On Monday, I read an editorial in the National Review claiming that the events that transpired in Garland, Texas, on Sunday evening, when a security guard shot dead two would-be terrorists, were the result of "luck." The author went on to criticize the U.S. government for its inability to prevent a known jihadist sympathizer from launching an attack.
However, if one looks at the Garland attack thoughtfully — and in the context of the overall dynamic of the jihadist threat in the post-9/11 world — it is apparent that this was not just a matter of mere happenstance. Indeed, the poorly executed attack launched by two untrained jihadist wannabes was clearly the result of the devolution of the jihadist threat in response to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, a phenomenon we at Stratfor have been carefully tracking for a decade now.
Let's take a closer look at how Sunday's incident, and the events leading up to it, fit into our larger analytical narrative.
On the evening of May 3, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi drove up to the entrance of the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. Finding the entrance blocked by a police squad car, they got out of their vehicle and opened fire with their AK-style rifles, wounding a school district security officer before being shot and killed by police.
The two gunmen had traveled to Garland from Phoenix, Ariz., to attack the provocative event, in which the organizers were offering a prize for the best cartoon depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. The keynote speaker at the event was Geert Wilders, a Dutch lawmaker with a long history of involvement in events critical of Islam. Wilders offended most Muslims — and not just the violent jihadists — with his 2008 film Fitna. These actions landed Wilders on an al Qaeda hit list.
Simpson, a Muslim convert, was previously arrested for attempting to travel to Somalia to fight with al Shabaab, a jihadist group that has since become an al Qaeda franchise. In March 2011, Simpson was found guilty of making false statements to special agents of the FBI. Simpson reportedly first came to the attention of the FBI because of his connection to Paul Hall, aka Hassan Abu Jihaad, a former U.S. Navy sailor aboard the USS Benfold who was arrested in 2007 and later convicted for passing military intelligence to al Qaeda.
Once the FBI opened an investigation into Simpson, the agency asked a Phoenix-based informant to approach him to determine if he posed a threat. According to court documents from the case, Simpson told the informant he planned to travel to South Africa in January 2010 under the auspices of attending an Islamic seminary. Once in South Africa, Simpson planned to make his way to Somalia to train and fight with al Shabaab. FBI agents questioned Simpson in January 2010 about his pending travel, and he denied the plans. The FBI then arrested him and charged him with making false statements, preventing him from leaving the United States. Prosecutors attempted to get the penalty of Simpson's false statement charge increased by arguing that there was a nexus to terrorism, but in March 2011 the federal district judge presiding over the case ruled that the government did not sufficiently prove the terrorism nexus, so Simpson was sentenced to only three years' probation.
Soofi, who coincidentally was born in Garland to an American mother and Pakistani father, was Simpson's roommate. Soofi had no criminal history, and there was little preventing him from legally purchasing the semi-automatic AK-style rifles used in the attack.
From the manner in which the Garland attack unfolded, it is readily apparent that Simpson and Soofi were not well trained and did not make much effort to plan their attack. They were winging it.
As noted above, Stratfor has been discussing the devolution of the jihadist threat posed to the West for many years now. Prior to 9/11, the threat stemmed predominately from professional terrorist cadre dispatched by the al Qaeda core. But in the post-9/11 world, the threat now emanates primarily from grassroots jihadists who live in the West.
This change has come about not because of luck but as a direct result of the United States and its allies placing an incredible amount of effort and resources into their counterterrorism efforts. The five levers of counterterrorism — intelligence, law enforcement, military, diplomacy and financial sanctions — have been employed in a relentless manner against al Qaeda and its franchise groups. Despite a few well-publicized instances of mismanagement, abuse and blunders, the U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign has severely damaged al Qaeda to the point that the core group has not been able to conduct its long-threatened follow-up attack to 9/11. It is also reasonable to argue that one of the significant elements that led to the Islamic State's rapid expansion in recent months was al Qaeda's weakness.
As a result of the immense and unrelenting pressure the United States and its allies applied to al Qaeda, as early as 2004, jihadist ideologues such as Abu Musab al-Suri began to publicly advocate that jihadists should abandon the hierarchical operational model and embrace a leaderless resistance model of operations. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula repeated those calls in 2009, and the al Qaeda core followed suit in 2010. Most recently, the Islamic State has called for its followers living in the West to adopt the same model.
Switching from a hierarchical operational model to a leaderless resistance model is a sign of weakness, not strength. While leaderless resistance is by design far more challenging for counterterrorism forces to track and defeat, it also means that the would-be attackers are far less capable because they do not have access to the resources and capabilities of a professional terrorist organization. Certainly these less capable attackers can and do kill people, but since they lack sophisticated terrorist tradecraft they usually conduct less-than-optimal attacks and frequently botch them, especially if they try to attack well-protected targets.
Following the Garland attack, some have commented that there has been a recent shift toward armed assaults by grassroots jihadists, but this trend is actually something we forecasted five years ago in May 2010, and we made that forecast specifically because of the shift toward the leaderless resistance model.
The Islamic State has taken credit for the failed Garland attack. That such a powerful group would feel compelled to take credit for such a tactically flawed operation clearly demonstrates the limit of their assets inside the United States. It also emphasizes the Islamic State's heavy reliance on grassroots attackers to conduct attacks outside the group's core operational areas in Iraq and Syria. While the group has proved quite proficient at carrying out attacks and assassinations within its primary areas of operation, it has long struggled to project its terrorist capabilities beyond those core areas, much less transnationally. The reliance on grassroots jihadists to conduct attacks means that the Islamic State lacks the capability to control, train and assist such operatives. As a result, many grassroots attacks are amateurish.
This is exactly what we saw from Simpson and Soofi. One of the reasons Simpson lacked the terrorist tradecraft to plan and conduct a successful attack is that he was prevented from traveling to Somalia in 2010. The sting operation that resulted in Simpson's 2011 conviction also likely left him leery of reaching out to more capable jihadists for help. As we've seen in prior cases, such as shoe bomber Richard Reid and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, even an unskilled grassroots jihadist is capable of killing hundreds of people if he is trained and equipped by a professional terrorist organization. Keeping grassroots jihadists from making contact with trained terrorist operatives is an important goal.
The FBI will be criticized for not tracking Simpson more carefully and stopping the attack before it could be launched. But the truth is that there are simply too many potential attackers in the West for the government to keep them under constant surveillance. Furthermore, the efforts of the government are focused primarily on tracking and countering professional, trained terrorist operatives who pose a more severe threat. Moreover, until someone breaks a law, it is difficult to take them out of circulation. This means that some of these grassroots actors will inevitably slip through the cracks and launch attacks. Some of these attacks will be botched and others will kill people.
Simpson and Soofi conducted a half-baked attack. It now appears that they attacked a target that was beyond their capabilities because of encouragement from Islamic State figures on Twitter. But their incompetence was not a result of sheer luck. Instead, it was the result of a long history of counterterrorism efforts that have shaped the current dynamic. As long as jihadism exists as an ideology and is able to seduce people such as Simpson and Soofi and prod them into action, these types of attacks are going to continue.