Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Conspiracy of One

Authors note: The study of lone wolf terrorists is an area that receives little academic attention and yet has far reaching implications for the public. In this paper I use large terrorist movements, small groups, and spree killers as context in an attempt to highlight the differences between lone wolves and other terrorists. Additionally, this paper will discuss the prospects of lone wolves who are unaffiliated with one another and yet are bound through a common ideology to perpetrate self sustaining random violence – also known as low intensity conflict. This tactic is propagated in the Governance in the Wilderness by al-Qaeda’s chief theoretician, Sheik Abu-Bakar Naji.

First you feel nervous about riding the bus. Then you wonder about going to a mall. Then you think twice about sitting for long at your favorite cafĂ©. Then nowhere seems safe. Terrorist groups have a strategy—to shrink to nothing the areas in which people move freely—and suicide bombers, inexpensive and reliably lethal, are their latest weapons. Israel has learned to recognize and disrupt the steps on the path to suicide attacks. We must learn too


When it comes to terrorism – and any form of mass violence – the carnage of a successful attack can be contagious. What the author means by this is that other societal outsiders will try to replicate or expand upon a successful attack. A recent example is the Virginia Tech massacre that resulted in the deaths of 33 students and faculty. In the days and weeks that followed numerous threats were issued and several attempts were made to instigate violence at schools across the nation. Threats to attack public places occur on a daily basis, but in the wake of violence these threats or actual attempts at violence increase primarily because of media exposure. Societal outcasts, whether they are terrorists or disturbed individuals, seek to air their grievances in order to bring attention to their cause and today’s carnage oriented media is the perfect outlet. Unfortunately, as large terrorist groups fold under pressure from law enforcement and military the rise of lone wolves and small groups made up of like-minded individuals, thus diversifying the terrorist threat is inevitable.

The Strategy

The opening statement by Bruce Hoffman is a perfect example of how terrorists seize upon the successes of others to sow fear into the target population. The purpose of this is to force political change by using the population to lean on their government. In the example provided by Hoffman, Palestinian terrorist groups that operate independently can feed off a successful suicide bombing perpetrated by another group. First the attack may come from Hamas, followed by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and finally Islamic Jihad until the violence becomes self sustaining without any prior or continuing coordination among like-minded groups. Lone wolves and small violent movements all have the power to cause havoc in the same way and spread influence far beyond their inherently small numbers.

Take for instance the Anthrax letter attacks upon the U.S. from September to October 2001. A total of seven letters containing anthrax were mailed during this attack resulting in 22 people becoming infected and five eventually dying from the infection. These seven letters resulted in numerous building evacuations nationwide, a change in the routing of mail in four states, and hysteria by anyone receiving mail that looked as if it might have come into contact with a powdery substance. Granted, these attacks and the following reaction came on the heals of the 9/11, but we must also consider the reaction to the poisoned Tylenol bottles from the 1980’s. The deaths of seven people in the Chicago area led to a nationwide recall of 31 million bottles with a retail value of 100 million dollars. The attacks were simple and did not require extensive training, but the fallout from the attacks went well beyond the scope of the threat.

Size Does Matter

Bad pun, I know, but lone wolves and small groups do suffer from problems because of their size. While some lone wolves have been successful, one example is George Metesky, others have had limited success either because their grievances limit the target pool (these are known as single-issue terrorists), the target pool is so large that spotting trends is difficult, or because of a lack of training. In other instances the targets have taken measures to protect themselves or their property. In the case of Eric Robert Rudolph training wasn’t the issue but instead the precautions taken by his targets and the pressure applied by law enforcement. Unable to carry out any further attacks, Rudolph was forced to live in the North Carolina wilderness for five years before being apprehended. Rudolph did not have any formal training in the manufacture of explosives, but instead overcame this obstacle by stealing explosive material (as opposed to using improvised explosives with commercial chemicals) and using open source material to create an explosive device.

The Unabomber is another example of an individual terrorist having minimal impact. Theodore Kaczynski sent out 16 mail bombs and managed to kill three people, but his attacks did not produce any of the results he sought (Kaczynski was anti-technology) because his target pool was so large that patterns were difficult to distinguish. These patterns are used to find a common theme among targets in an attempt to learn the perpetrators motivation. What further hurt his cause, as if the bombs weren’t enough, was the lack of any publicized motivation. Kaczynski didn’t mail out his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, until after his last bomb was mailed. Ironically, his publishing of the manifesto led to his capture. While lone wolves may not kill in great numbers they do manage to avoid apprehension because of their loner mentality.

Small terrorist movements also suffer from many of the same challenges that lone wolves do. A prime example is the Minnesota Patriots Council attempt to use ricin to poison a Deputy U.S. Marshall and a local Sheriff in retaliation for serving papers to a Council member. The Council had managed to produce .7 grams of ricin (enough to kill a least a hundred people), but failed to create a sufficient delivery system. The plot unraveled because of a marriage dispute that led to the arrest and conviction of four Council members under the 1989 Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act. The Council may have been successful in extracting the ricin, but because it chose a biological weapon it brought undue attention that may not have come if the group had relied on small arms for their assassination plot.

One small group that stands out is the Washington Beltway snipers. The two men that perpetrated the attacks simply used a Bushmaster version of an AR-15 and shot people at random for three weeks in October 2002. The attacks did not require much training beyond what John Allen Muhammad received in the military, but nonetheless left the Washington D.C. area in a state of fear. It is these types of attacks that prove to be the most successful for small groups and the fear that the attacks generate goes well beyond the scope of the threat. Small groups cannot be everywhere, but then again they don’t have to be; they just have to seem to be everywhere.

The ELF/ALF Model and the Modern Jihadist

The movement for freedom is rapidly approaching the point where for many people, the option of belonging to a group will be nonexistent. For others, group membership will be a viable option for only the immediate future. Eventually, and perhaps much sooner than most believe possible, the price paid for membership will exceed any perceived benefit. But for now, some of the groups that do exist often serve a useful purpose either for the newcomer who can be indoctrinated into the ideology of the struggle, or for generating positive propaganda to reach potential freedom fighters. It is sure that, for the most part, this struggle is rapidly becoming a matter of individual action, each of its participants making a private decision in the quietness of his heart to resist: to resist by any means necessary. It is hard to know what others will do, for no man truly knows another man's heart. It is enough to know what one himself will do. A great teacher once said "know thyself." Few men really do, but let each of us, promise ourselves, not to go quietly to the fate our would-be masters have planned.


It is hard to improve upon the words of those people who wish to do others harms. In this case a white supremacist, Louis Beam, discusses in his work ‘Leaderless Resistance’ that the “struggle is rapidly becoming a matter of individual action.” What Beam means by this is that large movements attract attention while individual actors can hatch a plot in their head and execute it without fear of someone leaking the details to law enforcement. It is this idea that the modern ecoterrorist groups have used to their advantage. Movements such as ALF and ELF do not, and as far as I know have never, employed a hierarchal or pyramid structure. Instead, the movements depend on the internet to spread propaganda, indoctrinate, and instigate radicalism among the mainstream environmentalist movement – just as Louis Beam described for the white supremacist movement.

Many terrorist groups in the past have undergone transformations from hierarchal structures to cellular networks and finally to small movements or individual actors when pressured by individual governments. This process, which I call adaptive reconstruction, is born out of necessity not for the survival of the group, but more for the survival of the ideology. It is natural for people to congregate in groups for reasons of self preservation because a group, or tribes before the invention of the nation-state, can work together to better accomplish the needs of the individual. These needs – according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – include biological and physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization. While it is possible for an individual to meet the biological and physiological needs; a group is better suited to meet the rest of the needs. The internet however, has shifted this paradigm.

The internet, and other means of modern communication, cannot fully replace the desire to form a physical group, but what it can do is provide information to people in search of belongingness to a movement. The modern jihadist has realized this. Not only have small groups tried to perpetrate attacks without the physical support of professional terrorists (theological and theoretical support not withstanding), but individuals as well have gravitated to the global jihad without any formal training. These individuals attended mainstream mosques and yet were radicalized by information provided on the internet. In this case the desire to belong to a group is somewhat fulfilled by being a member of a mainstream congregation, while simultaneously adding a divine purpose to their lives by joining other jihadists in cyberspace. While this phenomenon is occurring worldwide it has manifested in Great Britain substantially.

The most recent attempt was carried out by a mentally ill convert to Islam. The man, Nicky Reilly, carried three bombs into the bathroom of a family restaurant but failed to cause any damage other than to himself. The plot failed only because one of the devices detonated prematurely. Police suspect that Reilly was chosen because of his mental illness – a tactic that has garnered quite a bit press in the Iraq theatre. But Reilly is not alone in the lone wolf game. In April of this year, British police arrested a 19 year old student thanks to a tip from his Imam (the suspect had numerous burns on his hands) that led police to confiscate three improvised explosive devices from his apartment. Just a few months prior another arrest was made, this time the suspect was found to be stockpiling chemicals and other bomb making materials. It is believed that this man, Hassan Tabbakh, was in fact, Britain’s first jihadist lone wolf bomber (though he had yet to carry out an attack).

Are Suicide Tactics Next?

In the age of on demand information, escalation of tactics and weapons can occur without regard to success or failure of past attacks. Suicide tactics are inexpensive to carry out – usually around 150 dollars at the Home Depot – and work to influence public movements. The suicide bomber also adds to the psychological element of the attack because the idea of someone killing themselves to harm you is quite discomforting. But the question remains; would a small group or lone wolf carry out such an attack? Both are unlikely scenarios, but the Nicky Reilly case may prove to be the future. As stated previously, the use of the mentally ill as a tactic is something that has been occurring over the last few years. Unfortunately children and the elderly have also been used to carry out suicide attacks – sometimes without their knowledge. This approach allows the orchestrator of the attack to try again with another patsy or simply claim ignorance.

Suicide tactics also include lone gunman who wish to be killed by security forces while killing as many bystanders with as possible. This has worked well in the western world and the defense against such an attack is difficult. In the past few years the U.S. has witnessed such attacks in schools and malls – all soft targets – and it is unlikely to end. Spree shooters, regardless of motivation, often act alone, but that does not mean they will not inspire others. Following the Virginia Tech massacre, police stopped several individuals from carrying out similar attacks. These were not just threats, but plans that had gone operational only to be reported by concerned family members and friends.


Violence begets violence and often motivation can be inconsequential in lone wolf attacks. But in the case of terrorist groups that adaptively deconstruct into smaller movements, motivation may prove to be the factor that ensures indiscriminate violence can be sustained. After all it is motivation that separates terrorists from spree killers or other practitioners of mass violence by definition. The desire of terrorist movements is to influence government decisions through public opinion and the use of sustained random violence can accomplish this; at least temporarily. History shows us that all terrorist movements eventually fail because the violence employed alienates the population – a population that terrorists rely on to accomplish their goals. Of course simply resting on historical occurrences is hardly a viable counter-violence strategy, but the lesson we should take away is that they fail because of the intolerance for indiscriminate violence by the population.

Psychiatrist Jerrold Post postulated that individuals become terrorists in order to join terrorist groups and commit acts of terrorism. While the good doctor admits that this is an extreme position (Post studies terrorism with the theory that political violence is driven by psychological forces) he makes an important point. Terrorists engage in terrorism as a means to give purpose to their life (Maslow’s self-actualization), but the forces that work against them is death, apprehension, internal infighting, or success. Death, apprehension, or infighting is the most likely outcome, but success is an interesting proposition. As previous stated terrorists always fail not only because of outside pressure, but success – the accomplishment of the terrorists stated goals – negates the purpose of the group. What this means is that the outcast that had his individual needs met will once again be an outcast and forced to find another accepting group. This is utterly impossible from many terrorists. Once again we can turn to history to find examples of terrorist groups continuing violent acts after their demands have been met. The IRA, ETA, and PFLP all continued to engage in terrorism after each political success.

Most instances of terrorism and mass violence can be prevented. This cannot be overstated. Lone wolves and small groups survive as long as they do because family and friends have a hard time believing what is apparent – we know an individual that is disturbed and needs help. Earlier I mentioned that the Unabomber was only caught after he published his manifesto. It was his brother that recognized the phrases and prose when the document was published and yet he still struggled with the realization that his brother was a terrorist and must be turned in. In the event that an act of terrorism occurs it is important to watch for other individuals to capitalize on the media frenzy. They may use a variety of tactics to ensure that the attack works, but the signs they show before an attack will give them away.

When you report something that appears out of the ordinary you cannot be wrong. As Gavin de Becker stated, “You can only be wrong if you place your personal pride above your personal safety.” Simply speaking up can stop an attack regardless of size or complexity.

Until next time stay safe.

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