ATbar Lone Wolf Terrorism and Open Source Jihad: An Explanation and Assessment
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Lone Wolf Terrorism and Open Source Jihad: An Explanation and Assessment

17/08/2016 | by Wiskind, Claire  

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Lone wolf terrorism is exceedingly difficult to detect and therefore prevent.  The attackers are usually citizens of the country that they are attacking, so they cannot easily be traced or stopped at borders.  They are able to carry out their attacks with readily available materials, from purchasing a gun to creating a rather simple bomb out of materials that can be bought at a hardware store with little suspicion.  If a country wanted to eradicate lone wolf terrorism, it would need to completely eliminate the sale of goods such as guns, fireworks, nails, pressure cookers, lead pipes, Christmas lights, and matches.  And even then, those committed to carrying out a lone attack would just have to get a little bit more creative or acquire the necessary materials on the black market.

 This paper focuses on radical Islamist lone wolf terror attacks, particularly those inspired by Al Qaeda and Daesh[1], which follow the pattern of attacks outlined in Al Qaeda’s “Open Source Jihad” in their magazine, Inspire.  One of the greatest challenges when combatting and preventing radical Islamist lone wolf attacks is that it is a challenge of combatting ideology rather than a force of ground troops.  Western powers fighting against radical Islamist terror organizations, can beat them back from territory, block their funding, and imprison all of their leaders, cutting them off from all outside communication, and still lone wolf terror attacks would occur.  This is in part due to the lack of outside demand and hierarchy characteristic of lone wolf attacks.  There is no chain of command through which to track these soldiers of leaderless jihad.  There is no cable to be intercepted telling them where, when, and how to attack.  This is self-directed terror in the name of a global ideological movement that is nearly impossible to track or identify until they strike.

Lone wolf terrorists operate individually, without belonging to an organized terror group or network.  Their attacks are “conceived and directed by the individual without any direct command or hierarchy.”[2]  While lone wolf attackers can, and often do, identify with the ideology of a particular terror organization, they do not collaborate on their attacks with these organizations.  Similarly, a lone wolf terrorist may have contact with members of an established terror organization but those members do not have any influence in orchestrating the lone actor’s attack.  For example, there is evidence that Nidal Hassan, the perpetrator of the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, had been in email correspondence with Anwar al Awlaki of Al Qaeda, but showed no direct sign of terrorist intent in these emails.  Rather it appears that this correspondence strengthened Hassan’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his inclination towards Al Qaeda’s ideology.[3]  This case appears to follow the common pattern of radicalization attributed to lone wolf terrorists where personal grievances, in Hassan’s case his opposition to America’s wars abroad and forcing Muslim soldiers to fight in them, are bolstered by a connection to online sympathizers, Hassan’s communication with al Awlaki, that pushes someone from disaffected individual to lone wolf terrorist.[4]  Within this vein, there are also lone wolves and lone wolf packs: lone wolves are a pair who radicalize and carry out an attack together and a lone wolf pack is a small group of individuals who self-radicalize with the jihadist narrative and carry out an attack.[5]

Lone wolf terrorists pose a unique threat compared to established terror organizations in that they are incredibly difficult to identify before they strike, posing a major security threat across the globe.[6]  Scholars and policy makers alike tend to view terrorism as a collective, group activity and therefore focus on the group dynamics and collective socialization in analyzing the planning and execution of terror attacks.  Lone wolf terrorists, on the other hand, “may identify or sympathize with extremist movements but, by definition, do not form part of these movements” themselves.[7]  One of the major advantages in leaderless resistance is that jihadists can seriously disrupt the functions of a community or state without having to resort to the scale of 9/11-style attacks in order to be effective; smaller attacks have proven to still be psychologically devastating on the population.[8]  Furthermore, they are not concerned with alienating supporters in the same way that terror organizations are.[9]

Historically, lone wolves had fewer physical, financial, and intellectual resources, so they were less capable of planning and carrying out complex attacks.[10]  This means that lone wolfs tended to use firearms as their weapon of choice, particularly in the US due to the ease of access there.[11]  Financial resources are no longer such a major constraint; as will be shown later in this paper, a terror attack can effectively be carried out with a few thousand dollars in supplies.  With the advent of the internet, intellectual resources are readily available for the would-be terrorist to both promote radicalized ideologies and to receive instruction on how to carry out attacks, from advice on how to avoid detection by the authorities to step-by-step instructions on how to build a bomb with easily available materials that will not raise suspicion.

In 2008 the United States government launched “Operation Vigilant Eagle” in response to “an increase in recruitment, threatening communications, and weapons procurement” by extremist groups, white supremacists and militia/sovereign citizen extremist groups within the US.[12]  A lone wolf initiative was later added in an attempt to identify potential lone attackers before they can act violently.  The prevalence of lone wolf terrorism is not limited to radical Islamism, but is also prominent among white supremacists, such as Anders Breivik of Norway, and anti-abortion activists.  Lone wolves often broadcast their intent through statements, threats, letters, and video proclamations and can potentially be identified from these declarations.[13] 

The challenge that law enforcement officers face in this respect is two-fold.  First, these declarations are often made during or shortly before the attacks.  Sixteen minutes into her attack at a community center in San Bernardino, California, Tashfeen Malik posted on Facebook “We pledge allegiance to Khalifa bu bkr al baghdadi al quarishi”, referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh.[14]  While this declaration of allegiance aids authorities in investigating the motivation of this attack, it does little to help them apprehend the assailants before they could carry out their attack.  The second challenge is a question of free speech.  Merely posting on a social media site that one agrees with Daesh or Al Qaeda’s ideologies or reading their magazines is not enough to indict an individual in most countries.  In a notable exception, possession of Al Qaeda’s Inspire has led to prosecutions in the UK under the Terrorism Acts.[15]  Authorities tread carefully around the line between free speech and threats of terror, producing overcrowded and therefore largely ineffective watch lists.[16]  Indeed, the US’ Terrorist Identities and Datamart Environment (TIDE) had 1.1 million people listed as of 2015.  Cherif and Said Kouachi, who attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015, were on the American terror watch list for years, and known to have travelled to Yemen where they may have received training from Al Qaeda. [17]   No mechanism to monitor potential lone wolf terrorists can be invariably successful in preventing attacks, but a reevaluation and restructuring of terror watch lists and sharing of these lists among countries may be necessary to counter the threat of increasingly mobile lone wolf terrorists.  Sharing such information among law enforcement agencies and states is also vital when monitoring those who access and publish jihadist materials online.  While viewing these materials themselves is not illegal, it may give authorities an indication of impending threats. This paper seeks to explain and assess Open Source Jihad as presented by Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine and how adherents of radical Islamist organizations, Al Qaeda and Daesh in particular, have carried out these methods of attack.  First Al Qaeda and Daesh’s English language magazines will be explained as recruitment tools that encourage lone attacks and the use of Open Source Jihad.  Ten Open Source Jihad operations will be explained with examples given of their execution where possible.  Finally, the measures taken by Western governments to prevent lone wolf attacks using these methods will be discussed including an assessment of the threat presented by the easy online availability of Open Source Jihad.



[1] Also referred to as the Islamic State (IS), Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL)

[2] Ramon Spaaij, “The Enigma of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 33 (2010): 856.

[3] Ramon Spaaij, “The Enigma of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 33 (2010): 857.

[4] Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaij, “Lone Wolf Terrorism in America: Using Knowledge of Radicalization Pathways to Forge Prevention Strategies,” Report for the U.S. Department of Justice, February 2015, 2.

[5] Raffaello Pantucci, “A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists,” Developments in Radicalization and Political Violence, (2011): 44-45.

[6] Jeffrey D. Simon, “Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding a Growing Threat,” in Lone Actors – An Emerging Security Threat, ed. Aaron Richman and Yair Sharan (Amsterdam: IOS Press BV, 2015), 3-7.

[7] Ramon Spaaij, “The Enigma of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 33 (2010):856-857.

[8] Geroge Michael, Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012), 3.

[9] Jeffrey D. Simon, “Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding a Growing Threat,” in Lone Actors – An Emerging Security Threat, ed. Aaron Richman and Yair Sharan (Amsterdam: IOS Press BV, 2015), 4.

[10] Michael Becher, “Explaining Lone Wolf Target Selection in the United States,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 37 (2014): 962.

[11] Michael Becher, “Explaining Lone Wolf Target Selection in the United States,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 37 (2014): 970

[12] Gary Fields and Evan Perez, “ FBI Seeks to Target Lone Extremists,” The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2009, accessed June 13, 2016,  http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124501849215613523 

[13] Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaij, “Lone Wolf Terrorism in America: Using Knowledge of Radicalization Pathways to forge Prevention Strategies,” The U.S. Department of Justice, February 2015, 9.

[14]  Pamela Engel, “Here’s the ISIS message the female San Bernardino shooter posted on Facebook during the attack,” Business Insider, December 17, 2015, accessed June 14, 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/isis-message-tashfeen-malik-posted-on-facebook-during-attack-2015-12 

[15] Ian Black, “Inspire magazine: the self-help manual for al-Qaida terrorists,” The Guardian, May 24, 2011, accessed June 14, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/may/24/inspire-magazine-self-help-manual-al-qaida-terrorists 

[16]“Questions raised about effectiveness of terror watch-list,” Homeland Security News Wire, October 25, 2007, accessed June 14, 2016. http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/questions-raised-about-effectiveness-terror-watch-list 

[17] Coleen Rowley, “Visa Waiver Program Has Sam Weak Links; Mass Surveillance and Terrorist Watchlisting Don’t Work,” Huffington Post, December 3, 2015, accessed June 14, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/coleen-rowley/visa-waiver-program-has-t_b_8710714.html 

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