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The Lone Wolf Terrorist: The Needle in the Haystack of Needles

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This article originally appeared at In Public Safety.

By Erik Kleinsmith
Staff, Intelligence Studies, American Military University

Historically, Americans come together in the aftermath of a horrific or cataclysmic event with expressions of unity, resolve and bipartisanship. Pearl Harbor evoked unity, as did the Iranian hostage crisis, the Oklahoma City bombing, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Belgium.

However, in the bloody shadow of the attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida — the deadliest mass public shooting in U.S. history, which killed 49 people plus the gunman and wounded 53 more — Americans seem to be split. We have a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are dealing with: terror on our own soil, from our own citizens, inspired from afar and yet homegrown.

What makes this attack — along with other recent attacks such as Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood and Muhammed Youssef Abdulazeez in Chattanooga — so difficult to deal with is that it was conducted by a lone wolf terrorist. Although an investigation is still under way, this attack appears to have been perpetrated by a single individual who was inspired to kill people, seemingly on his own accord. These types of terrorists are arguably the most difficult kind of attackers for those in the intelligence community to identify and predict and prevent from taking action.

Identifying a Lone Wolf Terrorist

Intelligence professionals have the unenviable job of trying to predict and warn of a lone wolf terrorist attack based on a limited set of indicators. While organized groups leave tracks and indicators via their communication and coordination efforts, a lone wolf’s operations often do not. Instead of cell phone calls, face-to-face meetings, and numerous events involving training, travel, reconnaissance, rehearsals and pre-positioning of equipment, a lone wolf’s planning often takes place solely within that person’s own mind. Almost every phase of a lone wolf terrorist attack can be reasonably attributed to innocuous events that normal people do every day.

Trying to Predict Lone Wolf Attacks

Therefore, identifying and predicting a lone wolf attack requires intelligence analysts and police investigators to recognize changes in a single person’s behavior and normal daily patterns – and then be able to connect those to the potential for a future attack. Unfortunately, after an attack, many indicators immediately surface from friends, relatives, co-workers and even materials deliberately left behind by the attacker. The critical pieces of information were always there; we just didn’t or wouldn’t recognize the fatal path the attacker was taking. Without a tip-off from a concerned relative or associate, predicting and preventing lone wolf terrorist attacks are virtually impossible.

It is also very hard to distinguish a single motivated attacker from someone who has no underlying agenda, but rather suffers from a mental illness or disability. Bullets and blasts still tear into victims; the only difference is the intent behind it. There may be a seemingly rational reason behind the attacker’s thought process or something totally devoid of reality and sanity.

While only a small fraction of terrorists could be deemed by a psychiatrist as insane, those who are insane are either rubes or lone wolves. Terror cells are by nature a closed and close-knit group of near single-minded operatives involved in often complex and extremely risky plans and attacks. People who are psychologically unable to work within a group like this are either weeded out early, excluded from joining or used for a single purpose, often fatally. For the mentally or socially incapable lone wolf terrorist, the only screening process is the other voices in their head.

It is in this environment that intelligence analysts are asked to perform the almost impossible task of identifying, confirming and preventing a single terrorist or isolated cell prior to an attack. Analysts and investigators are hard-pressed to expect any degree of success and yet we must continually rely on them to do so.

The good news is that there are some intelligence techniques analysts can use to help them:

Use Threat Profiling

As introduced in an earlier article, analysts can apply threat profiling techniques on a single individual in a similar manner as they do when profiling a larger terror group. Analysts should start by evaluating motivations, goals and objectives. They should try to understand the patterns in social and psycho demographics of the would-be attacker. Analysts should ask questions like:

    • What would be a target of a single attacker as opposed to a group?
    • What would be a person’s method of weaponization and execution?
    • What other capabilities and strengths (besides those touched on above) would a single individual have that a group would not?
    • How is an individual more vulnerable where a group would not be?

Threat profiling, normally conducted on groups, cells or entire organizations, can easily be adapted to evaluating individuals. By using this technique, analysts may be able to learn about the behavior patterns of would-be individual attackers before knowing their identities.

Look for Sources of Inspiration

A single lone wolf terrorist can have any source for their inspiration, both rational and irrational. Several lone wolf or small cell attacks signify a trend, with a very high chance of a common thread of inspiration that connects these attacks. Mass media and social media are both loaded with identifiable sources of inspiration for lone wolf attackers. Such sources for inspiration can be found in opinion articles, newsletters, emails, television and Internet news stories, tweets, Facebook postings, chat-room discussions, comment sections, videos, images and even memes. Terror groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS also routinely make public declarations such as fatwas, edicts calls to the faithful, denunciations and similar inspirational appeals. The list of media channels terrorists use to reach out to their followers grows every day.

To understand the motivations, goals and objectives of a rational lone wolf terrorist, analysts must understand the larger themes that can influence them. Was Omar Mateen targeting gays because of a personal episode that angered him, or was it because of his adoption of a radical ideology calling for the death of gays? Perhaps both? For lone wolf terrorists, understanding larger themes will help to establish parameters and narrow down the more specific collection and analysis that must then be more solidly attributed to the individual.

Connections are Still Important

The true lone wolf terrorist is actually a rare thing indeed. Several recent investigations following what appeared to be lone wolf attacks revealed that those individuals actually had help. Family members, friends, and legitimate and nefarious contacts, often support the lone wolf.  This support can be either active or passive, with or without their knowledge, willing or unwilling. For example, Ahmed Ressam, the lone wolf Algerian convicted of attempting to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, was found to have extensive connections in Canada, France and Al Qaeda operatives.

Establishing these connections will help to understand who influenced him, who supplied him, who trained him, who directed him and who might have enraged him.

Look at Lone Wolves as Autonomous Pawns of Larger Groups

Many of today’s larger terror groups operate more as a franchise rather than a homogenous group with card-carrying membership, command and control. Tomorrow’s terrorist is already part of that group’s support network or sympathetic base and is looking to join the ranks of the group through their own autonomous actions. Once they do join, either officially or unofficially, they assume many of that group’s goals, objectives and priority targets. In the case of Omar Mateen, targeting gays in a nightclub is well within the parameters of radical Islamic target sets.

It is hugely beneficial for a terrorist group to use lone wolf attackers. Terrorist groups do not have to spend time, money or resources risking the lives of their own people when there are lone wolves who will conduct attacks in the name of the group. Even if these lone wolves don’t hit the exact target the group would like, they hit something and help fulfill the group’s true objective of spreading fear. Using threat profiling as outlined above will help analysts understand the goals and objectives of the organization behind the attacker and therefore help analysts get a better idea of the types of targets of a lone wolf terrorist.

Bring in Experts Not Normally Associated with Intelligence Analysis

Threat profiling a lone wolf requires the analyst to venture into areas where they will not have familiarity or expertise. For example, the deeper an intelligence analyst dives into the motivations of a single person, the more they need to have knowledge of psychology or even psychiatry. Single terrorists, by their nature, have a lot of hidden secrets within their own psyche as well as in their patterns of behavior and day-to-day interactions. In order to get into some really in-depth areas of profiling, analysts will need to consult with behavioral psychologists, financial experts and communications specialists among others.

Understanding the Hearts and Minds of the Lone Wolf Terrorist

Preventing lone wolf attacks using these intelligence techniques may seem like a futile and worthless effort. It is nearly impossible to do so with any sort of accuracy and there are numerous mistakes or oversights that can be made throughout the analysis process.

There are no guarantees of success in properly profiling lone wolf terrorists. To reduce the threat of lone wolves, intelligence analysts must understand them well enough so that actions can be taken to deny, discredit, degrade or disrupt the sources that inspire them. However, cracking down on particular types of behavior or limiting the rights of an entire society would be a mistake, because they are unlikely to fully prevent these types of attacks. And even then, there is never a 100 percent guarantee of success.

Restricting the rights and freedoms of our society under the belief that it will stop lone wolf terrorists is pure fallacy. Lessening our society’s freedoms and placing restrictions on the public may even help achieve the attackers’ ultimate goals.

lone wolf terroristAbout the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Strategic Relationships in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife and two children.

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