The threat of lone wolves
So-called lone wolves, solitary extremists inspired by jihadist propaganda, have struck in recent days in the United States and France.
At least 49 people were killed and 53 injured after a lone American gunman of Afghan descent attacked a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 11th. Omar Mateen, 29, claimed he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Three days later, Larossi Abballa, a 25-year-old Frenchman of North African descent, bludgeoned to death a police commander and his companion in their home near Paris.
The two incidents reveal the multiple challenges posed by lone wolf attacks.
Such attacks remain very difficult to detect even though it was expected that jihadist groups would use the holy Muslim month of Ramadan to incite against Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
On May 21st, right before Ramadan, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani exhorted sympathisers to make the holy period “a month of hurt on the infidels everywhere”.
Self-radicalisation has been facilitated by global access to the internet.
There is evidence Mateen was attracted to the online speeches of al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi, as was US Army Major Nidal Hasan, a lone shooter who killed 13 people in a Fort Hood, Texas, shooting in 2009.
There are however new challenges. The faster pace of self-radicalisation, referred to as “flash-radicalisation”, makes acts of terror even harder to predict. There is a shocking new twist in the abuse of social media by jihadists: Abballa posted video of his murderous act on Facebook Live.
Major technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube should develop a technological antidote to live broadcasts by terrorists.
The media, too, are struggling with how to do their legitimate work without providing publicity and encouragement to copy-cat terrorists. CNN’s Anderson Cooper took the initiative by refusing to mention the name of the Orlando shooter or show his picture to deny him the post-mortem fame many lone wolves seek. However, there has been no consensus in the international media community in favour of Cooper’s move.
Politicians should not allow the acts of isolated lone wolves to stigmatise all nationals or recent migrants of Muslim faith and Arab extraction, the way presidential contender Donald Trump has used the Orlando incident to inspire fear and suspicion against Muslims, recent immigrants as well as those born in the United States. He did the same thing after the San Bernardino, California, attack last December.
US President Barack Obama urged Americans to resist the temptation of prejudice: “Where does this stop? The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer — they were all US citizens. Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance?” he asked.
The United States is a particularly valued target for ISIS-inspired lone wolves and the country’s permissive gun laws make it easier for deranged minds of all kinds to obtain powerful weapons.
It is impossible to stop a lone disturbed individual from committing a terrible crime but countering the ISIS narrative and impeding access to weapons of mass death are two steps that clearly need to be taken. And politicians such as Trump should stop rewarding the wolves for their deeds.