“Lone wolf” has become a designation without meaning as the terror model has evolved into the international network of independent operatives that terror groups have been hoping for all along.
Consider the attackers who have never strayed from U.S. soil or only know their jihadi “bros” via Twitter to be like terror contractors. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula prefers to call the lone method “open-source jihad.” ISIS, which at times has used the title “special services secret agent” for its “lone mujahid,” seems to like the term “lone wolf” because the designation basically proves that its model of DIY jihad is working while stumping the pundits who are convinced that real organizational jihad somehow must include a wad of cash from an Arab country and jumping through flaming hoops at a dusty training camp reachable only by drone.
An official order handed down from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not necessarily a more serious attack; it just means there were more moving parts in the plan. More exchanges of funds, more travel, more communications — what terrorists these days see as just more opportunities to get caught.
ISIS believes in its caliphate, and al-Qaeda believes that it will establish the real caliphate. But they don’t want their operatives gathered as sitting ducks for airstrikes or scurrying to caves in Tora Bora. Imagine a world map laid out on a table, and knock a salt shaker over across the map. They want those insidious grains everywhere. Hard to spot, and just when you think you swept them all up, you haven’t.
Today’s terror model ensures that the jihadist who will be labeled a lone wolf is never really alone throughout the process of radicalization to launching his devastating attack.
The solo jihadist’s direction is at his fingertips, written clear as day in magazines and guidebooks or spelled out in stylistic movies showing the glory of jihad. Take AQAP’s Inspire magazine, for instance. It’s especially adept at reaching an English-speaking audience with suggested targets, days, and methods. Its bomb-making guides are incredibly detailed, step-by-step instructions with photos. And the May issue explained why jihadists who work “independently in the land of the kuffar without having to report to the Mujahideen leadership” are so valuable in the overall strategy.
Late AQAP senior leader Nasser al-Ansi wrote that lone jihad operations “are an annoyance in nature to a nation” and provoke actions against Muslims, leading to the recruitment of more lone jihadis “inside the very home of the enemy.”
“This increases the discontentment of the people and their anger towards the politics and policies of their government,” al-Ansi continued. “Thus increasing panic in the government and hesitations towards any thoughts of attacking Muslims.” Coordination with other jihadists before attacking is only urged in countries with Muslim majorities for reasons of both PR and collateral damage.
The individual jihadi’s support network is the world, a vast interconnected communications structure including social media, messaging, blogs, and even apps that function as a cheering squad, idea factory, financial aid, and shoulder to lean on.
I recently asked the leader of a hacking collective that has been going after terrorist-linked web pages, social media accounts, and online propaganda how he would compare the problem of terrorist material online to a year ago. “It’s worse,” he said without hesitation. “Way worse.” What Twitter tries to suspend and YouTube removes gets quickly resurrected.
The training of the single jihadi is outlined in guidebooks that recognize not everyone is going to travel to Syria and Iraq — nor should they, if they’re going to lessen suspicion. A 2015 ISIS handbook suggests target practice with paintball or pellet guns and even video games before moving up to the real thing. Physical conditioning tips similar to training camp workouts include running in the local park and consulting WikiHow for a tutorial on how to jump off a wall — without the neighbors watching, of course.
There’s no version of a caliphate palace as al-Baghdadi is always on the move. “Unlike the medieval times when a king was safe in a guarded castle, leaders today cannot have one central location,” stated an ISIS e-book published last year. There’s not even a central media headquarters: wilayahs, or provinces, in the Islamic State issue their own media coverage so there’s not a main media headquarters to be the target of airstrikes.
Autonomy is a necessary part of strategy as seen by terrorist groups today. Solo jihadists are not a fallback plan or even a convenient coincidence for in-the-dark terror leaders. They’re simply operatives.