Social media, insurgency and terror

ehwhat

Old-Salt
Book Reviewer
#1
The use of social media to advise, plan, and coordinate activities of groups seeking to destabilise governments/communities isn't new. The reality that the controlling cadres involved are rarely from the dispossessed/oppressed and almost always from the educated privileged elite (as defined within the specific group/country) pretty much ensures that the current tools available will be used. The speed and ease afforded groups by current and emergent technologies has been clearly demonstrated. Attempts to control the situation have been difficult to reconcile with accepted norms of citizen to government interactions. This is an area for concern both civilly and militarily.

It is therefore unsurprising that focus on this issue has been intense.

An area where the focus has been less rigorous is the infiltration of non-aligned websites and fora by recruiters and others wishing to advance their goals. This may prove to be of equal or greater concern and has its own unique issues and problems. In the interest of stimulating some considered discussion (this isn't the NAAFI) I'm posting a link to an easily accessible publication of the USIP from 2004 and to a much more recent document from the same author. The author has given permission for this use.

There are other documents that one could use. These were chosen due to the lack of jargon and ease of access. Depending how this goes, others may be made available.

Please note a couple of points.
1.) The issue isn't only a Jihadi one. There are other groups involved.
2.) Specialists tend to only talk to specialists, which pretty much guarantees a group think that is less conducive to problem solving. This forum is very broad based and multi generational, which is a definite plus.
3.) Any degeneration into bag swinging, name calling or other extremes will be met by my immediate request to the MODS to remove the post. Again, this isn't the NAAFI.
4.) The obvious point: do not violate opsec, persec. There are always ways to phrase a response that provides perspective without compromising safety.

Links:
www.terror.net: How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet | United States Institute of Peace
 

Attachments

#2
What's the question/position to be debated/discussed?

(when do you need your essay in by!? ;) )
 
#3
If the best you can do is from 2004....
 

ehwhat

Old-Salt
Book Reviewer
#4
If the best you can do is from 2004....
Easy one first.

The 2004 article is up due to the ease of access and lack of jargon. Its simply an entry point. If you are serious and would like a series of more recent ones PM me and I will provide you with a list. I'm currently reviewing several from 2011 and 2012.
 
#5
ehwhat?

Are you interested in how militants are using social media to publicise their activities and gain a wider audience? This is done with the media wings of different groups (Islam Awazi, Al-Sahab, Umar Media, etc...)

As for planning and recruiting, well I'd say that there were a few 'specialist' websites but even those have lost popularity because of their insularity and now things have migrated to Facebook. Facebook is the future in terms of recruiting and planning.
 
#6
Easy one first.

The 2004 article is up due to the ease of access and lack of jargon. Its simply an entry point. If you are serious and would like a series of more recent ones PM me and I will provide you with a list. I'm currently reviewing several from 2011 and 2012.
At the heart of every SEA [Social Engineering Attack] is a human emotion, without which the attacks will not
work. Emotion is what derails security policy and practices, by leading the human user
to make an exception to the rules for what they believe is a good reason. Commonly
exploited simple emotions, and an example of how each is exploited, include:
• Greed A promise you’ll get something very valuable if you do this one thing
• Lust An offer to look at a sexy picture you just have to see
• Empathy An appeal for help from someone impersonating someone you
know
• Curiosity Notice of something you just have to know, read, or see
• Vanity Isn’t this a great picture of you?

Apologies, but I was just reading a good new manual and lept out at me.

Any answer to the question about why you raise the issue?
 

ehwhat

Old-Salt
Book Reviewer
#7
Sorry to be gone for a bit, but I am employed, at least for the moment.

It did read like an essay request didn't it? Need to keep that in check. And, no I am not a journo nor do I willingly talk to journos. As this is my first thread on the forum, I may not be in full sync to procedure.

So, the questions are several that I see coming from this research.

1.) Are the perceptions that social media is being used by insurgent/terror based organisations to recruit from non-aligned fora a reality?

2.) Some of those who say that the activity from "1" is occurring suggest that the process is similar to paedophile grooming. Is it sufficient to rely on the adapted basic tools and techniques used to identify paedophile grooming activities in this other instance, or are they sufficiently dissimilar to merit other means?

n.b.: Recognising that not everyone is familiar with some of the more well known publicly discussed techniques a brief list follows:
a.) Psychological manipulation through positive reinforcement – relies on legal activities that eventually lead to illegal outcomes.
b.) Gaining and reliance of the target’s trust, which may also include the gaining trust of friends or people in authority over the target.
c.) Trust amongst friends permits deniability to accusation or “misunderstanding” if or when target’s comfort level is breached.
d.) Introduction and interaction with images, text and speech that normalise the illegal behavior to the target.
e.) Establishing rapport as a “special” support or confidant to gain trust. This may include gift giving or small funding. Also refer back to “c”.

The actual combination, duration and use of techniques is tailored to the target’s personality, history and observed behavioural responses by the perpetrator.

There are several methods in use to analyse the above and suggest whether or not an illegal situation is in effect. This is then followed up by more direct and conventional response if warranted.

One of the defenses used by perpetrators over the internet, which is very germane to this discussion, is that they are engaged in a fantasy that will not be acted upon (i.e., free speech).

3.) At what point do the insurgent/terrorist groomers, if they exist, cross the line from protected free speech to criminal act?

4.) Is this a criminal or a military matter? Does the theatre where the act took place define involvement? Or, is the internet as a quasi super-territorial entity need a special status?

5.) The use of the phrase, “War on Terror” places the action within a perceived military setting. The somewhat less used phrase, “Terror Network” suggests a non-military response does this affect our consideration of “4”?

I could open the door on the misuse of Network analysis in these instances, but will be very happy to hold off.
 

ehwhat

Old-Salt
Book Reviewer
#8
ehwhat?

Are you interested in how militants are using social media to publicise their activities and gain a wider audience? This is done with the media wings of different groups (Islam Awazi, Al-Sahab, Umar Media, etc...)

As for planning and recruiting, well I'd say that there were a few 'specialist' websites but even those have lost popularity because of their insularity and now things have migrated to Facebook. Facebook is the future in terms of recruiting and planning.
We appear to be in full agreement on the classical use of internet media by specialist(s) within the organizations. The Facebook situation produced a comedic moment when the use of "friend" and "friend of friend" networks was debated. Unfortunately, some of the people were sufficiently aware to realise that listing and linking everyone within their group might be a source of concern. TDB.

I'm concerned about the putative recruitment shift from a specific website that can be identified and monitored to a more amorphous interaction on other people's websites and chat-rooms. By definition these are harder to deal with as the members and site MODS wouldn't normally have reason to suspect a problem. In addition, the use of YouTube and other similar open video sites for passing along fairly sophisticated product may prove to be a serious issue.
 
#9
In my opinion, Youtube will never be a serious problem because the audience is too wide, there are moderators and there is a real lack of security for the uploader of the videos. Most religious and political forums that I've seen will not tolerate any kind of "trolling" or deviation from the 'party line'. Therefore, these media organisations are reluctant to put their videos (in their entirety) before an audience that will question the message or laugh at the wrong moments.

I think most intelligent web users know that their posts are being read by people they wouldn't really want to share with; therefore, the strongest grooming will always happen away from the web.

I think the case of Roshonara Choudhry (the lass who gave MP Timms some cold steel) is worth a look at. Although it is cited that videos of the late Awlaki were found on her computer, there was a longer period of radicalisation that occurred beforehand which is more likely to have happened face to face with other people. It's reported that she was a happy university student, intelligent and succesful. Her lecturers report that gradually she became more withdrawn and then abandoned her studies altogether. I think it would be difficult to groom someone so comprehensively over the internet and I also think that the grooming 'main effort' would be invested in getting groups of young people IRL to benefit from the peer-pressure aspect.
 
#10
I'd argue that phrasing the question in terms of the communication medium is to miss the point. All the internet does is offer different communication channels; the nature of the conversations that result are unchanged. Nothing has changed because human beings have not changed.

One real issue is generational; old farts just don't understand the web, they emphasise technology rather than people. Trust me, it's my generation I'm talking about.

Another issue - and you can see it quite vividly on the news - is bias towards what we can see. If (say) Twitter is only available to a small distinct elite in a country it only tells you what they are thinking. It says nothing about the rest of the country. Don't forget as well that some of the highest bandwidth comms channels are USB sticks passed by hand. Good luck monitoring those.

Then we have the rather controversial topic of how operations are perceived at home; if I say today that the Iraq was a war launched on a lie, that it devastated untold lives because of lack of post-conflict planning, that it has done nothing to help the UK and that it was a pointless waste of blood and treasure you will find few in the population at large that will disagree strongly, if at all. Would voicing that opinion in 2002 have been a valid expression of free speech or an incitement to terror ?
 
#11
I'd argue that phrasing the question in terms of the communication medium is to miss the point. All the internet does is offer different communication channels; the nature of the conversations that result are unchanged. Nothing has changed because human beings have not changed.
OOTS, the internet is not *just* a communication channel. It's a medium by which anyone can spread information worldwide in an instant. There is nothing else like it. An individual can influence the behaviour of many people that they've never met far quicker than before. This shows the importance of social media.

Another issue - and you can see it quite vividly on the news - is bias towards what we can see. If (say) Twitter is only available to a small distinct elite in a country it only tells you what they are thinking. It says nothing about the rest of the country. Don't forget as well that some of the highest bandwidth comms channels are USB sticks passed by hand. Good luck monitoring those.
As with graded sources, if you can rely on a particular Tweeter then it doesn't matter if they're the only person in that country with access to Twitter. And if there is no other cheap and available method of getting information out of that country, then Twitter is especially valuable. USB sticks passed by hand have a limited circulation and put the owner at risk. Social media is on hand held devices.

Then we have the rather controversial topic of how operations are perceived at home; if I say today that the Iraq was a war launched on a lie, that it devastated untold lives because of lack of post-conflict planning, that it has done nothing to help the UK and that it was a pointless waste of blood and treasure you will find few in the population at large that will disagree strongly, if at all. Would voicing that opinion in 2002 have been a valid expression of free speech or an incitement to terror ?
Well, where were you in 2002? This country had the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the UK to say exactly what you've posted. It was ignored. Arguably, if the prisons aren't big enough then the message remains free speech.
 
#12
Gents,

Much interesting discussion already. May I put in my pennyworth?

For "ehwhat's?" initial points

Point 1

As to recruitment via the internet, the career of the late Anwar Al Awlaki would suggest that this is so.

The interent is a tool to encourage “frame alignment”, that is making a person recrptive to the message. This arguably assists to prepare the way for someone to accept there is a problem, and then be receptive to the proposed solution.

So, if we accept that sexual predators use the internet to contact, prepare and then celebrate their offences (abeit within closed groups), why do we think terrorists don't?

The internet for both terrorists and sexual deviants (proper ones, not our colleagues in the NAAFI bar) functions as an echo chamber; reinforcing and normalising their points of view.

Your paralell to grooming is a fair one, except that the possession of child sex abuse imagery is a criminal offence. You can have a hard drive full of AQ propaganda, your intent is the question according to UK case law.

The Finkelhor model of child sex abuse has four stages;

-Motiviation (of of the offender, what do they want to do?)

-Internal Inhibitors (what does the offencer think that prevents them doing what they want?)

-External Inhibitors (what external to the offender prevents them doing what they want-access to preferred victims, risk of detection, societal norms, etc)

-Resistence to persuation or assault (from either victim or protectors of victim).

Now that seems to translate roughly to the work of radicalising people; except the victims are self-selecting. They put themselves forward to the suspect, as a consequence of seeing the wider message put out.

Point 2

From the CPS Prosecution policy on violent extemism

When deciding whether or not to prosecute such offences, we also have to bear in mind that people have a right to freedom of speech. Free speech includes the right to offend. Indeed the courts have ruled that behaviour that is merely annoying, rude or offensive does not necessarily constitute a criminal offence.
The offences that have been successfully prosecuted go well beyond the voicing of an opinion, free speech or causing offence.
The distinct common thread in terms of criminal prosecutions under the radicalisation umbrella has been a manifested desire to kill, maim or cause a person or group of people immense fear for their personal safety through the threat of (often) extreme violence based on their colour or religion, and urging others to take this course.
Prosecutions are not limited to cases of the above, however, and in addition there have been prosecutions for deeply insulting behaviour. This is behaviour which falls short of a desire to commit violence but is nevertheless threatening, abusive or insulting and intends to stir up racial hatred.

CPS: Violent extremism and related criminal offences

Point 3
Well, Mrs Thatcher argued "terrorism is crime, is crime" and this is the preferred UK option to deal with things. (Though we still end up stuck with people like Abu Qatada).

Easy to get aroung though, Abu Qatada's stable mate (Omar Bakri Mohammed) gets around being exclused from the UK by using the net to broadcast to the faithful from Lebanon.

Off your points you make, the topic of radicalisation (usually Islamist in the UK, but others exist to) is one about which much ink has been spilt. ISCR at King's putforward a useful document.
ICSR - The International Centre For The Study Of Radicalisation And Political Violence

Given we have no internationally agreed regulation of the internet, I think we are stuck with it as a self policing community with occassional raids by national police forces.

OOTS is maybe a little harsh, there is a generational problem. Then again, the number of younger people I meet now who are techincally excellent but have no people skills! There has to be a middle way.

A good example of IT and activism was the recent BBC documentary on the Egyptian revolt, which was credited as enabled by facebook etc. However, to get amoungst the poor and those who did not have FB (and when Mubarak turned off the intenet) an activist revealed how they did it. He got in a cab and staged a phone call saying that something was going down in Tahrir Square but that they had to be careful about discussing it, and then just let the bush telegraph do the rest.

Fascinating chat chaps, appreciate your further thoughts.
 
#13
Point 1

As to recruitment via the internet, the career of the late Anwar Al Awlaki would suggest that this is so.

The interent is a tool to encourage “frame alignment”, that is making a person recrptive to the message. This arguably assists to prepare the way for someone to accept there is a problem, and then be receptive to the proposed solution.

So, if we accept that sexual predators use the internet to contact, prepare and then celebrate their offences (abeit within closed groups), why do we think terrorists don't?

The internet for both terrorists and sexual deviants (proper ones, not our colleagues in the NAAFI bar) functions as an echo chamber; reinforcing and normalising their points of view.

Your paralell to grooming is a fair one, except that the possession of child sex abuse imagery is a criminal offence. You can have a hard drive full of AQ propaganda, your intent is the question according to UK case law.

The Finkelhor model of child sex abuse has four stages;

-Motiviation (of of the offender, what do they want to do?)

-Internal Inhibitors (what does the offencer think that prevents them doing what they want?)

-External Inhibitors (what external to the offender prevents them doing what they want-access to preferred victims, risk of detection, societal norms, etc)

-Resistence to persuation or assault (from either victim or protectors of victim).

Now that seems to translate roughly to the work of radicalising people; except the victims are self-selecting. They put themselves forward to the suspect, as a consequence of seeing the wider message put out.
I think this is very much dependent on the country. In 'non-permissive environments' like the UK, social media (such as Youtube) will be useful to just get an insight into what the message is and find examples of oppression to help justify or reinforce already held views. However, in places like Yemen or Pakistan, a young lad might not even have access to the web or be interested in watching the latest al-Sahab video. I think the expectations from militant organisations have been adapted according to who they can groom. A 'lone wolf' in the UK is more valuable than that same individual going to Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan with his '4 lions' head on. Likewise, a militant group won't be capable of grooming the village idiot in North Wazirstan to organise a cell in the West.

Is the grooming comparison a fair one? I suppose in some respects it is because there will be a dominant individual influencing the behaviour of a subordinate but then grooming of a sexual nature is hidden, secret and taboo because of it's illegal nature. Grooming of an extremist nature is seeking to bring an individual into a wider organisation, showing them that the extremist beliefs are normal and encouraged. Eventually that individual is intended to be capable of working on behalf of that organisation.

OOTS is maybe a little harsh, there is a generational problem. Then again, the number of younger people I meet now who are techincally excellent but have no people skills! There has to be a middle way.
There are also plenty of young people who don't have access to social media or older people who have no charisma. However, thats not important because if you are seeking to influence large amounts of people over the web then you don't need access to everybody; you need to reach enough people with you message so that eventually it'll be repeated with someone with RL credibility.
 
#14
Is the grooming comparison a fair one? I suppose in some respects it is because there will be a dominant individual influencing the behaviour of a subordinate but then grooming of a sexual nature is hidden, secret and taboo because of it's illegal nature. Grooming of an extremist nature is seeking to bring an individual into a wider organisation, showing them that the extremist beliefs are normal and encouraged. Eventually that individual is intended to be capable of working on behalf of that organisation.
That's fair, but you also note the lone wolf. I think you mentioned Miss Choudary, a notable example (attempted to murder her local MP who she identified as voting for the Iraq war). Interestingly in some media she is brought up to shame the lads ("look, a sister acted....?" which is a remarkable use of shaming the men into action).

It is a western pre-occupation, which has been remarked on in the western perception of the arab awakening. Lots of our media focus on the sexy new IT angle, downplaying the tradition activism (other than raising the spectre of The Brotherhood).

Possibly true, that one UK Lone Wolf is worth more than "4 Lions" messing up whilst travelling (cracking film though, my favourite line has to be the opening of the shaheed video-"Aye Up, you unbelieving Kufar Bastards!").

BBC News - Two Cardiff men, 18, held by Kenyan anti-terror police

But such news needs to keep coming from the red forces point of view, to establish their credibility as a regional and international threat.
 
#15
That's fair, but you also note the lone wolf. I think you mentioned Miss Choudary, a notable example (attempted to murder her local MP who she identified as voting for the Iraq war). Interestingly in some media she is brought up to shame the lads ("look, a sister acted....?" which is a remarkable use of shaming the men into action).
That's true, although I've not seen any evidence of other lone wolves being spurred into action after being goaded about a 'sister' being more violent than them. I'm also not sure whether there is an appetite to attack ministers involved in the Iraq war. Arguably a member of the opposition will be more accessible and vulnerable than causing a mass casualty attack, which seems to be the biggest intention based on recent high-profile court cases. It's interesting that Roshonara attacked an MP rather than following the 'martyrdom' path that other 'lone wolves' have done. This may be a relfection of the sites that she was visiting, the people she was knocking around with IRL or even a difference in mindset between male and female extremists.

It is a western pre-occupation, which has been remarked on in the western perception of the arab awakening. Lots of our media focus on the sexy new IT angle, downplaying the tradition activism (other than raising the spectre of The Brotherhood).
Whilst I agree in part with that, I think the media has to capture our imaginations with moving pictures and easily digestable soundbites, therefore, Youtube clips of people chanting in the middle of a city is far more newsworthy (and understandable) than unraveling a massive Twitter feed, translating the Arabic and explaining the cultural references that if not understood, leave the message completely misunderstood by a non-Arab audience.

Possibly true, that one UK Lone Wolf is worth more than "4 Lions" messing up whilst travelling (cracking film though, my favourite line has to be the opening of the shaheed video-"Aye Up, you unbelieving Kufar Bastards!").
I definitely think that that there is an effort to cultivate Lone Wolves over "4 lions" type extremists. I have a feeling that foreigners turning up in war zones are not popular and it'd be a mistake to think that even an Asian person can fit seamlessly into a militant group in Af/Pak because of where their grandparents / parents are from; they're still regarded as foreigners, especially if their ancestral region is not the region they are operating in. Whereas, a lone wolf causing madness in the West is an easy win for 'the cause' because there is limited investment in terms of money, manpower and time but the rewards are extensive publicity and sometimes change in policy. Look at the impacts of 7/7 and the Madrid bombing, which are still being felt today and compare that with the level of violence in Af/Pak and other jihadi theatres.
 
#16
I definitely think that that there is an effort to cultivate Lone Wolves over "4 lions" type extremists. I have a feeling that foreigners turning up in war zones are not popular and it'd be a mistake to think that even an Asian person can fit seamlessly into a militant group in Af/Pak because of where their grandparents / parents are from; they're still regarded as foreigners, especially if their ancestral region is not the region they are operating in. Whereas, a lone wolf causing madness in the West is an easy win for 'the cause' because there is limited investment in terms of money, manpower and time but the rewards are extensive publicity and sometimes change in policy. Look at the impacts of 7/7 and the Madrid bombing, which are still being felt today and compare that with the level of violence in Af/Pak and other jihadi theatres.
Jihad Joe: Adam Gadahn encourages American jihadists to buy guns - YouTube

Ok, lots of it is US centric (buying guns rather than travelling to the lands of Jihad); but the main effort is the same.

You in the west do not need to travel to the land of jihad to support the war; you can do it at home.

This message was done a lot more skillfully by the late Al Awlaki
 
#17
Al Awlaki is interesting because he has cultural credibility as well as religious credibility. People would be far more inclined to follow his message than Adam Gadahn, who is just a fat white bloke trying to encourage other people to do his dirty work. He's the 'Barry al-Britani' figure amongst AQAP.
 
#18
Al Awlaki is interesting because he has cultural credibility as well as religious credibility. People would be far more inclined to follow his message than Adam Gadahn, who is just a fat white bloke trying to encourage other people to do his dirty work. He's the 'Barry al-Britani' figure amongst AQAP.
Yemen Strike Leaves Misfit Metalhead as Al-Qaida's Last American Voice | Danger Room | Wired.com

I don't disagree (love the wired description as a "chubby ex-metalhead". I'd guess Adam used to have the shit kicked out of him in the playground and this is his mixed up way of gaining respect and revenge). That said his arabic is clearly getting better, used to be really halting on the youtube offerings; now he's a deal more comfortable.

Awlaki is a much more credible orator, and his journey from salafist to jihadist is a fascinating little tour.

On the social media side again, AQ wanted to use social media to inspire jihadist in the west a long time ago. Musab Al-Suri, a jihadist thinker, "proposes that the next stage of jihad will be characterized by terrorism created by individuals or small autonomous groups (what he terms `leaderless resistance') which will wear down the enemy and prepare the ground for the far ambitious aim of waging war on `open fronts' .... `without confrontation in the field and seizing control of the land, we cannot establish a state, which is the strategic goal of the resistance"

Mustafa Setmariam Nasar - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The arabic goes roughly, nizam, la tanzim (a system not an organisation). The aim being to build the radical atmosphere to encourage attacks, rather than a secret organisation directing them. This builds in redundancy (such as your safe havens or emirs being taken away) and keeps the attrition against your enemy going nicely.

Al-Suri has not been seen for several years having been taken into custody by the Pakistan authorities, hopefully he is in some ghost site somewhere never to re-emerge.
 
#19
Thats a good article about Gadahn, Needle Point, thanks for posting it.

Whilst I recognise the extremist desire to inspire lone wolf attacks through the internet, I think they are being far too ambitious in thinking that this will be a method for establishing a radical atmosphere. The permissive online environments for extremists don't bare any reflection with the societies that they live in, there is no long-term access to the sort of weapons required to maintain an insurgency and the technical information provided on the web is too complicated for the 'path of least resistance' mindset that is present in the sort of people likely to be groomed by extremists.
 
#20
This stratfor analysis is interesting in highlighting that the shift to a lone wolf ideology is a sign of weakening within the movement (parallels drawn with KKK/White supremacists)

I do like the moniker "stray mutts" :)

Whilst the discussion so far has been on extremist social media, one preventative effect at play that should be considered is the well publicised follow up on rioters from last summer.

If a high number of half baked stray mutts need to be processed to find a half decent one, then the paranoia that could already be engendered by overblown media reports on release of records by communication providers or hard sentencing of those making facebook post inciting riots should be slimming the ranks or at least putting a strong counter message out.
(unless of course police have been instructed to arrest on spec anyone wobbling their heads in case of anti surveilance)

STRATFOR
---------------------------
September 22, 2011


CUTTING THROUGH THE LONE-WOLF HYPE

By Scott Stewart

Lone wolf. The mere mention of the phrase invokes a sense of fear and dread. It conjures up images of an unknown, malicious plotter working alone and silently to perpetrate an unpredictable, undetectable and unstoppable act of terror. This one phrase combines the persistent fear of terrorism in modern society with the primal fear of the unknown.

The phrase has been used a lot lately. Anyone who has been paying attention to the American press over the past few weeks has been bombarded with a steady stream of statements regarding lone-wolf militants. While many of these statements, such as those from President Barack Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden and Department of Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano, were made in the days leading up to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, they did not stop when the threats surrounding the anniversary proved to be unfounded and the date passed without incident. Indeed, on Sept. 14, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, told CNN that one of the things that concerned him most was "finding that next lone-wolf terrorist before he strikes."

Now, the focus on lone operatives and small independent cells is well founded. We have seen the jihadist threat devolve from one based primarily on the hierarchical al Qaeda core organization to a threat emanating from a broader array of grassroots actors operating alone or in small groups. Indeed, at present, there is a far greater likelihood of a successful jihadist attack being conducted in the West by a lone-wolf attacker or small cell inspired by al Qaeda than by a member of the al Qaeda core or one of the franchise groups. But the lone-wolf threat can be generated by a broad array of ideologies, not just jihadism. A recent reminder of this was the July 22 attack in Oslo, Norway, conducted by lone wolf Anders Breivik.

The lone-wolf threat is nothing new, but it has received a great deal of press coverage in recent months, and with that press coverage has come a certain degree of hype based on the threat's mystique. However, when one looks closely at the history of solitary terrorists, it becomes apparent that there is a significant gap between lone-wolf theory and lone-wolf practice. An examination of this gap is very helpful in placing the lone-wolf threat in the proper context.

The Shift Toward Leaderless Resistance

While the threat of lone wolves conducting terrorist attacks is real, the first step in putting the threat into context is understanding how long it has existed. To say it is nothing new really means that it is an inherent part of human conflict, a way for a weaker entity -- even a solitary one -- to inflict pain upon and destabilize a much larger entity. Modern lone-wolf terrorism is widely considered to have emerged in the 1800s, when fanatical individuals bent on effecting political change demonstrated that a solitary actor could impact history. Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated U.S. President William McKinley in 1901, was one such lone wolf.

The 1970s brought lone wolf terrorists like Joseph Paul Franklin and Ted Kaczynski, both of whom were able to operate for years without being identified and apprehended. Based on the success of these lone wolves and following the 1988 Fort Smith Sedition Trial, in which the U.S. government's penetration of white hate groups was clearly revealed, some of the leaders of these penetrated groups began to advocate "leaderless resistance" as a way to avoid government pressure. They did not invent the concept, which is really quite old, but they readily embraced it and used their status in the white supremacist movement to advocate it.

In 1989, William Pierce, the leader of a neo-Nazi group called the National Alliance and one of the Fort Smith defendants, published a fictional book under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald titled "Hunter," which dealt with the exploits of a fictional lone wolf named Oscar Yeager. Pierce dedicated the book to Joseph Paul Franklin and he clearly intended it to serve as an inspiration and model for lone-wolf operatives. Pierce's earlier book, "The Turner Diaries," was based on a militant operational theory involving a clandestine organization, and "Hunter" represented a distinct break from that approach.

In 1990, Richard Kelly Hoskins, an influential "Christian Identity" ideologue, published a book titled "Vigilantes of Christendom" in which he introduced the concept of the "Phineas Priest." According to Hoskins, a Phineas Priest is a lone-wolf militant chosen by God and set apart to be God's "agent of vengeance" upon the earth. Phineas Priests also believe their attacks will serve to ignite a wider "racial holy war" that will ultimately lead to the salvation of the white race.

In 1992, another of the Fort Smith defendants, former Ku Klux Klan Leader Louis Beam, published an essay in his magazine "The Seditionist" that provided a detailed roadmap for moving the white hate movement toward the leaderless resistance model. This roadmap called for lone wolves and small "phantom" cells to engage in violent action to protect themselves from detection.

In the white-supremacist realm, the shift toward leaderless resistance -- taken because of the government's success in penetrating and disrupting group operations -- was an admission of failure on the part of leaders like Pierce, Hoskins and Beam. It is important to note that in the two decades that have passed since the leaderless-resistance model rose to prominence in the white-supremacist movement there have been only a handful of successful lone-wolf attacks. The army of lone wolves envisioned by the proponents of leaderless resistance never materialized.

But the leaderless resistance model was advocated not only by the far right. Influenced by their anarchist roots, left-wing extremists also moved in that direction, and movements such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front actually adopted operational models that were very similar to the leaderless-resistance doctrine prescribed by Beam.

More recently, and for similar reasons, the jihadists have also come to adopt the leaderless-resistance theory. Perhaps the first to promote the concept in the jihadist realm was jihadist military theoretician Abu Musab al-Suri. Upon seeing the success the United States and its allies were having against the al Qaeda core and its wider network following 9/11, al-Suri began to promote the concept of individual jihad -- leaderless resistance. As if to prove his own point about the dangers of belonging to a group, al-Suri was reportedly captured in November 2005 in Pakistan.

Al-Suri's concept of leaderless resistance was embraced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al Qaeda franchise group in Yemen, in 2009. AQAP called for this type of strategy in both its Arabic-language media and its English language magazine, "Inspire," which published long excerpts of al-Suri's material on individual jihad. In 2010, the al Qaeda core also embraced the idea, with U.S.-born spokesman Adam Gadahn echoing AQAP's calls for Muslims to adopt the leaderless resistance model.

However, in the jihadist realm, as in the white-supremacist realm before it, the shift to leaderless resistance was an admission of weakness rather than a sign of strength. Jihadists recognized that they have been extremely limited in their ability to successfully attack the West, and while jihadist groups welcomed recruits in the past, they are now telling them it is too dangerous because of the steps taken by the United States and its allies to combat the transnational terrorist threat.

Busting the Mystique

Having established that when a group promotes leaderless resistance as an operational model it is a sign of failure rather than strength, let's take a look at how the theory translates into practice.

On its face, as described by strategists such as Beam and al-Suri, the leaderless-resistance theory is tactically sound. By operating as lone wolves or small, insulated cells, operatives can increase their operational security and make it more difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify them. As seen by examples such as Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed British lawmaker Stephen Timms with a kitchen knife in May 2010, such attacks can create a significant impact with very little cost.

Lone wolves and small cells do indeed present unique challenges, but history has shown that it is very difficult to put the lone-wolf theory into practice. For every Eric Rudolph, Nidal Hasan and Anders Breivik there are scores of half-baked lone-wolf wannabes who either botch their operations or are uncovered before they can launch an attack.

It is a rare individual who possesses the requisite combination of will, discipline, adaptability, resourcefulness and technical skill to make the leap from theory to practice and become a successful lone wolf. Immaturity, impatience and incompetence are frequently the bane of failed lone-wolf operators, who also frequently lack a realistic assessment of their capabilities and tend to attempt attacks that are far too complex. When they try to do something spectacular they frequently achieve little or nothing. By definition and operational necessity, lone-wolf operatives do not have the luxury of attending training camps where they can be taught effective terrorist tradecraft. Nasir al-Wahayshi has recognized this and has urged jihadist lone wolves to focus on simple, easily accomplished attacks that can be conducted with readily available items and that do not require advanced tradecraft to succeed.

It must also be recognized that attacks, even those conducted by lone wolves, do not simply materialize out of a vacuum. Lone wolf attacks must follow the same planning process as an attack conducted by a small cell or hierarchical group. This means that lone wolves are also vulnerable to detection during their planning and preparation for an attack -- even more so, since a lone wolf must conduct each step of the process alone and therefore must expose himself to detection on multiple occasions rather than delegate risky tasks such as surveillance to someone else in order to reduce the risk of detection. A lone wolf must conduct all the preoperational surveillance, acquire all the weapons, assemble and test all the components of the improvised explosive device (if one is to be used) and then deploy everything required for the attack before launching it.

Certainly, there is far more effort in a truck bomb attack than a simple attack with a knife, and the planning process is shorter for the latter, but the lone wolf still must follow and complete all the steps. While this operational model offers security advantages regarding communications and makes it impossible for the authorities to plant an informant in a group, it also increases operational security risks by exposing the lone operator at multiple points of the planning process.

Operating alone also takes more time, does not allow the lone attacker to leverage the skills of others and requires that the lone attacker provide all the necessary resources for the attack. When we consider all the traits required for someone to bridge the gap between lone-wolf theory and practice, from will and discipline to self-sufficiency and tactical ability, there simply are not many people who have both the ability and the intent to conduct such attacks. This is why we have not seen more lone-wolf attacks despite the fact that the theory does offer some tactical advantages and has been around for so long.

The limits of working alone also mean that, for the most part, lone-wolf attacks tend to be smaller and less damaging than attacks conducted by independent cells or hierarchical organizations. Breivik's attack in Norway and Hasan's attack at Fort Hood are rare exceptions and not the rule.

When we set aside the mystique of the lone wolf and look at the reality of the phenomenon, we can see that the threat is often far less daunting in fact than in theory. One of the most vocal proponents of the theory in the white supremacist movement in the late 1990s was a young California neo-Nazi named Alex Curtis. After Curtis was arrested in 2000 and convicted of harassing Jewish figures in Southern California, it was said that when he made the jump from "keyboard commando" to conducting operations in the physical world he proved to be more of a "stray mutt" than a lone wolf.

Lone wolves -- or stray mutts -- do pose a threat, but that threat must be neither overstated nor ignored. Lone attackers are not mythical creatures that come out of nowhere to inflict harm. They follow a process and are vulnerable to detection at certain times during that process. Cutting through the hype is an important step in dispelling the mystique and addressing the problems posed by such individuals in a realistic and practical way.


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