It has long been a favorite proclamation of jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda to ask its followers to pursue the strategy of an individual jihad. In a gruesome passage of Al Qaeda’s magazine Inspire (2010), it gave readers practical advice on how to make the ‘ultimate mowing machine’ by attaching blades to the wheels of a pickup truck and driving it into crowds.
That strategy, however, did not seem to resonate particularly well with its intended audience. History shows that ‘lone wolf’, or ‘single operator’ attacks - often defined as perpetrated by ‘a person who acts on his or her own without orders from — or even connections to — an organization' have been rare. The most notable lone wolf attack in recent history was not executed by a jihadist but by a right wing extremist (Anders Behring Breivik). As for jihadist inspired terrorism, we can name the example of Nidal Hasan Malik who shot thirteen people at Fort Hood and arguably the attack by the brothers Tsarnaev during the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three by setting off explosive devices in pressure cookers.
However, the record for the final months of 2014 shows a different picture.
1. Sep 23: Abdul Numan Haider stabbed two police officers in Melbourne, Australia, injuring both of them.**
2. Oct 20: Martin Couture-Rouleau, hit two soldiers with his car in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada, killing 1.**
3. Oct 22: Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot down a guard in Ottowa, Canada, killing 1.*&**
4. Oct 23: (warning: graphic pictures): Zale Thompson attacking four police officers in New York, USA, with a hatchet, injuring 2.
5. Dec 16: Man Haron Monis took hostages at the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney, Australia for over 17 hours, leading to the death of 2 hostages.
6. Dec 20: Bertrand Bilal Nzohabonayo, attacking police station in Joué-les-Tours, France, screaming 'Allahu Akbar', injuring 3.
7. Dec 22: Man driving car into crowd in Dijon, France, screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ and injuring 13.*
8. Dec 23: Man driving car into crowd in Nantes, France, screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ and injuring 10*
* Real indications of mental problems reported
** Passport withdrawn to prevent the individual from travelling to Syria/Iraq
Although conclusive evidence still has to emerge, media reports suggest that many of these individuals were known to have mental problems or were labeled as mentally unstable. For instance, Zehaf-Bibeau was known to be a drug addict and his attack was characterized by his mother as ‘the last desperate act of a person not well in his mind'. The perpetrator of the attack in Dijon was said to have 'long-lasting and severe psychological disorders' which led the prosecutor to claim this was ‘absolutely not’ terrorism. Equally, the man who drove his car into the crowd in Nantes was also said to be mentally unstable. Zale Thompson was said to be a recluse and erratic, although no real indication of mental illness has been reported so far. Lastly, the case of the radical imam Man Haron Monis also indicates ‘something was wrong’ to say the least, including more than 40 charges of – among others – sexual offences. In an article written by Jelle van Buuren on this blog, the author indicated that Monis was a 'lone nut with the typical mixture of personal grieves, personal problems, and diffuse ideological or religious ideas flavoured with conspiracy theories'. This pattern has not gone unnoticed. Renowned terrorism scholar Max Abrahms coined the term 'loon wolf' instead of 'lone wolf' to describe ‘a mentally unstable or deranged terrorist acting independently of a terrorist group’.
However, even though many of these individuals might have had mental problems and were not linked to a terrorist organization, Islamic State (IS) does not hesitate to endorse these attacks or even claim those as its own. In the latest issue of its magazine Dabiq, it praised the attacks: ‘There will be others who follow the examples set by Man Haron Monis and Numan Haider in Australia, Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Canada, Zale Thompson in America, and Bertrand Nzohabonayo in France, and all that the West will be able to do is to anxiously await the next round of slaughter and then issue the same tired, cliché statements in condemnation of it when it occurs.’
Although some might feel relieved to know these plots were not top-down directed by terrorist organisations such as IS, the question is if that really makes it less of a danger or problem. As stated by J.M. Berger: ‘For people who already have issues in their lives that might lead them to violence, the lure of such fame and personal validation may provide an outlet that is only ambiguously connected to the Islamic State’s radical religious and political platform.’ Unfortunately, we have no clue how big that potential pool of lone or loon terrorists is. As is most visible in the ‘three in a row’ attacks in France, there seems to be a real risk of copycat attacks. More research should be done to prove whether this perceived copycat effect really exists and to what extent media reporting could play a role in mitigating this.
Besides this prevalence of mental problems, a second worrying observation can be made. If we accept the ‘okay, they were mentally ill, and this is an irrational and thus unpredictable act’ line of reasoning, this means it would be almost impossible to trace these individuals in advance and prevent such attacks. However, many of the above-mentioned individuals were on a list of individuals closely tracked by police and/or intelligence services. In fact, some of them aspired to travel to the Middle East, most probably to join IS, but were obstructed. According to Professor Greg Barton of Monash University (Melbourne), Haider was one of the 40 to 60 Australian nationals who recently saw his passport cancelled out of fear that he would leave to join IS in Syria or Iraq. The same holds for the two Canadian perpetrators who both tried to travel to the Middle East but whose passports were withdrawn.
The Dutch National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism recently acknowledged this danger, saying that‘ it is imaginable, given similar incidents abroad, that jihadists who have been obstructed by the government will transfer their frustration into violent acts in The Netherlands […] We are aware of the downsides of our policies.’ This was also the case with one of the Woolwich attackers who stabbed soldier Lee Rigby to death on British streets after allegedly failing to join Al Shabaab in Somalia. As also proven by these latest incidents, rather than solely focusing on the threat posed by those who go to join the fight in Syria and Iraq, perhaps more focus should be also devoted to those who stay. Generally speaking, they – in contrast to the former – can develop their plans seemingly unnoticed. Unfortunately, we must live with the fact that there will always be people (lone or loon) who only get noticed when the damage has already been done.