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Catching Lone Attackers

19/12/2010

Whatever is discovered about Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s links to extremist groups, we are still left with the growing problem of lone attackers and the issues that security services have in interdicting them. While it seems as though, like an increasing amount of his earlier comrades, al-Abdaly has left something of an electronic footprint demonstrating his radicalization, from a security perspective this is an almost impossible element to latch onto given the sheer volume of similar jihobbyists around online who are simply bored teenagers showing off.

Or is this really the case? In the United States, a more proactive approach seems to have been taken with tracking and capturing such individuals. The two most recent cases are Mohamed Osman Mohamud in Oregon and Muhammad Hussain, aka Antonio Martinez, in Maryland. In both cases, it seems as though following an online alert (in Osman’s case he tried to contact extremists abroad, for Hussain he was apparently noted because of radical things on his Facebook page), FBI agents set up elaborate operations to capture the individuals as they were attempting to blow up in a public place what they thought were vehicle borne explosive devices. I have argued elsewhere about the conduct of these operations and their efficacy in stamping out the problem of radicalisation, but it is interesting that while the US arrests two of these chaps in quick succession, Taimour was able to almost carry out his operation in Europe.

But does this mean that the United States has cracked the code of capturing such attackers? I am unsure this is really the case. While on the one hand, it does seem as though they are able to capture more of these chaps, they have also had some very close calls, like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad in the past year alone. Admittedly in the former of these cases, he was not actually able to get to the US, but with Shahzad, it is clear that he was not on any radars and was in the US. Both men also left some semblance of an electronic trace that was found subsequently, though again, it would be hard to point to this as the element which should have alerted security agencies of the pending menace these men posed.

In Europe, there have been numerous cases similar to these. In the UK alone, Nicky Reilly in Exeter almost managed to blow himself and a restaurant full of people up in May 2008. Much of his radicalization appears to have taken place online, and afterwards his YouTube page was discovered to be filled with radical images and ideas. More recently, by her own admission, Roshonara Choudhry’s decision to try to kill Stephen Timms MP, was for the most part the product of ideas she got online.

If it emerges that al-Abdaly did have contact with extremist groups and training, then it would appear he joins Abdulmutallab and Shahzad, as individuals who can be termed lone attackers with links to extremist groups. This is rather than a Lone Wolf, in the sense of being an autodidact extremist who decides to do something of his own activation (like Choudhry or the earlier case of Isa Ibrahim). Both are dangerous, though in different ways.

The point is that it now seems as though there is a new need to actively pursue individuals who have expressed extreme ideas online, but at the same time to find ways of separating out who is dangerous and who is not. Certainly the American approach seems effective in catching people, but it is hard to know whether these are the correct ones to be catching, or whether there is a more dangerous body of individuals out there who are being missed. Is it really important to capture people like Osman or Hussain, while individuals like Shahzad and Nidal Hassan Malik slip past?

This is not to absolve either Osman or Hussain of their responsibility. In both cases, I do not doubt that the court cases against them will show them calculating how to kill innocent people in a callous and cold-hearted manner. But it does seem necessary to ask whether either was going to continue on to become like Nicky Reilly or whether they were instead going to continue to be online aspirants who would grow out of this fad. The distinction between these chaps and the ones who actually almost carry out attacks is very hard to draw, but is clearly at the heart of understanding what exactly it is that the new radical profile looks like.

In the New Year, ICSR will publich Raffaello’s latest paper, which offers a framework for formulating a typology for lone-wolf terrorists