Grassroots jihadists in North America conducted three attacks last week. On Oct. 20, police in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada, shot and killed a 25-year-old man from Quebec after he intentionally ran over two Canadian soldiers with his car. One of the soldiers later died. On Oct. 22, a man armed with a rifle shot and killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa before storming into the nearby Parliament building, where he was shot and killed by authorities. Finally, on Oct. 23, a man wielding a hatchet attacked a group of New York police officers, injuring two of them — one critically — before being shot dead by other officers.
While the perpetrators of the three attacks all appear to have been radicalized and drawn to jihadism through social media, there is no indication that their attacks were coordinated, or that the attackers were acting on direct orders from a militant organization such as the Islamic State or al Qaeda. They were what we classify as grassroots jihadists, or radicalized jihadists who are not formally part of a group but who choose to think globally and act locally in a leaderless resistance operational model.
Three attacks in one week represent the highest operational tempo for grassroots attacks ever seen in the West. It remains to be seen if this spate of attacks was an anomaly, or if this tempo will continue. Regardless, these cases illustrate the problems grassroots jihadists pose for authorities — as well as the limitations of such attacks.
The leaderless resistance model of terrorism is not new. White supremacists and environmental extremists had been practicing the concept for decades before jihadist military theoretician Abu Musab al-Suri began promoting it in his writings in 2004.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began to promote al-Suri's leaderless resistance theories in 2009. To spread the message, the group even created the English-language Inspire Magazine, which frequently featured sections of al-Suri's writings on the topic along with instructions on how to conduct simple attacks. Indeed, the bombmaking instructions contained in Inspire Magazine were tied to several thwarted grassroots plots and the deadly Boston Marathon bombing.
The al Qaeda core joined the leaderless resistance movement in 2010 and distributed a video from Adam Gadahn in which he urged jihadists in the West to follow the example set by Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan to conduct simple attacks.
The Islamic State initially focused its propaganda efforts on calling jihadists living in the West to travel to Iraq and Syria, and thousands have responded to that call. However, that message changed Sept. 21 when Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani published a message titled "Indeed Your Lord is Ever Watchful" in which he encouraged jihadists living in the West to conduct simple attacks. An excerpt reads:
"If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him."
In addition, the fourth edition of the Islamic State's Dabiq Magazine (also published in late September) contained an article entitled "Reflections on the Final Crusade" in which the author writes:
"At this point of the crusade against the Islamic State, it is very important that attacks take place in every country that has entered into the alliance against the Islamic State, especially the U.S., U.K., France, Australia and Germany. Rather, the citizens of crusader nations should be targeted wherever they can be found. Let the mujahid not be affected by "analysis paralysis" and thus abandon every operation only because his "perfectionism" pushes him towards an operation that supposedly can never fail — one that only exists theoretically on paper. He should be pleased to meet his Lord even if with just one dead kafir's name written in his scroll of deeds… Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader, and kill him. It is important that the killing becomes attributed to patrons of the Islamic State who have obeyed its leadership. This can easily be done with anonymity. Otherwise, crusader media makes such attacks appear to be random killings.
The article explicitly called for leaderless resistance when it stated:
"Secrecy should be followed when planning and executing any attack. The smaller the numbers of those involved and the less the discussion beforehand, the more likely it will be carried out without problems. One should not complicate the attacks by involving other parties, purchasing complex materials or communicating with weak-hearted individuals. 'Rely upon Allah and stab the crusader' should be the battle cry for all Islamic State patrons."
It would appear that last week's flurry of simple attacks were a response to this call from the Islamic State. The big unknown now is if these kinds of attacks will continue with the same frequency. As noted above, jihadist ideologues have called for grassroots operatives to rise up and conduct attacks in the West for several years. Yet despite the clearly articulated leaderless resistance theory, it has not generated many grassroots plots in the West, and many of those who have answered the call have been arrested or have botched their attacks after attempting to carry out plots that were beyond their capabilities. This means that to date, the grassroots approach has largely been a failure, and it certainly has not generated the steady wave of deadly attacks — and the resulting widespread terror — in the West that its creators intended.
Challenges and Limitations
The theories espoused by ideologues like al-Suri and magazines such as Inspire and Dabiq are correct in that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face far more difficulty in detecting lone assailants than uncovering large groups like the Toronto 18. When investigating a militant organization, it is possible for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to plant informants within the group and to monitor the communications between members. Indeed, it is the threat of infiltration and communications interception that has led ideologues like al-Suri to propose shifting to the leaderless resistance model.
Even small, insular groups are vulnerable to infiltration. It is not uncommon for one or more of their members to get cold feet and inform authorities about the group's plans to commit acts of violence — these are the "weak-hearted individuals" Dabiq refers to. But it is also a numbers game in that every person added to a plot multiplies the risk of someone making operational security mistakes.
When a grassroots assailant acts alone, there is no such possibility of infiltration or betrayal. If the suspect never discusses his or her plans with anyone else, he or she can easily fly under law enforcement's radar — especially if they can avoid alerting the authorities through their Internet activity and social media postings. In most cases, these kinds of individuals can be highly successful in carrying out an attack, especially a simple attack directed against soft targets.
This increase in operational security comes at a price, however. Acting alone takes more time than working as a team and does not allow the lone attacker to leverage the skills of others. It also requires that the lone attacker provide all the necessary resources for the attack.
The limits of working alone also mean that, for the most part, lone wolf attacks tend to be smaller and less damaging than attacks conducted by independent cells or hierarchical organizations. Anders Breivik's mass casualty attack in Norway and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's attack at Fort Hood are rare exceptions, not the rule. Most of these attacks tend to be like those committed last week: small in scale and with a low casualty rate. The assailants tend to be more like stray mutts than lone wolves.
Drowning Out the Noise, Assessing the Threat
The term "lone wolf" is freely bandied about in the press, and it tends to invoke a sense of fear and dread. The term conjures up images of an unknown malicious plotter working alone and silently to perpetrate an unpredictable, undetectable and unstoppable act of terror. This one phrase combines the persistent fear of terrorism in modern society with the primal fear of the unknown.
It is only when we set aside the mystique of the lone wolf and look at the reality of the phenomenon that we can see the threat is often far less daunting in reality than it is in theory. All attacks, even those conducted by lone assailants, do not simply materialize out of a vacuum. Lone assailants must follow the same process as a small cell or hierarchical group when planning an attack. This means that lone wolves are vulnerable to detection during the planning and preparation stages of an attack — in fact, even more so because a lone assailant must conduct each step of the process alone, thereby exposing themselves to detection on multiple occasions rather than using multiple operatives to conduct risky tasks, a method that reduces the chance of detection. A lone wolf must conduct all the preoperational surveillance, acquire all the weapons, assemble and test all the components of the improvised explosive device — if one is to be used — and then deploy everything required for the attack all on their own.
There is certainly far more effort in a truck bomb attack than a simple attack with a car or hatchet, and the planning process is shorter for the latter, but the lone attacker still must follow and complete all the steps of the attack cycle when planning and executing an attack, therefore making themselves vulnerable to detection.
Lone wolves — or stray mutts — do pose a threat, but that threat must be neither overstated nor ignored. Lone attackers are not mythical creatures that come out of nowhere to inflict harm. They follow a process and are vulnerable to detection at certain times during that process. It is important to ignore the hype and maintain a proper perspective on the limited threat they pose. Proper perspective also permits the authorities to address the problems posed by such individuals in a realistic and practical way. I continue to firmly believe that grassroots defenders — police and citizens — are the best defense against the grassroots jihadist threat. It is important for counterterrorism efforts at the national level to remain primarily focused on countering more potent threats.
Last week's attacks clearly demonstrated how following the "simple" attack model can effectively kill people and create a prolonged period of terrorist theater in the global media. Killing people is not difficult, especially when soft targets are attacked. Quite frankly, I have been surprised that we have not seen more simple attacks by grassroots jihadists given the ease with which they can be executed and the repeated calls by jihadist leaders to conduct such attacks.
This could be a turning point where that trend changes. It will be important to watch and see if these attacks help ideologues finally mobilize more grassroots jihadists and convince them to abandon their grandiose plans and instead focus on simple attacks they are actually capable of executing, or if their efforts to promote a large volume of simple attacks will continue to flounder. Regardless, citizens can protect themselves and mitigate the grassroots jihadist threat by remaining alert when in public places and practicing the fundamentals of personal security. In this manner they can also help serve as grassroots defenders.