Separating the Lone Wolf from the Pack

July 30, 2015
Separating the Lone Wolf from the Pack
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

The 16 July shooting in Tennessee, a state in the United States south, captured the attention of US political leaders and opinion shapers and of their American audiences, causing many to connect it with ongoing crises in the Middle East.  Meanwhile, on the same day, over 100 Iraqis celebrating Eid al-Fitr were killed by a Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL) car-bomb.   It should prove helpful to examine these incidents—representative of two categories of terrorist violence—because through discerning similarities and differences, effective strategies can be considered and implemented.  The “lone wolf” is often characterized as the tip of a long spear emanating from and controlled by larger parent terrorist organizations far away.  This characterization exaggerates the control enjoyed by the terrorist groups that may inspire such attacks.  In reality, little control or support is necessary, making the lone wolf attack difficult to detect and disrupt.  Conflating categorically separate kinds of terrorist violence risks the misapplication of counter-terror measures.


The Lone Wolf

On 16 July, 2015, the last day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muhammad Yussif Abdulazeez fatally shot five US military personnel and wounded two others before he was killed by police.  He targeted two separate US military facilities: a recruiting station in a shopping mall, and a reserve Navy and Marine Corps station.  Abdulazeez was Kuwaiti born, held Jordanian travel documents, and was a naturalized citizen of the United States.  He moved to the United States with his family as a very young boy in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  Having attended high-school and university in Tennessee, he has been described as perfectly normal, a popular student-athlete, with no particular proclivities that could label him as “extremist.”  His parents have been called “religiously conservative;” his mother divorced his father in 2009 on accusations of mental, physical and sexual abuse of herself and their children.  His father reportedly disapproved of Abdulazeez’ wrestling and mixed martial-arts fighting as being “un-Islamic.”  He is known to have travelled to Jordan and possibly Yemen in 2014, staying several months in the region.

Days before his shooting spree, he started an online blog on understanding his faith.  He posted just two short pieces.  In one of them he wrote,

“We often talk about the Sahaba (RA)[1] and their Ibada.  We talk about their worshiping at night, making thikr, reading quran, fasting, sala. But did you ever notice that in one certain period towards the end of the lives of the Sahaba (RA), almost every one of the Sahaba (RA) was a political leader or an army general?  Every one of them fought Jihad for the sake of Allah…We ask Allah to make us follow their path.  To give us a complete understanding of the message of Islam, and the strength the live by this knowledge, and to know what role we need to play to establish Islam in the world.”[2]

In the second article posted, he describes his life on Earth as a prison, quoting the Hadith, “Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “‘The world is a prison for the believer and a paradise for the unbeliever.’”  Abdulazeez allegorically instructs his readers that in this “Prison Called Dunya” they will be tested; how well they respond to that test determines whether they can go free or if they will continue their imprisonment under even worse conditions.  In his story, prisoners are given a manual to study in preparation for the test; he concludes the story by exhorting that, “Anyone who chooses to indulge in the activities around them and spend part or none of their time studying would surely live the rest of their life in remorse.”  US law-enforcement investigators have reported that Abudulazeez conducted Internet searches on “martyrdom” in Islam as recently as the day before his shooting spree.

Since it is impossible to ask Abdulazeez to clarify what he meant by these posts, one is left to interpret the words as they are.  Taken together it appears that he is arguing that the best life is spent working in the present day for rewards in the hereafter.  He points out that the Sahaba “had to make sacrifices in their lives and some even left all their wealth to make hijrah to Medina,” in order to, “establish Islam and live it.”  According to Abdulazeez, one should follow their example and be dedicated to the faith, taking responsibilities and bearing any cost to do what is expected.  Anything else is wasteful, corrupting, and will eventually, at the time of reckoning, mean one’s eternal damnation and suffering.  Most importantly, everyone should expect to be tested through an external evaluation of one’s life and worthiness of reward.  There is nothing particularly foreboding or “radical” in these statements.  They are the words of a pious person intent on doing right according to his creed.

It is certainly possible that Abdulazeez could have carried out this attack with little or no planning or support, and could have done so in support of violent jihad against the United States, inspired by any number of online sources of radical Islamist propaganda or during his extended trip to the Middle East.  It appears likely that this assessment will eventually be confirmed.  Clearly, Abdulazzeez struggled to reconcile a typical American young person’s secular lifestyle with his family’s faith, reportedly referring to himself as an “Arabian redneck.”  The same man who warns his blog readers against indulging in worldly distractions himself smoked marijuana and was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in April 2015.

Several so-called “lone wolf” attacks have been perpetrated over the past several years, and their frequency seems to be increasing.  What can be learned from them, and what place do they hold in the context of the larger terrorism threat?

British soldier Lee Rigby was beheaded with a machete by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in broad daylight in London on 22 May 2013.  Both assailants were British citizens of Nigerian decent, raised as Christians, and had converted to Islam.  While still at the crime scene, covered in the victim’s blood, one of the attackers explained why they had committed the violence, while the other recorded the message on a small digital video camera:

“We swear by Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you.  The only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day.  This British soldier is an eye for an eye a tooth for tooth.”

Both men were convicted of murder and are currently in a British prison.  Similarly, the two young men of Chechen origins who were responsible for bombing the Boston Marathon in April of 2013 were raised in the United States and by most accounts were popular students with many friends, and were not particularly religious or violent.  Saif al-Deen al-Rezgui, the twenty-four year-old college student who murdered more than thirty tourists relaxing at a beach-side resort in Tunisia on 26 June, 2015, was also very much like Abdulazeez.  Rezqui reportedly loved hip-hop music, was a dancer, drank alcohol, and, though religious, he was a person with whom people could disagree in a reasonable discussion.  He allegedly trained with the Daesh linked group who attacked the Bardo museum in Tunis, 19 March 2015.  After the attack, Daesh claimed responsibility for it and posted a photograph of Rezgui with an assault rifle.

Common among these attacks:  1.) The perpetrators acted alone, or with one other, with very little or no direct material support from a larger organization.  2.) No significant planning was evident or much training necessary and the attackers used readily available, easy-to-use weapons.  3.) There was limited recruitment or radicalization; none of these attackers raised any significant psychological “red-flags” prior to their attack, which is consistent with current research.[3]  The nature of these attacks reinforces current assessments that the preferred tools of terrorists will continue to be simple to use, require little training, and readily accessible.[4]


The Lone Wolf in Context

Meanwhile, the same day Abdulazeez killed five US service members in Tennessee, a massive car bomb killed over 100 Iraqi Shia celebrating Eid al-Fitr; the same day, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack.  Just three days later a Daesh suicide bomber killed over two dozen university students and injured more than 100 in Suruc, Turkey.  The students had gathered to volunteer to help rebuild the town of Kobane, Syria.  The victims of these acts of violence represent the near-by objectives of organizations like Daesh: the elimination of Shia Muslims whom they view as apostates, and to utterly destroy anyone bold enough to thwart or oppose their dark and distorted vision for the world; they are engaged in mass-slaughter at levels previously unseen; genocide is the means to remaking the world.  In this context, the lone wolves, inspired by genocidal wars fought far away, are but one narrowly focused element in the changing nature of modern terrorism.

Daesh and groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabab represent a qualitatively different threat from previous terror organizations.  This “fifth wave” of modern terrorism[5] is typified by their zealous, uncompromising pursuit of re-creating former glories—real or imagined—and the utter destruction of everything that doesn’t conform to their vision.[6]  The fifth wave of terrorism has been described as a “virtual community of hatred,” relying on the same technological advances used so effectively in the 2011 “Arab Spring.”  Online propagandists employ technologically sophisticated media campaigns to create attractive and effective messages that are easily accessible on common social media platforms.  Others have said that the fifth wave of terrorism is born out of pre-existing religious extremist movements, carries along their dogmas and intolerance, incorporates local socio-political realities, and moves to realize its religious ideal in this lifetime.  For these groups,

“killing on a massive scale is not only condoned, it is a desired means to a glorified end.  After a time, such wholesale slaughter ceases to have meaning to the killers or message content to their various audiences.  It simply becomes a way of life.”[7]

There is something quantitatively different about these groups, too.  The so-called “Islamic State,” operating as the Islamic State in Iraq and now as ISIS/ISIL or Daesh, has killed over 12,500 people in seven years.  Boko Haram and al-Shabab have killed nearly 15,000 in seven years.  That is more than four times the number killed than the eight most violent Palestinian terrorist groups combined, operating for over forty-four years.  On an annual basis, Daesh and its predecessor have killed over 1,700; Boko Haram and al-Shabab over 2,100.   The most lethal Palestinian groups combined killed seventy-four people annually; the Irish Republican Army killed sixty-five per year.  Even notoriously lethal groups such as the Tamil Tigers and the Shining Path killed just over 300 people per year during their thirty-five years in operation.[8]

The “lone wolves” capture the attention of Western audiences, who are reminded that terrorism can be local.  Though inspired and encouraged by the jihad waged far away, they must be considered categorically separate from the violence wrought by groups like Daesh, Boko Haram, or the contemporary affiliates of al-Qaeda.  The lone wolf attacker can increasingly be recruited and launched entirely independently by tapping in to a virtual community of hatred.  Needing no formal training or indoctrination, employing ready-to-hand weapons, these attacks are difficult if not impossible to discover and disrupt; therefore, we should expect them to occasionally occur as long as the sources of inspiration remain.  Stopping lone wolf attacks requires the application of technological counter-efforts to make on-line jihadis less effective and their message less attractive.  The comparatively massive levels of violence perpetrated by groups like the pseudo-state Daesh require aggressive military confrontation, diplomatic cooperation, and persistent, effective containment.  Together these may represent new challenges to the counter-terror mission, but they must be properly categorized and require wholly different responses.

[1]. “Sahaba” refers to the original companions of the Prophet Muhammad; (RA) represents the Arabic phrase meaning “may Allah be pleased with him” customarily written with any mention of a companion of Muhammad.

[2]. Spelling, punctuation and emphasis is the original author’s

[3]. Jerrold, M, C. McGinnis, and K. Moody, “The Changing Face of Terrorism in the 21st Century: The Communications Revolution and the Virtual Community of Hatred,” 32 Behavioral Sciences and the Law, (2014) p. 307

[4]. Rapoport, D, 2004.  “Modern Terror: The Four Waves,” in Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Audry Cronin and J. Ludes, editors.  Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

[5]. Building on the four-wave model of David Rapoport.  2004.  “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism,” in Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes, Eds. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

[6]. Celso, Anthony N.  2015.  “The Islamic State and Boko Haram: Fifth Wave Jihadist Terror Groups.”  Orbis, Spring 2015.

[7]. Kaplan, Jeffery.  2010.  Terrorist Groups and the New Tribalism: Terrorism’s Fifth Wave.  New York: Routledge.

[8]. Data taken from the Global Terrorism Database, University of Maryland, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism;