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Lone Wolves or Lone Attackers?

03/03/2011

It increasingly seems as though the young Kosovar who forced his way onto a bus of US servicemen yesterday at Frankfurt Airport may have had Islamist leanings. Investigators have apparently located his Facebook account and, according Der Spiegel, on it “the young man makes little attempt to conceal his Islamist beliefs.” The question now on security services minds is whether he is a Lone Wolf or a Lone Attacker.

The distinction is an important one to make. If he is a Lone Wolf, then he is likely going to be a one-off crazy who for reasons which will become the focus of much speculation in the near-future, decided to launch an attack on a bus load of US service people. If instead he proves to be a Lone Attacker, then he might be the beginning of a wave of attacks or plots which might finally be Al Qaeda or affiliated groups carrying out (or attempting to carry out) the long-awaited Mumbai-style attack that security forces have been dreading. And which he is will very much determine how security services respond.

Aftermath of the Attack at Frankfurt Airport (Courtesy of AP)

What does seem clear, however, is that the notion of the lone jihadist warrior has been normalized, in every sense of the word. Over Christmas, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly tried to carry out an attack in Stockholm. There has been all sorts of speculation about his contacts with Al Qaeda in Iraq, but it remains unclear what role they played in his attempt. Last year we saw Roshonara Choudhry attempt to kill an MP seemingly with no outside instigation beyond what she found online, and then a week ago we saw federal agents in Texas grab Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a Saudi student in Lubbock, Texas who was on his way to building a bomb. Again, there is at this stage no evidence he had any outside drivers.

And the list goes on. But the point is that it seems as though individual jihadists is increasingly the norm, be they ones sent and connected to organizations or ones who decide to move forwards of their own volition. This is not to say we have seen the end of larger-scale plots: soon after Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly blew himself up in Stockholm, police in the UK swooped and arrested a network of mostly British-Bangladeshi’s who it was claimed were plotting to attack a large site in London. And soon after that, Danish police disrupted another plot to attack Jyllands Posten with a team of people armed with firepower.

So the age of ambitious attacks and plots has by no means ended, but it seems as though increasingly the one-man terror team – either dispatched by a group or self-started – is becoming the norm. This presents a complicated threat for a number reasons, but how we address and then define this problem is increasingly going to be a focus of attention.