‘Lone Wolves’ strike in London and Paris

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

Bloody incidents this week in Paris and London are forcing counter-terrorism experts to wonder whether there is a new international terrorism pattern at play.

Late Saturday a “North African-looking” individual stabbed a French soldier on duty, west of Paris. The attempted murder followed another broad-daylight terrorist incident in Woolwich, south of London, last Wednesday. A 25-year-old British soldier was hacked to death by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, two young British Muslims of Nigerian origin.

Before them, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Djohar Tsarnaev, set off bombs in Boston killing three people and injuring more than 260 people. In March 2012, Mohamed Merah, the so-called “scooter killer”, murdered seven people, including three children, in southwestern France.

Paradigm change

French criminologist Christophe Soullez, sees in the recent events “a very important paradigm change”. The main trait of the new shift might be that all attacks were perpetrated by local young Muslims, with no apparent operational links to major terrorist organizations. Investigations might show that the supposedly-solitary terrorists have received some help from accomplices. But their modus operandi is overall that of “free-lancing” terrorists. The so-called “lone wolves” cannot count anymore on the old leadership of “Al-Qaeda Central,” decimated by counter terrorism operations and drone attacks. They cannot rely on the logistical support of major terrorist networks. During the last decade, mass-casualty attacks have become too difficult to coordinate and to execute.

The Woolwich terrorists were probably the first terrorists in history to schedule a picture opportunity and a departure statement right after their misdeeds.

Oussama Romdhani

The murdered soldier of Woolwich was in fact the first terrorist casualty in the UK since the 2005 London attacks (which had led to 52 deaths). Without serious operational back up, the new “home-grown” terrorists have often the tendency to get caught. In the United States, about 20 Muslim Americans on average were arrested each year after the September 11th attacks, on charges of terrorism. But only 11 “homegrown” attacks (including the Boston bombings) materialized during the whole period.

The “new terrorists” also operate on “low budgets”. They do not have access to “high technology” weapons which can cause murder and mayhem at a large scale. The Woolwich terrorists mowed down their target with a car before hacking him with knives and cleavers. “Everything we have seen about this attack – such as the basic nature of the weapons and the fact the gun didn’t work – suggest this was a crude operation and one that was hastily drawn up,” commented Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute.

But even when it generally fails to cause mass-casualties, this “new type of terrorism” can have a high impact on public opinion and decision-makers. Sharad Joshi, a researcher at the London-based “Chatham House” recently wrote that the “decentralization of terrorism from high-profile, high-casualty, complex attacks – such as the 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 London bombings – into smaller, lower-level, seemingly unaffiliated attacks nevertheless goes some way in achieving the key objective that all terrorists and terrorist groups have: getting attention for their grievances.”

Maximum publicity

The “new terrorists” still manage to cause “shock and awe”, with the help of their “improvised propaganda devices”. In the London attack, Smartphones and amateur cameras were enough to carry the “message” of the two terrorists globally. The Woolwich terrorists were probably the first terrorists in history to schedule a picture opportunity and a departure statement right after their misdeeds.

British author Simon Jenkins noted: “The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets.” In Toulouse, Mohamed Merah filmed his own bloody murders and planned to upload them on the Internet. He even sent a video tape for broadcast to “Al Jazeera TV” (but the channel refused to air it based on a request from the French president).

This is a far cry from the “heydays” of Al-Qaeda when terrorists conducted their propaganda under the banner of “Al Fajr Media Center” and the “Global Islamic Media Front”. Leadership speeches and pre-suicide attack videos were carefully edited. Special effects were even added. “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM), which uses the label of “Andalus Foundation” for its cyber-campaigns, has recently launched a Twitter account. Free-lancing Jihadists can now claim PR independence from Al Qaeda, the way they have already achieved their operational autonomy.

Despite their improvised propaganda, the “new terrorists” know that their pictures will quickly span the globe (and possibly provoke copy-cat attacks). Free societies have yet to figure out a way to deprive terrorists, old and new, of that sense of gratification.

Taking tips from the Web

If the web grants “lone wolves” the publicity they crave, it also provides them with the manuals they need. Much like the Boston bombers, Internet (and Al-Qaeda’s online magazine,“Inspire”, in particular) have been the prime source of tactical inspiration of many “home grown” terrorists. The slick English language magazine, published by “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” since June 2010, provided the Tsarnaev brothers with a instructions on how to transform a pressure cooker into an improvised explosive device, as part of a guide entitled ‘How to build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom’. Other issues of the magazine contained advice on how to build bombs, torch cars, assemble remote control devices, plan assassinations, conduct surveillance and .. mow down “the enemy” with your car .

Inspire has been in fact linked to at least 15 terrorism cases. "In almost all the home-grown cases that we've seen over the past three years in Britain and in America, it turned out that Inspire was on the hard drives of these people," said Peter Neumann, Director of the “International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation” at King's College London.
Awareness about the supportive role of the Internet to “Lone Wolves” is pushing decision makers in such places as Australia and the United Kingdom to consider more stringent communication surveillance and monitoring legislations.

The paths of “radicalization”

The most pressing issue for investigators of “lone wolf” terrorism, if how to identify the paths of radicalization that lead otherwise-normal youths to turn against their own communities.

The three cases of Boston, Toulouse and London point to a combination of travel abroad and exposure to radical ideas both at home and through the internet, as common factors of radicalization. According to former French minister of the Interior Claude Gueant, the radicalization of Mohamed Merah “took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In England, Micahel Adebolajo was exposed to the extremist ideas of the banned radical group “Al Muhajirun”. He later traveled to Kenya and tried to join “Shabab Al Mujahideen” in Somalia. Tamerlan Tsarnaev is likely to have had exposure to radical ideas through friends and relatives. He also traveled to Dhaghestan and Chechnya for a six-month period.

Experts fear that travel abroad will continue to “radicalize” second and third generation Muslim immigrants. Michael Clarke, the director of the “Royal United Services Institute” in England fears that: "More experienced lone-wolf terrorists are likely to be returning to Britain in the next couple of years.. from wars in Somalia, Yemen, or Nigeria, from the renewed violence in Iraq, and from destinations and via routes that will be far more difficult for security services to monitor." For young delinquents who will not travel to trouble spots around the world, radicalization guidance will be provided by stays in jail, at home.

The Internet is also a crucial factor of radicalization. The sermons and online publications of Yemeni-American preacher (killed in a drone attach in 2011) have for instance influenced many English-language radicals, such as the Woolwich terrorists, the Boston bombers and many other individuals including Nidal Mansour (who killed 13 American soldiers in the “Fort Hood Massacre”), and Umar Abdulmutallab (the Nigerian student who attempted to detonate explosives aboard an airplane).

The problem is that “aspiring Muslim terrorists” are often angry young men with shallow knowledge of Islam. David Schanzer, Director of the Triangle Center of Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, says that most homegrown terrorists “did not have a formal education and training in Islam.” That, according to him, “makes them vulnerable to an ideology that claims to define the actions and beliefs of "good Muslims," but are actually contrary to the values and scripture of Islam.”

Ongoing inter-community tensions in France and current anti-Muslim backlash in Britain are a reminder that radicalization works both ways. The so called “Lone Wolf” attacks are fuelling extreme right-wing reactions among non-Muslims. Right after the Woolwich murder, the far-right English Defense League tweeted:


Homegrown terrorism, especially when perpetrated by Muslim nationals of the victimized countries themselves, is bound to fuel social and religious tensions. But despite their bigoted fringes, the majority of Western societies defend the rights of Muslims to equal-opportunity pursuits. To their credit, many people in the west have been in recent months leaning over backwards to clear the reputation of Islam and Muslims, in the aftermath of the terrorist incidents

“Lone wolves” and their copy cats can cause as much damage to relations between Muslims and the West as mass-casualty attacks. Down underneath, the same-old problem continues to lurk. It is called terrorism.

Oussama Romdhani is an international media analyst. A former Tunisian member of government, he served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University.

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