Lone wolves the new face of terror
Beirut - Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has called on Muslims living in the West to carry out “lone-wolf” attacks, particularly in the United States, in what appears to be a bid by the veteran Egyptian militant to reclaim the group’s primary status in the jihadist pantheon that has been usurped by the Islamic State (ISIS).
But his call, in an audio recording posted online on September 13th, rings alarms in Europe where there has been a surge of attacks by “lone wolves”, veterans of jihadist wars or disaffected young men radicalised by social media who have responded to calls to become mass murderers in a conflict that knows no boundaries.
An attack by heavily armed Moroccan gunman Ayoub el-Khazzani aboard a French high-speed train on August 21st was thwarted by passengers who probably averted a bloodbath.
But there are many more like Khazzani out there and it was to them who Zawahiri appealed when he declared: “I call on all Muslims who can harm the countries of the crusader coalition not to hesitate. We must now focus on moving the war to the heart of the homes and cities of the crusader West and specifically America.”
In early August, one of the sons of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, Hamza, called for “lone-wolf” attacks in Washington, Paris and Tel Aviv. “This is your duty,” he declared in a video message.
Most lone-wolf attacks are those carried out by individuals with no known links to terrorist organisations and therefore are much more likely to evade detection by security services trawling the blogosphere seeking “chatter” that might point to plots being hatched.
But even if they are on security watch lists, as Khazzani was as he had been to Syria, they can sometimes get past over-stretched security services.
These are the hardest terrorist operations to defend against. Time and again single plotters have pulled off devastating attacks that seemingly came out of nowhere.
A Kuwaiti-born Palestinian gunman with an AK-47 killed four US Marines and a US Navy sailor in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on July 16th. Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, who died in a shoot-out with police, was the nightmare of security services all over the world: a disaffected, marginalised loner who decided to attack society, someone with an ordinary family background, faceless, everyday, outwardly normal, not connected to any known extremist group and thus not dependent on it for expertise, training or support.
US Representative Michael McCaul, R-Texas and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Chattanooga killings were inspired by ISIS. US investigators have found no direct link to the group but its mastery of the blogosphere and its proven ability to radicalise and manipulate some Muslims, particularly dissident and alienated young, into embracing its murderous ideology make it a likely culprit.
“What keeps me up at night is the case we don’t know about,” McCaul confessed. “This is the event we’ve been most worried about and then it happened.”
The June 26th slaughter of 38 European tourists on a crowded Tunisian beach by a lone ISIS gunman, Seifeddine Rezgui, indicates that ISIS and probably others are training radicalised Muslims for what are essentially suicide lone-wolf missions.
Rezgui, a former engineering student, was killed by police. Tunisian authorities said he was trained in Libya. The rise in lone-wolf attacks and the encouragement provided by ISIS and others stem in large part from the jihadists’ inability to replicate the carnage of 9/11 because of the vast global counterterrorism operations that attack triggered.
“It’s currently the threat that we’re worrying about in the homeland most of all,” FBI Director James Comey admitted in early August.
There are more than 21,000 English-language Twitter accounts affiliated with ISIS alone, he said, and many of the account-holders may be living in the United States. “We’re facing smaller-scale attacks that are harder to detect, day to day to day,” Comey said.
The concept of individual jihad — or “leaderless resistance” — was first formulated by jihadist military theoretician Abu Musab al- Suri, a red-haired, blue-eyed Syrian, when he grasped the success the Americans and their allies were having against al-Qaeda’s network in the aftermath of the 9/11 carnage.
Suri’s blueprint for a campaign of “individual jihad” in the United States and Europe was articulated in A Call to a Global Islamic Resistance, a 1,600-page manifesto published on the internet in 2005 that spells out his strategy of self-generating attacks by individuals or independent cells to replace the meticulously plotted mega-strikes that Osama bin Laden espoused and that led to big power offensives that crippled the original al-Qaeda.