November 01, 2017
It’s far too early to say this attacker was a ‘lone wolf’
Within hours of the terror attack in Manhattan, Gov. Cuomo said “we have no evidence that today’s attack is part of a wider plot involving more than one individual.” He called the attacker a “lone wolf.” This kind of statement has become the obligatory instant response to almost any terrorist attack.
It is profoundly misleading, however. It perpetuates an inaccurate understanding of how attackers in the United States and Europe operate and how counterterrorism investigations work.
Proving a terrorist was part of a network or cell can be easy. Among other possibilities, first responders can find messages, as in the most recent attack, and sloppy attackers can leave traces on social media or personal devices that allow for swift confirmation.
Proving a negative is much harder and takes much longer. If the attacker better conceals his connections, investigators initially find nothing. That’s when officials often erroneously say there were no connections.
The investigation continues in the background, however, as officials search for many things including electronic devices, interview friends and families of the attackers when possible, explore social-media outlets for accounts not obviously traceable to the terrorist and obtain warrants to examine cellphone metadata.
That takes weeks and frequently turns up connections to terrorist groups — as Cuomo found last year after he initially said the Chelsea bomber had no international connections and had to retract that statement the next day. He may have to do so again, as investigators are already reporting that this attacker appears to have been in contact with others connected with terrorism investigations.
So, why do officials leap publicly to these conclusions? Some likely seek to allay fears of imminent follow-up attacks. That’s understandable, but it’s a dangerous response. One simply cannot know that quickly that more attacks aren’t planned.
Another impetus behind this now-almost-instinctive denial of foreign terror connections comes from the Obama administration’s intensive efforts to sustain the notion that it had defeated al Qaeda long after it had become apparent to careful analysts that it was not the case. This effort spawned the popular “lone wolf” thesis.
We’ve actually seen very few true “lone wolf” attacks — if by that we mean attacks by individuals with no meaningful connections to the global Salafi-jihadi movement. The San Bernardino attackers posted a pledge to ISIS and one of them had traveled to the Middle East before the attack. One of the Boston Marathon bombers had been in the Caucasus near an ISIS franchise before the attack.
We cannot yet prove ISIS or al Qaeda ordered, directed or funded these attacks, or even that the attackers were in contact with ISIS or al Qaeda officials during their trips. But the absence of proof is not proof of absence, and trips to an ISIS area should lead us to presume that there was a connection — not the opposite.
This matters because Americans must change the way they understand the terrorist threat at home. There will be an increasing number of people radicalized within the US, conducting attacks that are not directly ordered or controlled from overseas.
But those people are part of the global Salafi-jihadi movement. They take inspiration and strength from the perceived successes of ISIS and al Qaeda abroad. And, most of all, they are more than likely connected to cells within the US that are, in turn, connected to Salafi-jihadi leadership elsewhere.
Eliminating terrorist safe havens in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sahel will not end the problem of domestic terrorism. But allowing them to continue to flourish will unquestionably make it much worse. Safe havens give groups places to develop and transmit the messages that radicalize people in the West, as well as to perfect and propagate methods of carrying out attacks. They are, above all, evidence to those who seek it that these groups and their ideas can win.
. Rather than dismissing the most recent attack as yet another “self-radicalized lone wolf,” and thereby separating it from the global Salafi-jihadi problem, let’s take it as a call to reevaluate our overall approach to the problem and find more successful ways to ensure the security of the American people.