A recent series of attacks in the U.S. and Canada have renewed national conversation about the danger of lone wolf terrorism: Attacks undertaken by individuals acting entirely on their own, without belonging to an organized extremist group, terrorist group or cell.
When extremists plan and execute attacks alone, as individuals, there are far fewer opportunities for law enforcement to detect the attacks in advance and they are much more difficult to prevent. Consequently, “lone wolf” actions tend to be more deadly.
There is increasing speculation that the rise of online terrorist propaganda from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other foreign terrorist groups – and its increasing sophistication – may contribute to such attacks.
ISIS, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and other groups have called on Americans, Canadians and other westerners to self-radicalize and commit lone wolf attacks against their home countries.
In September, a speech released by ISIS told supporters, “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the…French – or an Australian, or a Canadian…kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military…” One of the suggested methods of attack was to “run him [the Westerner] over with your car.”
In August, AQAP issued an English-language magazine, which stated that the U.S. “needs several more attacks inside and outside its territories. This could be done by a Mujahid group or a lone Mujahid,” and provided updated instructions for building pressure cooker bombs and car bombs. Such sentiments have been a feature of AQAP’s English-language propaganda for years.
Moreover, exposure to violent images combined with the incitement of terrorist propaganda may provide the necessary rationale to lead individuals with violent tendencies – and sometimes unstable behavior – over the tipping point towards violence. And in providing that rationale, terrorist propaganda may also direct the violence, leading to a higher likelihood of attacks against law enforcement, authority figures, or other symbolic targets.
Zale Thompson’s alleged attack against NY police officers and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's alleged attack on the Canadian Parliament provide examples of this new type of lone wolf: Individuals with some degree of upset and instability who buy into the framework of terrorist propaganda to the extent that they undertake acts of violence.
Thompson, for example, was rumored to be depressed and suffering from drug abuse. He was angry about what he perceived as oppression of blacks in the U.S. In his embrace of radical Islam, he read and wrote about “holy war” and beheadings, and googled the phrase “jihad against police,” according to law enforcement sources. He also looked up information on the two Canadian attacks before allegedly attempting to kill the police officers.
Less is known about Martin Rouleau-Couture, the man who allegedly ran over two soldiers in Canada last week, but he, too, apparently engaged with extremist propaganda online and praised ISIS on his Facebook page.
Lone wolves aren’t the only ones who respond to online incitement. A majority of the American citizens who attempt to join foreign terrorist groups abroad or to work on their behalf at home have been influenced by it to some extent – apparently including the three teenage girls from Denver who allegedly attempted to join ISIS last week.