as a group or an individual actor, spree killers, or small, unaffiliated groups engage in violence for a variety of reasons. In many cases the perpetrators want to bring attention to their cause, while others view the violent actions as a form of retribution. Either way, these types of attacks have similar components though the chosen vehicle for this violence may differ.
An example of this is the Virginia Tech massacre which resulted in the deaths of 33 students and faculty. In the days and weeks that followed, numerous threats were issued and several attempts were made to instigate violence at schools across the nation. Threats to attack public places occur on a daily basis, but in the wake of violence these threats or actual attempts at violence increase primarily because of media exposure. Violence appears to beget violence. In these recent cases of school shootings, right-wing extremists, and even individual jihadists who choose to operate individually, both successful attacks and foiled attempts appear to have spawned follow on plots by other individual actors. The rapidity of these copy cat plots would seem to suggest that there is a correlation between the reporting by modern, on demand media, thus exposing other malcontents to potential ideas or illuminating the possibility that accessing the media via violence is an easily attained medium to air a grievance.
Societal outliers, whether they are terrorists, mentally ill individuals, or radical, single issue advocates seek to air their grievances in order to bring attention to their cause, and today’s 24-hour media is the perfect outlet. Unfortunately, as large terrorist groups fold under pressure from law enforcement and military action, the rise of lone wolves and small groups made up of like-minded individuals, thus diversifying the terrorist threat, is inevitable. In 2009, I wrote a series of articles demonstrating the uptick in lone wolf terrorism in the U.S. These observations were confirmed nine months later when the FBI/DHS released an internal analysis of these same observations. It is important to bear in mind that this occurrence is not permanent, rather it is cyclical. Terrorist groups have existed in the past and they certainly exist in the present, but the operating environment often changes for these groups as pressure arises, thus forcing the restructuring of the group seemingly ad infinitum.
The opening statement by Bruce Hoffman is a perfect example of how terrorists seize upon the successes of others to sow fear into the target population. The purpose of this is to force political change by using the population to lean on their government. In the example provided by Hoffman, Palestinian terrorist groups that operate independently can feed off a successful suicide bombing perpetrated by another group. First the attack may come from Hamas, followed by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and finally Islamic Jihad until the violence becomes self sustaining without any prior or continuing coordination among like-minded groups. Lone wolves and small violent movements all have the power to cause havoc in the same way and spread influence far beyond their inherently small numbers.
Take for instance the Anthrax letter attacks upon the U.S. from September to October 2001. A total of seven letters containing anthrax were mailed during this attack resulting in 22 people becoming infected and five eventually dying from the infection. These seven letters resulted in numerous building evacuations nationwide, a change in the routing of mail in four states, and hysteria by anyone receiving mail that looked as if it might have come into contact with a powdery substance. Granted, these attacks and the following reaction came on the heals of the 9/11, but we must also consider the reaction to the poisoned Tylenol bottles from the 1980’s. The deaths of seven people in the Chicago area led to a nationwide recall of 31 million bottles with a retail value of 100 million dollars. The attacks were simple and did not require extensive training, but the fallout from the attacks went well beyond the scope of the threat. This is typical of many lone wolf terrorists as they don’t have the training or experience needed to engage in sustained conflict, but the follow on plots by like minded individuals, or simple opportunists, tend to exacerbate this threat.
Size Does Matter
Lone wolves and small groups do suffer from problems because of their size. While some lone wolves have been successful – one example is George Metesky – others have had limited success either because their grievances limit the target pool, such as single-issue terrorists, or because of a lack of training. Because the target pool is so large, spotting trends is difficult, thus requiring law enforcement officers to focus on the perpetrator in an attempt to preempt an attack. In other instances the targets have taken measures to protect themselves or their property. In the case of Eric Robert Rudolph training wasn’t the issue, but instead the precautions taken by his targets and the pressure applied by law enforcement forced him from operating. Unable to carry out any further attacks, Rudolph was compelled to live in the North Carolina wilderness for five years before being apprehended. Rudolph did not have any formal training in the manufacture of explosives, but instead overcame this obstacle by stealing explosive material, as opposed to using commercial chemicals, and using open source material to create an improvised explosive device.
The Unabomber is another example of an individual terrorist having minimal impact. Theodore Kaczynski sent out 16 mail bombs and managed to kill three people, but his attacks did not produce any of the results he sought because his target pool – Kaczynski was anti-technology –was so large that patterns were difficult to distinguish. These patterns are used to find a common theme among targets in an attempt to learn the perpetrators motivation. What further hurt his cause, as if the bombs weren’t enough, was the lack of any publicized motivation. Kaczynski didn’t mail out his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, until after his last bomb was mailed. Ironically, it was his publishing of the manifesto that led to his capture. While lone wolves may not kill in great numbers they do manage to avoid apprehension for seemingly long periods of time because of their loner mentality. Others, however, may be willing to sacrifice themselves in the execution of an attack as a way of demonstrating loyalty to a larger ideology.
Small terrorist movements also suffer from many of the same challenges that lone wolves do. A prime example is the Minnesota Patriots Council attempt to use ricin to poison a Deputy U.S. Marshall and a local Sheriff in retaliation for serving papers to a Council member. The Council had managed to produce .7 grams of ricin, enough to kill around a hundred people, but failed to create a sufficient delivery system. The plot unraveled because of a marriage dispute that led to the arrest and conviction of four Council members under the 1989 Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act. The Council may have been successful in extracting the ricin, but because it chose a biological weapon it brought undue attention that may not have come if the group had relied on small arms for their assassination plot.
One other small group that stands out is the Washington Beltway snipers. The two men that perpetrated the attacks simply used a Bushmaster version of an AR-15 and shot individuals at random for three weeks in October 2002. The attacks did not require much training beyond what John Allen Muhammad received in the military, but nonetheless left the Washington D.C. area in a state of fear. It is these types of attacks that prove to be the most successful for small groups and the fear that the attacks generate goes well beyond the scope of the threat. Small groups cannot be everywhere, but then again they don’t have to be; they just have to seem to be everywhere.
The “Leaderless” Model
The movement for freedom is rapidly approaching the point where for many people, the option of belonging to a group will be nonexistent. For others, group membership will be a viable option for only the immediate future. Eventually, and perhaps much sooner than most believe possible, the price paid for membership will exceed any perceived benefit. But for now, some of the groups that do exist often serve a useful purpose either for the newcomer who can be indoctrinated into the ideology of the struggle, or for generating positive propaganda to reach potential freedom fighters. It is sure that, for the most part, this struggle is rapidly becoming a matter of individual action, each of its participants making a private decision in the quietness of his heart to resist: to resist by any means necessary. It is hard to know what others will do, for no man truly knows another man’s heart. It is enough to know what one himself will do. A great teacher once said “know thyself.” Few men really do, but let each of us, promise ourselves, not to go quietly to the fate our would-be masters have planned.
It is hard to improve upon the words of those people who wish to do others harms. In this case a white supremacist, Louis Beam, discusses in his work ‘Leaderless Resistance’ that the “struggle is rapidly becoming a matter of individual action.” What Beam means by this is that large movements attract attention while individual actors can hatch a plot in their head and execute it without fear of someone leaking the details to law enforcement. It is this idea that the modern eco-terrorist groups have used to their advantage. Movements such as ALF and ELF do not, and as far as I know have never, employed a hierarchal or pyramidal structure. Instead, the movements depend on the internet to spread propaganda, indoctrinate, and instigate radicalism among the mainstream environmentalist movement – just as Louis Beam described as necessary for the continuance of the white supremacist movement.
Many terrorist groups in the past have undergone transformations from hierarchal structures to cellular networks, and finally to smaller movements or individual actors, when pressured by their respective governments. This adaptive reconstruction process is born out of necessity not just for the survival of the group, but also for the survival of the ideology. Those groups that cannot adapt and reorganize their movement to operate in their changing environment are unlikely to endure. It is natural for people to congregate in groups for reasons of self preservation because a group, or tribes before the invention of the nation-state, can work together to better accomplish the needs of the individual, thus demonstrating the drive for some groups to go to extraordinary lengths to maintain hierarchal integrity. These needs – according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – include biological and physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization. While it is possible for an individual to meet these needs; a physical group has several distinct advantages in meeting these requirements. The internet, however, has shifted this paradigm and allows for groups to exist beyond physical interaction and can satisfy needs such as safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization.
The internet, and other means of modern communication, cannot fully replace the desire to form a physical group, but what it can do is provide information to people in search of belongingness to a movement. The modern jihadist and single issue radical has realized this just as Marxists and white supremacists have before. Not only have small groups tried to perpetrate attacks without the physical support of professional terrorists – theological and theoretical support not withstanding – but individuals as well have gravitated to the global jihad without any formal training. These individuals attended mainstream mosques and yet were radicalized by information provided on the internet such as sermons from radical thinkers overseas. In this case, the desire to belong to a group is somewhat fulfilled by being a member of a mainstream congregation, while simultaneously adding a divine purpose to their lives by joining other jihadists in cyberspace. While this phenomenon is occurring worldwide it has become a staple for many aspiring Jihadists in the west.
A notable attempt was carried out by a mentally ill convert to Islam. The man, Nicky Reilly, carried three bombs into the bathroom of a family restaurant but failed to cause any damage other than to himself. Fortunately, the plot failed because one of the devices detonated prematurely. Police suspect that Reilly was chosen because of his mental illness – a tactic that has garnered quite a bit press in the Iraq theatre. But Reilly is not alone in the lone wolf game. In April 2008, British police arrested a 19 year old student thanks to a tip from his Imam (the suspect had numerous burns on his hands) that led police to confiscate three improvised explosive devices from his apartment. Just a few months prior, another arrest was made, however this suspect was found to be stockpiling chemicals and other bomb making materials. It is believed that this suspect, Hassan Tabbakh, was in fact Britain’s first jihadist lone wolf bomber although he had yet to carry out an actual attack.
Suicide Tactics – Not Just About Bombs
In the age of on demand information, escalation of tactics and weapons can occur without regard to success or failure of past attacks. Suicide bombing tactics are inexpensive to carry out – usually around 150 dollars at the Home Depot – and are designed to leverage the psychological impact of an explosive to influence public perception. The suicide bomber also adds to the psychological element of the attack as the idea of someone willingly killing themselves to harm their target is quite discomforting. But the question remains; would a small group or lone wolf carry really carry out such an attack? Both are plausible, though perhaps unlikely scenarios, but the Nicky Reilly case, and dozens of others in the U.S., has shown that lone Jihadists still favor using explosives, although small arms attacks, such as occurred with Hassan Nidal, have been more successful in inflicting damage. As stated previously, the use of the mentally ill – like Reilly – as a tactic is something that has been occurring with some consistency, but is certainly not present in all cases.
Suicide tactics can also include lone gunman who wish to be killed by security forces while harming as many bystanders with as possible. This has worked well in the western world and the defense against such an attack can be difficult. In the past few years the U.S. has witnessed such attacks on soft targets such as schools and malls, and it is unlikely to end. Spree shooters, regardless of motivation, often act alone, but that does not mean they will not inspire others. Following the Virginia Tech massacre, police stopped several individuals from carrying out similar attacks. These were not just threats, but plans that had gone operational only to be reported by concerned family members and friends. Other successful shooters, such as Anders Breivik and Adam Lanza managed to plan and execute their attacks without prior detection making the selection of a soft target all the more devastating. Lanza died in the execution of his attack on an elementary school, but Breivik managed to survive by surrendering to police. Ideology can play a large role in how these active shooter situations play out, but its not a hard and fast rule. Nidal may have been willing to die, but he was only wounded in the attack. Lanza, who reportedly suffered from a mental illness, will be difficult to classify for some time, while Breivik wanted a platform to spread his beliefs. His attack was merely a gateway for access to a podium.
Though the suicide of the shooter may not always occur, it is likely to be considered by the mentally competent lone wolf. The suicide may not have to be self inflicted as the shooter likely realizes that death is a possible outcome, thus by willingly creating such a hostile situation, it would seem that martyrdom is an acceptable outcome for the perpetrator. In some cases, the shooter may not care to differentiate how his death occurs so long as it takes place during the course of the attack. Choosing between a suicide bomb vest or small arms may come down to available materials, training, probability of success, etc.; however the possibility that ideology or mental competence may be the driver behind the methodology cannot be entirely discounted.
Again, one lone wolf attack can easily lead to another, similar attack by a different perpetrator. at the onset of such violence it can be difficult to discern the ideology and motivating factors. But in the case of terrorist groups that adaptively deconstruct into smaller movements, motivation may prove to be the factor that ensures indiscriminate violence can be sustained. After all, it is motivation that separates terrorists from spree killers, or other practitioners of mass violence, by definition. The desire of terrorist movements is to influence government decisions through public opinion and the use of sustained, seemingly random violence can accomplish this; at least temporarily. History shows us that terrorist movements eventually fail because the need to sustain such violence eventually alienates the population – a population that terrorists rely on to accomplish their very goals. Of course, simply resting on historical occurrences is hardly a viable counterterrorism strategy, but the lesson we should take away is that they fail because of the intolerance for indiscriminate violence by the population and the ensuing campaign by a government to eradicate the group.
Psychiatrist Jerrold Post postulated that individuals become terrorists in order to join terrorist groups and commit acts of terrorism. While Post states that this is an extreme position (Post approaches terrorism with the theory that political violence is driven by psychological forces) he makes an important point. Terrorists engage in terrorism as a means to give purpose to their life (Maslow’s self-actualization) by adhering to an ideology that is greater than the individual, but the forces that work against them is death, apprehension, internal infighting, or success. Death, apprehension, or infighting is the most likely outcome, but success is an interesting proposition. As previous stated, terrorists typically fail not only due to outside pressure, but success – the accomplishment of the terrorists stated goals – negates the purpose of the group. What this means is that the outcast that had his individual needs met will once again be an outcast and forced to find another accepting group with a similar world view or ideological commitment. Once again we can turn to history to find examples of terrorist groups continuing violent acts after their demands have been met. The IRA, ETA, and PFLP all continued to engage in terrorism after each political success, yet they could never reach a point that allowed them to voluntarily lay down their arms. The same can be applied to the lone wolf.
Many instances of terrorism and mass violence can be prevented. This cannot be overstated. Lone wolves and small groups survive as long as they do because family and friends have a hard time believing what is apparent – that they know an individual who is leaning towards political violence. Naturally, there are other motivators that inhibit reporting such as political sympathies, but the fact remains, somebody somewhere has an idea that something is wrong. Earlier I mentioned that the Unabomber was only caught after he published his manifesto. It was his brother that recognized the phrases and prose when the document was published and yet he still struggled with the realization that his brother was a terrorist and must be turned in. In the event that an act of terrorism occurs it is important to watch for other individuals to capitalize on the media frenzy. They may use a variety of tactics to ensure that the attack works, but the signs they show before an attack will give them away. This applies to most forms of grand scale violence. While the motivations may differ from the spree killer to the lone wolf terrorist, there is plenty of similar signs that can lead to disruption of the violent plots.