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Policing: Lone wolves behind computer screens

Policing: Lone wolves behind computer screens

Alone-wolf terrorist is one who commits violent acts in support of a group, a movement, or an ideology, but who does so alone, outside of any command structure and without material assistance from any group.

Counter terrorism experts always miss a heartbeat when it comes to what to do with lone wolves, because in the age of explosive content, bombings and killings are often birthed through the midwife of social media.

Organisations such as the millitant Islamic State (IS) group promote the lone wolf model of terrorism by design in an attempt to keep the police away from their command structure or their network. In case a lone wolf is arrested, for example, he or she will genuinely not know anything substantive about the organisation or the cause that they are trying to represent.

In an article published in Newsweek on Sept 13, 2015, Victoria Bekiempis quotes New York police commissioner William Bratton’s briefing to explain: “[IS] has embraced a diffuse, ‘lone wolf’ model, which encourages unaffiliated independent operators to do whatever damage they can with whatever is at hand ... This threat is decentralised and much harder to detect than threats orchestrated by Al-Qaeda. IS’s alarmingly effective messaging — as refined as anything found on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood — reaches marginalised, solitary actors. These are terrorists who largely operate outside the kind of command-and-control systems, or cells that we have learned to penetrate and dismantle.”

Why do terrorists adopt the lone wolf policy?

John A. Tures, professor of political science at the LaGrange College in Georgia, United States, argues: “In order to carry out their asymmetric warfare, terrorist organisations would need attackers beyond the normal network. Terrorists would seek to recruit such disgruntled individuals to the cause, and let them figure out how an attack could be carried out on their own. These terror groups sacrifice command-and-control power over these new followers. But, in theory, such new recruits could be harder to track and stop.”

Tures explains that terrorists are actually more likely to be made, not born. “We found that such lone attackers tend to be male, a little more likely to have more than a high school education, and have experienced a recent change, like a lost job, a broken relationship, a move to a new area, or something that altered one’s traditional life,” he explains.

Many studies surrounding the reasons behind the concept of lone-wolf terrorism (albeit in the West) unveil that too many checks, state-sponsored terrorism, strict policies of migration, unavailability of any local command structure due to pro-active policing have given birth to the emergence of internet-based groups that are living in geographically isolated and far away regions but using cyber connectivity to connect with each other.

Before the advent of official monitoring of online content (due to strict privacy policies), extremist ideologues managed to create their cyber clientele and preach to them, provide solutions to their grievances, and encouraging the formation of a mega cause to pursue.

By the time social media sites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others emerged, things became much clearer and very dangerous. The volatility of content gave birth to the age of explosive content which we are now living with.

One of the many leading trademarks of lone-wolf terrorists is that they reveal their plans long before committing an act of violence. Academic studies have unwrapped the idea that lone-wolves seek public attention and recognition of their cause in doing so. Researchers at different international forums have also disclosed that more than 80pc of lone wolf terrorists disclose publicly, and in advance, their plans to commit terrorism.

In the Oct 23, 2014 edition of Time magazine, Naina Bajekal mentions that terrorist Zehaf-Bibeau killed a Canadian soldier outside parliament in Ottawa. Then, a man named Martin Rouleau-Couture rammed his car into two military men, killing one. A month later, another man named Alton Nolen beheaded a co-worker in Nebraska.

Bajekal explains that all three men appeared to be recent converts to Islam and had “publicly shared their designs through email, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, podcasts and other social media ways.”

Another peculiarity of lone-wolves, according to researchers, is that they primarily target uniformed police and military personnel. In such attacks, high-velocity firearms are now the weapons of choice. Prior to 9/11, lone-wolf terrorists didn’t attack a single member of the US or even Pakistan military by design.

Cases such as the Boston marathon bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, or even the 9/11 attacks were said to be carried out by ‘lone wolves’. In 24 cases between 2013 and 2015, 22 were labelled ‘lone wolves’ even though only a third were actually involved a solitary attacker. This research coincides with evidence found from pre-2013 studies.

Bekiempis’ article, meanwhile, suggests that the New York police believe that the ‘lone-wolf’ type of potential attack “seems to be a more likely scenario” than the larger-scale attacks typically organised by Al Qaeda. This would include lone wolves inspired by IS.

Lone-wolves are the reality, not because of who makes them or how are they born, but because it is part of their strategy to keep terrorist activity preparations secret, unless this activity matures into a violent act, with a design to avoid police pre-emption.

The writer is a senior officer from the Police Service of Pakistan

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 14th, 2016

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