Emerging Threat of Lone Wolf Terrorism Requires Cold Rationality

Excerpts:

Al-Qaida does this because it has lost the ability to train terrorists and to plan and execute major attacks in the West. IS never had that capability, so encouraging lone wolf terrorism is all it can do to strike back at the West.

“Already the dominant threat in the Western countries is lone wolves,” Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Bloomberg News. “The norm in the Western nations, or Muslim-minority countries, is for self-radicalized actors to stage attacks.”

Unfortunately, emotion and shaky logic stand in the way of a coldly effective approach to lone wolf terrorism. Some political leaders and opinion shapers contend that IS’s call for lone wolf terrorism requires redoubled U.S. military action to eradicate the group. The problem is that the strategic benefits of doing this would pale in comparison to the costs. While it may be true that some small number of alienated, angry and mentally unbalanced killers will be moved to action by screeds and implorations from IS, this does not justify the massive costs of destroying it militarily, since that would almost certainly require a large scale U.S. military presence in western Iraq and eastern Syria for a very long time.

There is no doubt that lone wolf terrorism is an important and mounting threat. Police and intelligence services in the U.S. and other Western nations know that and are working to prevent it. Chances are, though, that they will fail at some point. It is simply too hard to identify every sociopath or mentally unbalanced wannabe militant inspired by Internet propaganda. So long as these terrorists do not acquire weapons of mass destruction, however, Americans should avoid expensive, counterproductive overreaction and recognize that lone wolf terrorism is a serious threat, but not one amenable to bombing or invading faraway regions.

Emerging Threat of Lone Wolf Terrorism Requires Cold Rationality

http://www. worldpoliticsreview.com/ articles/14707/emerging- threat-of-lone-wolf-terrorism- requires-cold-rationality

Police stand watch over flower tributes and messages written on the footpath outside the Lindt cafe in the central business district of Sydney, Australia, Dec. 17, 2014 (AP photo by Rob Griffith).

By Steven Metz, Dec. 19, 2014, Column

Following the 9/11 attacks, U.S. national security strategy focused with laser-like intensity on militant organizations that supported transnational terrorism, particularly al-Qaida. While it was never proven that al-Qaida’s sanctuary in Afghanistan was essential for the attacks, the connection between foreign sanctuary and terrorism became so deeply etched in the American psyche that eradicating militant sanctuaries, both real and theoretical, became an inextricable part of stopping transnational terrorism. Thus began what became known as the Global War on Terrorism.

As the United States and its allies pummeled al-Qaida in the ensuing years, support for transnational terrorism shifted from that organization’s core in its Pakistani sanctuary to its franchises in places like Yemen. But at the same time a new danger emerged: violence undertaken by individuals or small groups who were inspired by al-Qaida and its ilk, but without direct ties to the militant organizations. This became known as “lone wolf terrorism.”

Both al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State (IS) now implore their sympathizers to attack civilian and military targets in the West. “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European-especially the spiteful and filthy French-or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be,” said IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani in a September video. “Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military.”

Al-Qaida does this because it has lost the ability to train terrorists and to plan and execute major attacks in the West. IS never had that capability, so encouraging lone wolf terrorism is all it can do to strike back at the West.

“Already the dominant threat in the Western countries is lone wolves,” Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Bloomberg News. “The norm in the Western nations, or Muslim-minority countries, is for self-radicalized actors to stage attacks.”

Since 2009, lone wolf terrorists have murdered 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, and 7 people in Toulouse, France. A number of victims were killed or mutilated by the Boston Marathon bombings. Two Canadian soldiers were shot and killed. This week, two hostages died during a lone wolf terrorist attack in Sydney, Australia.

All signs, then, are that lone wolf terrorism poses a growing threat. The involvement of Westerners-including Americans in the Syrian civil war, some with IS-will make it even worse. This has major implications for U.S. national security policy.

Unfortunately, emotion and shaky logic stand in the way of a coldly effective approach to lone wolf terrorism. Some political leaders and opinion shapers contend that IS’s call for lone wolf terrorism requires redoubled U.S. military action to eradicate the group. The problem is that the strategic benefits of doing this would pale in comparison to the costs. While it may be true that some small number of alienated, angry and mentally unbalanced killers will be moved to action by screeds and implorations from IS, this does not justify the massive costs of destroying it militarily, since that would almost certainly require a large scale U.S. military presence in western Iraq and eastern Syria for a very long time.

If anything, such a military presence would inspire more lone wolf terrorists rather than deterring sociopaths already inclined toward it. After all, such killers do not depend on direct support from militant organizations, but are driven by their ideas and propaganda. The U.S. military can destroy an organization, but not the ideas that fuel it. If the U.S. disregards the price and militarily crushes IS, the group’s barbaric and vile ideas will simply move along and take root somewhere else.

As Americans and the citizens of other Western nations debate the role of lone wolf terrorism in their security policy, they should also remember that its strategic significance, like all terrorism, depends less on what the terrorists do than on how the nations that are attacked react. In other words, the strategic significance of lone wolf terrorism is determined less by the terrorists than by the political leaders and opinion-shapers in the targeted nations.

The Australian reaction to the Sydney attacks has been exemplary. There has been no panicked overreaction, no calls for sending additional Australian military forces to Iraq and no surge in hostility toward Muslims. Quite the opposite, in fact. Because of this calm approach, the attack was a national tragedy for Australia but strategically insignificant. The same was true of the Canadian reaction to its lone wolf terrorist attacks. Americans should learn from this.

Unfortunately, the U.S. faces an impediment that Australia, Canada and other nations seem to have avoided: The hyper-partisanship paralyzing U.S. national security policy makes it difficult for political leaders to approach lone wolf terrorism with a cold rationality, and instead pushes them toward overreaction and militarized solutions. Any future president inclined to resist calls to bomb something in response to a lone wolf terrorist attack would pay a high political price, and thus might opt for a politically expedient overreaction.

There is no doubt that lone wolf terrorism is an important and mounting threat. Police and intelligence services in the U.S. and other Western nations know that and are working to prevent it. Chances are, though, that they will fail at some point. It is simply too hard to identify every sociopath or mentally unbalanced wannabe militant inspired by Internet propaganda. So long as these terrorists do not acquire weapons of mass destruction, however, Americans should avoid expensive, counterproductive overreaction and recognize that lone wolf terrorism is a serious threat, but not one amenable to bombing or invading faraway regions.

Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.

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