Conversation: Analyzing the Recent Lone Wolf Attacks

5 MINS READOct 31, 2014 | 14:41 GMT

Fred Burton: Hi. I'm Fred Burton and I'm joined here by my colleague, Scott Stewart, via the phone. We thought we would talk about Scott's Security Weekly on lone wolves. Scott, I noted in your piece that we've had three attacks in one week, a tempo we haven't seen before. What's your takeaway from that?

Scott Stewart: Well Fred, it's very interesting. This is really the type of tempo that these jihadist ideologues had hoped for all along since they began promoting these sorts of leaderless resistance attacks. We saw that first with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. Later we saw the al Qaeda core get in on the bandwagon in 2010, and then last month we saw the Islamic State call for jihadists in the West to rise up. These same kind of simple attacks — running over people with a car, smash their heads with a rock, shoot them, stab them, whatever you can.

Fred: Do you think these three attacks we saw last week — two in Canada and the horrific attack on the NYPD with the man with a hatchet — do you think that's an anomaly, or do you think we are going to continue that degree of tempo?

Scott: That’s the question. Obviously, the that's the thing we are thing we are looking for. In the past, quite frankly, attempts to get the grassroots to take this kind of action on a consistent basis have pretty much failed. We've seen these attacks on and off over the years, but we've never seen any sort of consistent heavy tempo, certainly not the type they had hoped to invoke. At this point, I think perhaps we had a spike in relation to the Islamic State call, but I really don't see us having three attacks a week for the next few years.

Fred: One of the more fascinating aspects of these lone wolf attacks to me — and you and I have talked about this extensively and written about it — is the fact that preoperational surveillance has to take place. Why don't you talk a little bit about that?

Scott: Well yes. It's very important. People get all freaked out by the use of the term "lone wolf." They just think its somebody that cannot be detected, that these attacks cannot be stopped. But really, when we look at it from a how perspective, in order to conduct an attack, whether you're a cell, a large organization or a lone actor, you still need to complete the same steps of the terrorist attack cycle. As we look at that attack cycle, one of the disadvantages that a lone assailant has is that he has to do everything himself.  Sometimes if you have a cell or a large organization, you can have specific cells doing different tasks. The problem with a lone wolf or a lone assailant is he has to do everything himself, and because of that, he brings himself repeatedly into the possibility of being detected.

Fred: One of the aspects one how to combat this is the concept of the grassroots defenders, which I think is a very unique term that you've talked about for years. Why don't you explain for our audience what that means?

Scott: One of the things we have to understand is that the large security and intelligence agencies are focused on combatting these larger threats. When we really look at these lone offenders, it's very rare that they are able to conduct a spectacular attack that has massive casualties. So for every Breivik attack, the Norway attack where he killed dozens of people, most of these lone wolves are more like stray mutts. Really the scope of what they do is limited. It's not that broad. Because of that, these national-level assets really need to focus on trying to prevent the mass-casualty attacks — large truck bombings or 19 guys coming into your country to fly airplanes into buildings that are going to kill 1,000s of people. The other part of it is, because of the way these lone assailants operate, quite frankly, unless they're talking to the media or talking to terrorist suspects abroad, they're probably not going to be picked up. They're probably not going to be picked up by a CIA informant or an NSA wiretap. Because of that, they're more likely to run into or to come to the attention of citizens or police officers as they are planning their attacks and going through the steps of the attack cycle. We've seen numerous examples of that in the United States where alert cops making a traffic stop have caught guys with IEDs in the trunk. We saw that in the Carolinas. So these kind of people are much more likely to encounter these lone offenders as they are planning their attacks than some JTTF taskforce.

Fred: Well that's fascinating Scott. That's all we have time for today. We appreciate you watching this video, and for more information, please take a look at our website at

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