Grass roots more menacing than lone wolves

In examining aspects of leaderless resistance as manifested by the jihadist movement, Scott Stewart calls for a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon and the threat it poses.

Al-Qaeda and Islamic State leaders are calling for grassroots jihadists to conduct more strikes in the West, so we anticipate that additional attacks will be forthcoming. In fact, the past 11 months have been the most active in terms of grassroots jihadist activity since jihadist leaders first began to heavily promote the leaderless resistance operational model in 2009.
Many have referred to the perpetrators of these attacks as lone wolves, a term bandied about in the media. But it is a critical mistake to assume that the leaderless resistance model is synonymous with lone wolf attacks. Certainly lone wolves are one component of leaderless resistance terrorist theory, but they are not the most dangerous aspect. The threat presented by grassroots cells far overshadows that posed by lone wolves.

Leaderless resistance theory

Right-wing groups in the United States began to seriously promote leaderless resistance in the late 1980s after the Fort Smith Arkansas Sedition Trial revealed how far law enforcement had penetrated their ranks. The idea behind leaderless resistance-formally expressed by ideologues such as William Pierce, Richard Kelly Hoskins and Louis Beam-was to have a two-part structure that could help the groups combat and ultimately defeat government efforts.

One tier would be the public ‘organs of information’, which would distribute information. Members of the organs of information were not to conduct any illegal activities so that the government could not justifiably arrest them. They would take advantage of free speech to outline strategy and to identify potential targets. The second tier would be composed of individual operators (lone wolves) and small phantom cells, which would conduct attacks based on the strategy and guidance published by the first tier. These people were to keep a low profile and remain anonymous, with no traceable connections to the above-ground activists. It was through an air gap, to steal a network security term, that they could insulate the two tiers from each other and make it far more difficult for law enforcement agencies to track operatives, map networks and thwart attacks.

Following the success of the 9/11 attacks, jihadists struggled to land their much anticipated and oft threatened follow-on attack. Because of this, jihadist theorists such as Abu Musab al-Suri began to promote the leaderless resistance model for jihadists in late 2004. In 2009, the call to leaderless resistance was adopted by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and in the wake of the Fort Hood shooting, the al-Qaeda core.

Though some jihadist ideologues such as Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki began by carefully skirting the boundaries of the US First Amendment, as had American white supremacists, it was not long before law enforcement pressure drove them overseas to places such as Yemen. The idea was still to provide a gap between ideologues like al-Awlaki and grassroots operatives to increase operational security, although the gap has not always been absolute. There have been cases where grassroots operatives have had contact with the high-profile jihadists who helped inspire and radicalise them: such was the case with grassroots operative Nidal Malik Hasan, who had direct contact with jihadist leader al-Awlaki. But in general, it is clear that jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, have widely embraced the leaderless resistance model. It is equally clear that grassroots operatives have become the most probable threat in the West. (Attacks by professional terrorist cadres are still the most severe threat to the West, even though such an attack is less likely to occur than grassroots attacks.)

There is danger, however, in the assumption that the leaderless resistance threat stemming from jihadist grassroots operatives is confined to just the lone wolf threat. Grassroots terror cells, which operate under the same logic but promote a slightly more collaborative approach, are a vital and dangerous part of the leaderless resistance model that must not be overlooked.

Beyond the lone wolf threat

FAILURE TO LAUNCH: After 9/11, jihadists struggled to carry out their oft threatened follow-on attack
FAILURE TO LAUNCH: After 9/11, jihadists struggled to carry out their oft threatened follow-on attack

As I have noted in the past, it takes a very special person to be a successful lone wolf terrorist because the individual not only has to self-radicalise but also has to conduct every step of the terrorist planning process alone. This requires a lot of skill and discipline and explains why we see so few lone wolves. The limitations of individual jihadists also explain why so many individuals have reached out to government informants looking for help in acquiring weapons or explosives.

But by operating as a cell, a group of individuals can help overcome their individual limitations. They can motivate and encourage each other and use their individual strengths and abilities for the benefit of the whole. Moreover, they can operate as a fire team-or even multiple fire teams to attack multiple targets-even when conducting simple attacks using firearms.

We have seen such small jihadist cells operate in the past, as with the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, or the Kouachi brothers and their associate, Amedy Coulibaly, in Paris. In both cases, the employment of multiple actors and various crime scenes resulted in massive disruptions to the cities where they occurred, posing significant challenges to the police. These cases highlight the threat that grassroots cells pose. Law enforcement and security personnel need to prepare for complex scenarios, such as two or three simultaneous active shooter scenes at different soft targets in geographically distant sectors of the same jurisdiction, or multiple sequential attacks.

IN BROTHERS IN ARMS: Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan (l) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were an example of a small jihadist cell
IN BROTHERS IN ARMS: Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan (l) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were an example of a small jihadist cell

Unfortunately, law enforcement has a history of responding to emerging and changing threats only after a disastrous case, such as the 1986 Platt and Matix shooting in Miami, which resulted in the deaths of two FBI special agents and the wounding of four others, or the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout, in which two heavily armed-and armoured-bank robbers wounded 11 police officers. But the threat of grassroots jihadist cells is not a secret, and there is no reason to wait for a watershed event to act pre-emptively. There are not only examples of cellular organisations out there, but jihadists who have noted the limits of lone wolf attacks, calling for grassroots jihadists to operate in cells or gangs.

In one e-book published earlier this year, titled Muslim Gangs: The Future of Muslims in the West, the author wrote, ‘The aim of this book is to give Muslims a starting point on how to make their own gangs and grow them into a Jihadi movement which can recruit and become a force of strength in the West.’ Now, while much of the practical operational guidance provided in the book is amateurish, as it is in the author’s other e-book, How to Survive in the West, it is nonetheless significant that he has realised the strength that comes from working as an organised group. And he certainly is not alone. In January, authorities in Europe arrested a number of operatives they claim were planning to conduct multiple attacks against an array of soft targets.

The disruption and panic caused by the prolonged incidents in Boston and Paris, or even the single shooter in Ottawa, could be multiplied significantly if a city was to be hit by an assault with multiple gunmen working as a fire team or by multiple fire teams conducting simultaneous attacks, as seen in Mumbai. Sequenced attacks against different soft targets in one city or across the country could also have a tremendous psychological impact. However, such tactics are not new, or particularly remarkable outside of the West. Jihadists frequently conduct attacks involving multiple fire teams on the battlefield in places like Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Somalia, and fighters trained in these places are returning to the West.

Governments will continue to be able to thwart many of the attacks planned by grassroots lone operators and small cells before they can be launched, but inevitably some of these attacks will succeed. Police departments and security personnel need to be prepared to deal with them. Multiple shooters working as a fire team and even situations involving multiple active shooters can be countered or mitigated, but police agencies and security personnel in the West need to be prepared, as do their populations.

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