Can social media drive ‘lone wolf’ attacks in the US?
Americans recently celebrated the Fourth of July, marking their declaration of independence from Britain in 1776, with all the traditional fare — from food to fireworks — and with the threat of terrorism hanging over gatherings across the land.
Americans were told to be “vigilant and prepared” for “lone wolf” attacks.
Thomas Tracy, a New York Daily News reporter quoted the city’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton, as saying in September 2014 that the Islamic State (ISIS) had mastered social media, attempting to recruit lone wolf terrorists to target Times Square. Bratton said, “ISIS is using social media as one of the main tools to attract new recruits and has called for someone to strike “at the Crossroads of the World”.
A lone wolf terrorist can be defined as someone who commits violent acts in support of some group, movement or ideology but who does so alone, outside of any command structure and without material assistance from any group .
With that in mind, along with recent attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait, US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, in a June 26th statement, called for local law enforcement to “adjust security measures — seen and unseen — as necessary to protect the American people.”
Behind Johnson’s remarks was also the fact that ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani a few days earlier had urged jihadists to turn the holy month of Ramadan into a time of “calamity for the infidels … Shias and apostate Muslims”. Adnani also called on followers to “be keen to conquer in this holy month and to become exposed to martyrdom”.
Accompanying these “routine warnings on holidays”, is a growing concern of Americans that threats of home-grown “lone wolf” attacks, inspired by sophisticated ISIS recruitment through social media, continue to grow through self-radicalised Islamists inside the United States.
It started at the Los Angeles International Airport in the 2002 attack, in which a gunman charged the El Al ticket counter, killing two people. Since then there have been several cases of lone wolf attacks, mostly by foreign-born Islamists, such as 28-year-old Yusuf Ibrahim indicted for the February 2013 beheading and cutting off the hands of two Egyptian Coptic Christian expatriates, but also by US-born citizens, such as Nidal Malik Hassan, a US Army major who was convicted of killing 13 people on November 5, 2009, at the Fort Hood Army Base in Texas.
There is little evidence that these instances were significantly inspired through social media. However, recent lone wolf attacks were definitely inspired by social media-based recruitment and propagandising.
Just as the Boston Marathon bomber was sentenced to death, two home-grown, self-radicalised terrorists decided to attack the attendees at the “Draw Mohammed” conference in Garland, Texas, on May 3rd. Both were killed. But that did not dampen the enthusiasm of other radicals. The US Justice Department has announced the arrests of ten people it said were inspired by and supported ISIS. Congressional leaders say that there have been others that have not been announced.
So what motivates these lone wolves?
Jeffrey Simon, an expert on terrorism and political violence, and author of Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat (Prometheus, 2013), addressed the lone wolf in an article that appeared April 17, 2013, in Foreign Policy. Simon said there are five basic types — secular, religious, single-issue, criminal and idiosyncratic — although some lone wolves fall into more than one category. Simon says the internet has proven indispensable to every type of lone wolf. And lone wolves operate throughout the world.
Warren Richey, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, credits ISIS in a June 3rd article with recruiting new members through aggressive use of up to 200,000 tweets per day on Twitter — the estimated work of a couple thousand “core propagandists”.
Social media experts point out that ISIS uses Twitter to drive prospects to closed websites in the same way businesses use Twitter to drive prospective clients to business websites. As a result, tracking would-be lone wolves becomes much more difficult. As a result of ISIS success, intelligence experts are scrambling to find ways to undercut the group’s growing appeal among a small but significant number of US residents.