Lone Wolf Operatives: The New Trend of Transnational Terrorism

There’s no universal consensus on a definition for terrorism. When you type the word “Terrorism” on Google, the first definition to pop out is: “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” Although this is pretty reductive, let’s use this definition to simplify things. Terrorism doesn’t have to be religious, but when it is, it always has a political agenda, whether it is fighting guerilla warfare against an occupying force or aiming, for example, to establish a worldwide Islamic state.

Transnational terrorist organisations’ chains of command were never very centralized. Yes, there’s always been charismatic leader, dictating the bold lines of the strategy, which terrorist cells had to follow, but never a direct chain of command between the center and the cells, as we would have in a national military between the commander in chief and its units stationed across the globe. Nevertheless, before the spectacular attacks of September 11th 2001 on American soil, organizations like Al-Qaeda could send their own operatives to perpetrate missions away, in other countries, far from the organization’s core. It is well documented that Al-Qaeda had multiple training camps in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries to train soldiers ready to die for the cause. The 9/11 attacks revealed how well organized Al-Qaeda was and how centralized the strategy and tactics were planned. They also revealed what a terrorist organization, with proper funding and enough security to freely operate within the limits of their territory, could achieve transnationally.

The war on terror initiated by the United States of America after the catastrophic events of 9/11 changed that. First, organizations like Al-Qaeda couldn’t count on the same funding they had before. Not only personal investments were internationally made more difficult, but rogue states couldn’t finance terrorists as freely as they could before, or they would face coercive measures from international powers because of the now infamous premise: “you’re either with us or against us”.

Second, international actors now aware of the “new” era of terrorism, security and surveillance were beefed up. It is now much more difficult for terrorist operatives to freely travel around the world using normal ways of transportation, and even more challenging to enter a country undetected.

Finally, terror groups don’t enjoy the same quality of safe havens they did before 9/11. Yes Al-Qaeda could beneficiate from some kind refuge in the mountains located in the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, and the Islamic State and the Levant “controls” large parts of territories in Iraq and Syria, but they are constantly under attack, which impedes them to concentrate on planning and organizing a massive transnational offensive, let alone one far away across the globe. They can no longer enjoy the kind of relative state security Al-Qaeda had in Afghanistan before 9/11. For all those reasons, transnational terrorism is now more localised, and they must rely on grassroots operatives, also known as lone wolf operatives.

Lone wolf operatives

Lone wolf operatives are, for the most part, citizens born and raised in a Western country, with no relation or connection to the central command of a terrorist organization. To take the Jihadist terrorism as an example, these lost citizens, born Muslims or not, radicalized their views over time and found psychological and spiritual security in Jihad (note that I use the term Jihad here to determine the holy war against infidels, even though the concept of Jihad, at its origin, was something completely different, now twisted and redefined by religious extremists at their advantage). The organization doesn’t even know they exist. But they now count on them. Through the spread of ideas, with the help of websites and publications like Dabiq Magazine, terrorist organizations like the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda spread their extremist ideas, methods, tactics, and encourage young vulnerable and sometimes deranged individuals to perpetrated terrorist acts in their own country. This is the new trend of transnational terrorism. Not only it’s less costly in terms of money, logistics and time spent planning attacks, but these organizations simply don’t have any other choice anymore.  This is the new trend of transnational terrorism.

The recent events in Canada illustrate that premise. The attacks on Canadian soldiers by solo Canadian citizens, converted to a radical and false view of Islam, show how Lone Wolf operatives work. These were not coordinated attacks planned by the center of command of the Islamic State in reply to the Canadian forces’ airstrikes in Iraq to support both the National Army and the Kurdish fighters. These were lost individuals who got influenced, radicalized and perpetrated small scale terror acts. Many journalists, columnists and experts on the matter refused to call these crimes terrorist attacks, and some of them were even offended that the government categorized the attacks as “terrorism”. But let’s call an apple an apple: these were terrorist attacks, and they most probably won’t be the last of their kind. These were acts perpetrated by individuals who got influenced by an organization with political motives hidden behind religious aims.

The good news is: rarely a lone wolf operative will be able to perpetrate a mass scale terrorist attack. At most, their plot will reach something similar to what we saw happen at the Boston marathon in 2013. They do not have the training, the technical knowledge nor the logistics to execute something big. The bad news is: it is extremely difficult for intelligence agencies to prevent these new kinds of terrorist threats, even with reinforced national security laws. This is another danger: restricting individual liberties by laws aiming to prevent these new kind of threats, even though it will still be impossible to prevent all these spontaneous terror behaviours. One thing is for sure, we will see less and less mass scale terrorism transnationally, and more and more small-scale lone wolf attacks. What can we do as civilians? Just being aware of our surroundings and practicing situational awareness skills is a start. We cannot become paranoid because of this new terrorism trend though, or terror will have won.

One comment

  1. The recent events in Paris are horrible. Yet, it illustrates exactly what is the new trend of terrorism. Although many Lone wolf operatives don’t have any weapons or explosives training, many do. From all the Western countries, individuals travel to defend their extremist views of Islam and come back from Syria or elsewhere even more fanatic, with some training, combat experience and the goal to commit terrorist attacks in their native country. Their number is too high to constantly monitor all of them. It is estimated that 100 Canadians are under surveillance in Canada. One of the “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist has had weapon training in Yemen by Al-Qaeda. But his training wasn’t specific to his mission: probably no Al-Qaeda commander gave him the order to strike specifically “Charlie Hebdo”, nor did he have a well organized specific plan to carry-out his mission. On top of that, he probably didn’t receive any funding for his mission (because it didn’t required much funding). The attack on “Charlie Hebdo” is unacceptable but, being perpetrated by Lone-Wolf operatives, it wasn’t a mass-scale attack involving hundreds of casualties. It’s still a shock though, because it was somewhat unpredictable and very difficult to prevent.

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