The lone wolves of ISIS: A global security predicament
BEIRUT - The real danger posed by the Islamic State (ISIS) is not its military capabilities but rather its ability to disperse extremist ideology across cyberspace, infecting the minds of people worldwide.
So long as ISIS is allowed to occupy physical space in failed countries and utilise the easy access to information and communication technology to preach its venomous ideology, no place will be fully safe, but that is especially true of countries fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
As the group loses ground in battles in Syria, Iraq and Libya, it is widely expected to resort to terrorist attacks against states involved in the fighting.
Being able to hit deep in “enemy territory” is very important for the morale and image of the group. Such attacks help ISIS display its ability to inflict pain onto its enemies on their home front. It is also a means to spread fear and panic within civilian populations of those countries in a way that would increase pressure on governments to pull out of the war on terrorism.
ISIS has used two approaches in targeting its enemies at home: Plant terror cells that will be activated when need be and use its powerful media machine to create “lone wolves”. This is done by reaching out to susceptible young people to drive them to take action against whatever they could see as a target in their towns and neighbourhoods.
In the first case we saw the Paris attacks and the recent Brussels attacks in which ISIS fighters returned from the front lines in Syria and Iraq formed cells and struck when ordered. Tracking down such terrorists is becoming easier as the intelligence community is cooperating in exchanging names and data on people known to have joined ISIS.
However, tracking down “lone wolves” is extremely difficult. Take, for example, the last two cases in the United States.
The first was the attack in San Bernardino, California, in which Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, targeted a local public health facility, killing 14 people and seriously wounding 22 others. Farook was an American-born US citizen of Pakistani descent. Malik was a Pakistani-born US permanent resident.
According to FBI Director James Comey, the perpetrators were “homegrown violent extremists” and who were not directed by ISIS and were not part of any terrorist cell or network. They were simply radicalised over time, consuming “poison on the internet”.
The FBI concluded the same thing about the Orlando, Florida, nightclub gunman, Omar Mateen, who went on a shooting rampage, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. Comey said Mateen, a US-born national of Afghani descent, operated on his own. “So far, we see no indication that this was part of a plot directed from outside the United States,” he said.
The lone-wolf phenomenon will possibly compel law enforcement agencies to be more intrusive on the privacy of people suspected of having extremist tendencies because it is a thin line that separates extremists from terrorists and that is deciding to resort to violence.
Finally, moderate Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, must be supported and allowed to play a role in countering ISIS ideology and not be targeted and branded as evil as some politicians are doing because demonising Islam is the best tool one can give to ISIS to breed terrorists.