US officials frustrated over lone-wolf attacks
Washington - US officials expressed frustration over the inability to stop “lone-wolf” terrorist attacks such as that in Orlando, Florida, that took the lives of 49 people in June. While such attacks may continue, authorities hope that more effective counterterrorism narratives on the internet and better outreach to Muslim-American communities will stem the violence over time.
After meeting victims’ families in Orlando, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch described the killings as “clearly” an act of terror and hate but then remarked that no one has found “the magic bullet” to prevent people from becoming radicalised over the internet.
Her comments were followed by US State Department official Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti- ISIS coalition, who told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee there was no evidence of a direct link between the Orlando killer and the Islamic State (ISIS). He added that such attacks were not only extraordinarily difficult to predict but likely to persist.
US intelligence officials publicly voiced concern about the lone-wolf phenomenon. CIA Director John Brennan told a congressional committee that lone-wolf attackers — inspired by ISIS but not under the group’s direct control — represent “an exceptionally challenging issue for the intelligence community” because “inspiration can lead someone to embark on this path of destruction”.
As many observers have noted, while ISIS has lost ground in both Syria and Iraq, it has stepped up its campaign for its operatives and followers to attack targets in other countries, particularly in the West. Earlier this year, an ISIS spokesman said: “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us and [will be] more effective and more damaging to them.”
While security agencies of Western nations can sometimes foil an attack by tracking ISIS operatives returning to their home countries, it is much more difficult to identify the lone wolf — someone with no direct connection to ISIS and no criminal or terrorist background.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, has noted that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “understands that if he calls for terror, it will come”. Baghdadi, Riedel said, “doesn’t need any direct human connection or even a web connection. His message is so pervasive in the media and so simple, it is certain to inspire the angry.”
So how do authorities identify and prevent “the angry” from becoming radicalised and carrying out a terrorist attack?
Many lone-wolf terrorists fit a particular profile. According to terrorism expert Peter Bergen of the New America think-tank in Washington, such attackers in the United States are on average in their late 20s, tend to be educated and not have a criminal background or mental illness. They are inspired by ISIS and like-minded groups but are not directly affiliated with such groups.
In addition, it appears that some event or series of events affected their lives in a negative way, causing them to become inspired by radical groups. They often change the way they speak and their behaviour and speech seem radical to their peers after the event.
This leads to the question of cooperation with Muslim-American communities. It is these communities that can identify (and have identified) potential radicals in their midst. However, these communities must be assured that cooperation with authorities leads to helping the angry individual, as opposed to mistreating him or, worse, stigmatising the entire congregation or community.
Unfortunately, the anti-Muslim rhetoric of presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump has not helped the situation. Small progress has been made, however, particularly at the local level. The Washington Post on July 5th carried a story about a Muslim-American police officer in Orlando who has gone to local mosques to speak about the dangers of extremism and has assisted the angry in seeking help. These types of programmes, led by individuals whom Muslim communities can trust, need to be supported and enhanced.
On the broader question of countering radicalisation on the internet, the US government has acknowledged its failures and is trying a smarter approach. Its previous effort, led by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, produced government-branded videos that were dismissed by the disaffected as mere propaganda. It has now created a Global Engagement Center, housed at the State Department and made up of experts from inside and outside government, and is using networks in the Muslim world to disseminate its messages, particularly of ISIS defectors telling their stories in their own words.
Such efforts are a start in the effort to stem the lone-wolf phenomenon but, as the US attorney general suggested, there is no magic bullet.