Throughout the various network news coverage on the major mainstream media and cable outlets Sunday morning, we once again continued to hear the term “Lone Wolf” used to describe those likely involved in the series of intentional acts in St. Cloud, Minnesota, New Jersey, and the IED- like explosion that rocked the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, leaving at least 29 residents indiscriminately wounded by shrapnel from a massive bomb.
There is a serious disconnect between what we talk about when we address and discuss radical Islamic terrorism, and the facts evident in all of the recent attacks worldwide. Be it the idea that recent attacks in Europe are disconnected from global radical Islamic terrorism, and are instead the acts of “lone wolves.” Further, that narrative yet again was used to describe on yesterday’s Sunday morning talk shows by many Democrat politicians the events, as if they were afraid to use the word terrorism or likely links to radical Islamic terrorism, even though the thug who slashed and stabbed nine innocent Americans in the Minnesota mall, both as a number of his victims if they were Muslim and yelled Allah Akbar while initiating his brutal attacks.
President Obama said don’t worry, following the Orlando terrorist attack at the Pulse night club, saying it was just another “lone actor” operating in isolation, unconnected to any larger group of supporters. Suggesting the “lone wolves” are running in packs, and otherwise giving the public a false sense of security. His Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson echoed Obama, saying Omar Mateen was “self-radicalized” without any religious, ideological or operational support from friends, family or others in the Muslim community. He further noted, that “what we do know at this point is it appears this was a case of self-radicalization,” and indicating that “he does not appear to have been part of any group.”
Similarly we saw the term “lone wolf” used by the media in the Nice, France attack of this past July. Of course, it later emerged that seven accomplices of Tunisian-born French resident Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhle, who drove a 20-ton truck into Bastille Day crowds — were charged with aiding in murder by a group with terror-links. As continue to be the case, such accomplices contradict the “lone wolf” concept that fails to acknowledge a link between perpetrators and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida or Islamic State. Again, those of us who follow the methodology of radical Islam know all too well there is rarely the case of a sole individual act. The mere fact is that radicalization comes from study, proselytizing, and indoctrinational influence through multiple methods and capabilities, and fully supports the rational that individuals are either linked to handlers directly or through radical Islamic terrorists social media network designed to attract would be supporters and sympathizers at various levels.
In too many cases, the same story of the “lone wolf” terrorist has been played out and used to describe incidents in Orlando, San Bernardino, Ottawa, Bavaria, Belgium, and now Minnesota and New Jersey and Queens New York. Such an effort and use of the term lone wolf is a method, a trick used by the left, the media and the current administration, let alone the radical Islamists themselves designed to make us disconnect the dots to linking the so-called “self-radicalized and self-radicalization” process as being totally on their own.
However, within the intelligence community, those of us who have followed the concept and protocols of al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and now ISIS understand completely the modus operandi of the recruitment and their indoctrination via their preaching’s of radical Islamic Jihad in madrasas, by radicalized clerics, and in select mosques, training camps, and now radical Islamic organizations inspired social media networks, designed to seek out and attract recruits and supporters.
Intelligence professionals, counter-terror experts within the national security community, and law enforcement (particularly the NYPD), social scientists and legal experts value “case facts” in their research on radical Islamic terrorism. With a data-driven view of the often painful facts associated with an attack, we can better analyze and advance our efforts to prevent terrorism. In that spirit and intent, let me offer some thoughts and recommendations for our senior leaders, government officials, military leaders, state and local public servants, journalists and members of the general public who want to understand how modern day radical Islamic terrorism is evolving.
First, “lone-wolf terrorist” should be replaced with what is really at stake: “low-tech terrorism,” a term, specifically focused on radical Islamic groups, that shifts how we orient ourselves to this global problem. After the initial shock of an attack, later analysis often shows that more than one person was involved, that an international network was used, and that the perpetrator’s violence against civilians was specifically scripted and orchestrated by design and intent.
The Minnesota slashing attack, as well as the Nice, France truck attack, were part of multinational radical Islamic criminal infrastructure. Bouhlel was a resident of France and a Tunisian citizen who used weapons from Albanian contacts, communicated plans to contacts in Syria, sent images of his conduct and money to Tunisia, and scouted attack sites, per instructions from Mideast operatives.
In many cases, at first, some terrorist acts may appear isolated, random, and spontaneous—but that does not mean they are.
Even if personal motives are found — mental health, vendettas, workplace grievances — savvy jihadist recruiters have often “touched” these individuals because of them, radicalizing them online via a tight-knit network of seasoned operatives.
Ultimately, the “lone wolf” concept causes people to misunderstand the nature of radical Islamic terrorism, which at its core is an act of strategic communication… i.e.; regional and its worldwide propaganda. We must understand, it’s about spreading and conveying a violent message using cheap and convenient means of attack: knives, homemade bombs (such as pressure cookers and pipe-bombs), IEDs, cars, trucks, etc. to create euphemistic and vague notion that there is no linkage to a network or an organization such as ISIS. This form of violent communication involves teamwork and coordination, whether direct “material support” or shared ideological, communications, criminal and recruiting networks. Some terrorist acts may appear isolated, random, and spontaneous—but that does not mean they are. In fact, in most cases they are compartmented for a reason, to shield and provide cover for the organizers, logistic network as well as the handlers, trainers and indoctrinators.
For those involved our counter terror effort, better understanding these loosely organized jihadist networks means we have a chance to topple terrorism’s organizational edifice. That means paying attention to individual terrorist acts and linking them to global trends, such as those tracked by our intelligence community, military tasks forces and commands focused on taking down such networks. Likewise, the same is true for our homeland security effort and law enforcement. In recent years, such data show increased jihadist attacks globally, thousands of jihadist groups adept at “low-tech” violence, and a broad use of various methods against “soft” targets. Again, as we witnessed this past weekend in Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York.
Historical data has also show how recent attacks follow a conventional approach, in which operatives — no matter how plugged into a radical jihadist network — play a key role before, during and after an attack. Terrorists both announce and endorse or take responsibility of their goals and post attack actions online, as they are trained to do, declare allegiances, make martyr videos, or post extremist material on social media. Contrary to the lone wolf myth, terrorist communiqués from ISIS and al-Qaeda reveal support and commitment to organizations and causes, a large audience for such material, and willing participants worldwide.
Terrorism is built on real — but often hidden — global logistics, social and communications networks.
Three of these were used in this past summer’s series of attacks in Europe: trafficked weapons, illicit money transfers and online ideological communications on social media. ISIS has gone to great lengths to cover and compartmentalize their organizational tracks, creating covert units and elements to export terror abroad, including nearly 200 attacks worldwide since 2014, alone. Captured and imprisoned ISIS recruits have revealed that ISIS undercover operatives are operating throughout Europe to recruit new converts who are used as “clean men” (not yet in intelligence agency databases) to “help link-up potential recruits, surrogates and sympathizers interested in carrying out attacks or providing support or safe haven.
Turning everyday objects into weapons and making public places settings for mass execution are tactics that serve the communications strategy of radical Islamist organizations, a method repeatedly pushed by ISIS and al-Qaeda. But this “low-tech” approach is not just a tactic of communications or asymmetric warfare, it has come to define their modus operandi and organizational operations, of regional groups and cells, be it in Europe or the U.S. Such strategy and tactics are intent on building both local and global movements by exploiting the basest sectarian, ethnic and religious differences; assembling seemingly unsophisticated, internationally dispersed cells; and relying on common criminals, the mentally ill, or simply naïve, young, and alienated folks.
By not acknowledging the covert global logistics and organizational structures of radical Islamists, government officials, journalists and local law enforcement can unwittingly serve the strategic message terrorists want to communicate, as is readily the case with the Obama administration, and noted today New York City Mayor DeBlasio, and even the Clinton campaign. By falsely and euphemistically attributing political violence to nebulous “grievances,” we are led to believe that individuals are committing horrific acts without help or affiliation or allegiance.
In reality, such grievances are often supplied by terrorist ideologues that target vulnerable groups, including western-based immigrants. Heightening both real and perceived grievances is a pivotal first step in the radicalization process, and the recruiters doing this work have no intention of actually remedying these grievances. There is zero chance, for instance, that ISIS or al-Qaida will solve the social challenges — war in Syria, sectarianism, lack of good governance — that motivates naïve recruits to join them.
“If there is anyone out there who thinks we’re confused about who our enemies are, Obama lectured Americans in his post-Orlando speech, noting “that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we’ve taken off the battlefield.” What Obama, most in his administration, and many other Americans who follow his lead still don’t get is, “the enemies” aren’t just radical Islamic terrorists overseas, but radical Islamic terrorists at here at home, who themselves are dedicated radical Islamic purists — along with friends and relatives who may very well be surrogates, supporters, and sympathizers — and “the battlefield” is in our own communities from New York to San Bernardino to Orlando.
Until we grasp that shocking reality, we won’t be able to stop this cancerous ideology from spreading deeper into our own back yards. Until we develop and implement a strategic and coherent across-the-board strategy that encompassed the mechanism to counter and defeat both the international and domestic radical Islamic terrorist threat, we will continue to incur to tragedies we once again witnessed this weekend. In the meantime, today, ISIS has endorsed this weekend’s attacks and has encouraged its “Soldiers of Islam” and supporters to continue attacks within the United States.