'Lone wolf' attacks are a tactic, not a phenomenon.
(This column originally appeared in the Toronto Sun)
By: Candice Malcolm
The fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has shifted the parameters of the battlefield in the war against jihadist terrorism. This war is no longer focused on geographic territory; it has morphed into an ideological battle, as ISIS militants are scattering and taking up residence in countries all over the world.
Here in the West, particularly in Europe but increasingly in North America, jihadists have formed a covert army. They quietly live among us, working alone or forming networks and local cells, while meticulously planning their next terrorist attack.
These jihadists connect with like-minded extremists — online, but also in mosques, Islamic centres and Muslim student groups — to co-opt theses spaces and recruit others into their fold.
We should make no mistake: this is an insurgency. It’s what British scholar and liberal activist Maajid Nawaz calls a ‘global jihadist insurgency.’
Rather than face these troubling facts, many in the West rely on inaccurate clichés and misleading euphemisms to downplay this jihadist threat. Perhaps the most damaging myth — perpetuated by left-leaning politicians, security officials and journalists — is the idea of a ‘lone wolf’ attacker.
This term gets thrown around anytime a terrorist attack appears to be carried out by just one person. Politicians use this term to whitewash the crime — it isn’t an enemy army or an act of war, it’s just one deranged person. The media begins to paint a sympathetic picture of a loner, mentally ill or self-radicalized.
They treat it like a mysterious phenomenon — asking what went wrong, suggesting that society failed this person — rather than face the facts: these attacks are a deliberate strategy deployed by devout followers of Islamist extremism.
The 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks were hand-picked jihadists — trained, funded and directed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
But terrorism has evolved over the last two decades, and jihadists have shifted their strategy towards smaller and less predictable attacks. These are easier to execute, and far more difficult to defend against.
It’s no coincidence. Security analysts have discovered a prolific set of writings on extremist websites laying out this new strategy. Abu Musab al-Suri, an influential Syrian militant, guided jihadists to form leaderless resistance cells, driven by the Islamist ideology rather than a single commander.
He called for small local cells and individual attacks, inspired by shared principles of Jihad. These instructions have gone on to form ISIS’s core strategy in the West. Unlike al-Qaeda, with bin Laden as it’s high-profile and powerful leader, ISIS instructs its adherents to act alone.
In a September 2014 speech that was broadly circulated, an ISIS leader urged followers to find a “disbeliever” and to “smash his head with a rock, slaughter him with a knife, run him over with your car, throw him from a high place, choke him, poison him … or burn his home, car or business.”
An ISIS propaganda video released in December 2014 repeated this message, stating, “there are weapons and cars available and targets ready to be hit … kill them and spit in their faces and run over them with your cars.”
Jihadists who follow these instructions are not ‘lone wolf’ attackers, they are followers of a specific strategy and part of a global network.
The sooner we face the fact that ‘lone wolf’ attackers are a tactic rather than a phenomenon, the sooner we’ll understand the nature that we are up against: a global jihadist insurgency.