Lone-Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

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This threat has become an increasing concern for law enforcement thanks in large part to Inspire, an online magazine produced by Al Qaeda, which routinely encourages exactly that kind of behavior from Muslims in the United States and other countries around the world by featuring such articles as “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” and detailed instructions for the care and operation of an AK-47 assault rifle.

The lone wolf scenario is so frightening because all of the usual windows of opportunity for security and intelligence officials to become of aware of and interdict the plot are smaller in scope and narrower in time span.

Consider the timeline of a “normal” Islamist terror attack. Muslims sympathetic to Al Qaeda’s cause are radicalized and are encouraged or take it upon themselves to travel to areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia or other places where AQ has successfully established training camps. Over a period of months the subjects receive intensive indoctrination in Islamist ideology, weapons training, bomb-making, terror tactics and other important terrorist skills.  When their training is completed they are released back into the world. New identities or travel papers may have been prepared for travel to their target countries. Reconnaissance may begin on selected targets and money may be transferred to the terrorists to keep them operational. The weapons for the attack must be acquired, prepared and possibly tested before the terror attack can begin.

A good example of this sort of timeline is the attempt to bomb the New York City subway by Najibullah Zazi. Zazi traveled to Pakistan will several fellow Muslims in August of 2008 with the intention of joining the Taliban but was instead recruited by Al Qaeda and trained for U.S. operations. He returned to the United States in mid-January of the following year. Zazi became a member of an active cell of terrorist operatives and communicated with them — communications which U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials were able to intercept. Zazi began researching bomb-making materials in June and began purchasing critical materials in August. He conducted tests in late August and early September. Then he drove to New York City where he became aware of FBI and police surveillance.  In a panic, he fled back to his home in Denver and was arrested. From recruitment to (failed) execution took slightly more than a year.

Consider in comparison the case of the 1993 shooting outside the Langley offices of the CIA, when Mir Aimal Kansi, a Pakistani native, opened fire on a line of parked cars waiting to enter America’s intelligence headquarters. Kansi quickly killed two people and wounded three others before fleeing to Pakistan.  Kansi had resided in the United States since 1991. He had acquired the AK-47 automatic rifle with which he committed the crime through an ordinary gun store only three days prior to the shooting. The gun store owner later said that Kansi appeared unfamiliar with the weapon and had to be instructed how to assemble and disassemble it. It is unclear when exactly Kansi was radicalized, but when he was finally arrested in Pakistan in 2002, he claimed to have had “friends among the Taliban” and to have shaken hands with Osama Bin Laden. He told investigators that he wanted to strike at the United States for its “Pro-Israel, Anti-Muslim” policies.

With an unclear period of radicalization and only three days from acquiring the weapon to the attack, the time frame for law enforcement to discover and capture a “lone wolf” like Mir Aimal Kansi is too short.  Law enforcement had only two very brief chances to become aware of the lone wolf. Early during his radicalization before he had, in fact, committed any crime and during the time he acquired the weapon. In fact, Kansi had committed a crime by illegally purchasing a firearm since Kansi was not an American citizen and was thus prohibited from purchasing a firearm.  Still that crime took place only three days before the attack.

Not much to go on.

Even less so, in the North Carolina case of Reza Taheri-azar, a UNC-Chapel Hill student and Iranian immigrant who ran over 9 people in a rented sports utility vehicle selected for that deadly purpose. Fortunately no one was killed. Taheri-azar later told police that he wanted to, “avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world,” and told the judge during his trial that he was “thankful you’re here to give me this trial and to learn more about the will of Allah.” Up until the point Taheri-azar put his foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake he had committed no crime. What chance did law enforcement have of interdicting such an attempt?

Only during radicalization, when the attacker has been exposed to and internalized an Islamist worldview which encourages violent and murderous jihad, is there any chance to intercept such a plot before it is executed.

Perhaps a strategy which educated law enforcement and security officials on the nature of the Islamist ideology, its language, heroes and ideologues and its history and methods might prove a worthwhile endeavor. For instance, if that had been done, perhaps more attention would have been paid to Dr. Nidal Malik Hassan.  The Fort Hood shooter killed thirteen and wounded almost thirty more in a shooting rampage but not before he conducted a PowerPoint slide presentation for senior army doctors entitled, “The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military,” which included Islamic justifications for suicide bombings and featured the common Islamist slogan, “We love death more than you love life.” In a Political Correctness-laden report, The Department of Defense’s follow up report on the attack made no mention of Islam or Nidal Hassan’s ideological motivations.

Recently the Obama Administration released its strategy to deal with the lone wolf threat.  Predictably, it proposed the exact opposite of what is needed. Instead, the recent Administration report, incomprehensibly and meaninglessly entitled, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, is a 4,600 word whitewash completely devoid of meaning or educational potential.  As Professor Daniel Pipes sums up the report:

Nature of the problem? “Neo-Nazis and other anti-Semitic hate groups, racial supremacists, and international and domestic terrorist groups.”

Name of the enemy? The paper itself never mentions Islam or even radical Islam. In fact the report’s title, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, avoids the mention of the word “terrorism.”

Appropriate Federal law enforcement response? “Just as we respond to community safety issues [such as gang violence, school shootings, drugs, and hate crimes] through partnerships and networks of government officials, Mayor’s offices, law enforcement, community organizations, and private sector actors, so must we address radicalization to violence and terrorist recruitment through similar relationships and by leveraging some of the same tools and solutions.”

A decade after the attacks on 9/11, rather than create a policy that come to grips with the evolving tactics of the fanatical ideological enemy we are fighting, we now have a counterterrorism policy that refuses to even use the word “terrorism,” and treats perpetrators of terror attacks in the same vein as perpetrators of gang violence.

More than just incompetence is at work here.

While Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States was released in early August, its faulty assumptions read identically to those published by the Homeland Security Advisory Council in a report titled,  “Countering Violent Extremism Working Group” and published at about the same time last year.  Both reports are so similar that they utilize the same comparison between terrorism and gang violence and propose using community-policing to “stop violent behavior regardless of the motivation.”

Included, in that working group was the president of at least one Muslim Brotherhood front group, Imam Mohamed Maghid, president of the Islamic Society of North America (although he is not recognized in that capacity in the PowerPoint slide describing the working group’s members) and Mohamed Elibiary, who once shared the platform during a “tribute to the great Islamic visionary” the Ayatollah Khomeini, and who argued against describing the preeminent radical Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, the late Sayyid Qutb, as either radical or dangerous.

In other words, the government has asked the very proponents of the ideologies that have radicalized Western Muslims as well as leaders of organizations which have been named as unindicted co-conspirators for the funding of terrorism, to propose government policy for countering the inevitable “violent extremism” that results from the ideological beliefs which these people themselves apparently hold.

So deeply has our government involved our ideological enemy in our OODA loop that they are now effectively in control of nearly every stage of our decision-making process regarding counterterrorism. They are the advisors to whom our national authorities look for advice and direction in forming our national strategy. They are, according to a former FBI agent, inside members of the executive branch department responsible for implementing U.S. anti-terrorist policy. They encourage our security and law enforcement officials to work alongside community organizations — which they themselves control. And they control the public relations organizations and “civil rights” groups which then heaps praise upon the Administration for following their advice.

The lone wolf threat helps to encapsulate the reality that the greatest threat is not from bombs or guns or rented sports-utility vehicles.  It is a threat springing from a violent belief system — a radical ideology. Our law enforcement and intelligence officials must be given the tools to recognize the signs of that belief system as it manifests itself in human actors. That is the only counter-terror strategy with a hope of success against a lone wolf or against any terror attack. This system can be analyzed and understood. The violent Koranic citations, the hadiths and Sharia jurisprudence which forms the foundation upon which ideologues like Sayyid Qutb and Anwar al-Awlaki build, can be read and understood. Indeed, the 9/11 Commission Report did exactly that, albeit in a limited and imperfect way.

The tragic question many asked that fateful day on 9/11 was, “Why did they do this to us?” A decade later, thanks to our government’s inability to name our adversaries or call out their ideology, the wolves in sheep’s clothing within our own government have us moving even further away from an answer.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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