The arrest last Friday of Amine el Khalifi as he strode towards the US Capitol Building with what he thought was a functioning MAC-10 submachine gun and explosive suicide vest marks the latest in a growing list of individuals who have been incarcerated in the United States in cases involving intelligence agents. As with many previous cases, this one has already been called a “lone wolf” by officialdom in the US. But does this definition really hold water in a case like Khalifi’s?
The problem with using this definition in Khalifi’s case is that central to the plot seems to be at least one law enforcement agent and a confidential informant. Individuals who hinted to him that they were connected with al Qaeda and ultimately provided him with what he thought were the tools to conduct a Fedayeen-style terrorist attack on the Capitol Building. All of which suggests that in Khalifi’s mind he was not actually a “lone wolf,” but rather an individual who was part of a terrorist cell.
This distinction is important since it raises a subsidiary question of whether Khalifi would have actually done something if he hadn’t had the community of agents around him to both provide him with what he thought was a cell, as well as the weapons to carry out his terrorist attack. Khalifi was clearly a disjointed fellow – a former landlord is quoted as saying he was suspicious of Khalifi and found him to be a very troublesome tenant suspecting he may have been building bombs – but how dangerous was he and did he have the wherewithal to launch a terrorist plot by himself?
At this point, we shall never know. Given Khalifi was captured as he marched up to his intended target armed with a machine gun and suicide vest, it is hard to envisage any jury finding him innocent or to disagree with this conclusion. And it is perfectly possible that Khalifi is indeed a deranged individual who may have been prone to going down a path of violence. But the dilemma is the degree to which the cell of agents empowered him, and whether they could have used the information to dissuade him instead of helping him in this direction.
His case is very similar to that of Jose Pimental, a New Yorker arrested earlier this year by NYPD as he was supposedly building a bomb with what emerged to be a police agent. In that case, Pimental was also described as something of an oddball who would broadcast his radical views loudly online, was part of the community of individuals involved in the Revolution Muslim website and decided to get involved in a plot once he came across what he thought was a fellow radical. Pimental was seemingly obsessed with Anwar al Awlaki, and had apparently tried to reach out to him, but to no avail. Oddly enough, in that case the FBI declined to become involved leaving the case in the NYPD’s jurisdiction hinting that Pimental was not that dangerous (an odd conclusion given the similarities to the Khalifi case). Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly backed their forces, however, declaring Pimental a “ total lone wolf.”
This approach to capturing violent Islamist cells is not a particularly new one for American forces. While I may have missed some cases, scanning old reports and lists on the topic of disrupted terrorist plots in the US, it seems to me as though the first plot involving unaffiliated individuals who were caught using a confidential informant involved Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay who were planning to bomb a subway station in New York City in August 2004. In that case, a police agent, who allegedly offered his services to trawl through New York’s Muslim community to identify Muslims who were bringing a bad name to his religion, was key in securing the convictions.
However, it seems as though Siraj had voiced his ideas to others prior to the agent and had another co-conspirator James Elshafay, a mentally troubled individual who volunteered to plant a bomb. In other words, Siraj was moving in a dangerous direction with others even prior to meeting the agent. While it is true that the agent might have acted like a final trigger into moving him into action, he was not operating in a total vacuum with the agents acting as his only contacts to other extremists prepared to do something.
When we look at a case like Khalifi’s, there are a number of key differences. In his case, Khalifi’s entire connection to the al Qaeda cell he thought he was part of was fictitious. Unlike Siraj whom it seems was both voicing his opinions, but also in contact with others willing to carry out violence, Khalifi seems to have been willing to voice his radical ideas but was not in contact with any others eager to follow the path he eventually took, until he encountered the federal agents.
But the purpose here is not to condemn the use of confidential informants or undercover agents – but instead to focus on whether we can really call such individuals lone wolves and what effect this approach is having on reducing this problem.
The answer to the first question is clearly negative: these individuals cannot really be called “lone wolves” since they were really not acting alone. They were part of what they thought was a cell. That this turned out to be mostly federal agents is important as it complicates whether we can confidently say that they would have chosen this path independently and acted as “lone wolf” terrorists. The answer is we cannot – we shall never know whether they would have chosen this path without the group around them. Certainly we can look at the individual’s readiness to move into action with some level of concern, but we cannot confidently say they would have done this absent the contacts with agents.
It is easy to understand why enforcement agencies favor this sort of an approach. Lone Wolf terrorists are very hard to spot and identify before they move into action – this approach draws out individuals who seem to be moving in this direction and merely gives them the tools to hang themselves by their own petards. In this way it is pre-emptive. For example, someone like Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Portland, Oregon Somali who tried to blow up a vehicle bomb at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in late 2010. According to court documents, Osman was trying to make contact with radicals in Pakistan to try to join them to fight jihad. Having identified him, federal agents moved in and in the end Osman decided to try to carry out an attack within America.
In a case like Osman’s it is easy to see the logic behind a pre-emptive approach. Osman was clearly interested in making contact and joining radicals abroad. Conviction on the basis of this sort of contact is no doubt hard to prove; so sending agents in to understand the individual better makes some sense. That this then led to him wanting to carry out a plot within the US is one outcome this can lead to – whether Osman suggested it or the agents did is something that will no doubt come out in trial. Pimental had tried to reach out to other radicals (including Anwar al Awlaki allegedly), but it is not clear whether this is also the case with Khalifi.
The other logic behind such operations is the notion of deterrence. If you catch and convict some individuals like this, it serves as an example to the other potential ones out there. Siraj received a 30-year sentence for his crime, and Osman, Pimental and Khalifi are looking at similar sentences. And unlike Europe, where long sentences can be reduced with good behavior, etc, in the United States, long terms means a long time in a prison where prosecutors openly admit same sex rape is common.
But the deterrence case somewhat falls down when we consider how long the United States has been pursuing such individuals and how they continue to appear. If we take the Siraj case as a first example – we can see how since 2006 (on the basis of when he was incarcerated versus arrested) examples have been publicly made of what is going to happen to you if you wander down this path and how there are agents out there seeking to catch you. And yet we have continued to see cases occur with this latest pair merely the most recent in a long list. Of course it is possible that there would have been many more, and that in fact the relatively small number we see is a reflection that in fact this deterrent effect is working, but this is another statistic that will be impossible to ever prove.
There is no clean answer to this discussion. One solution I have advocated is that police and intelligence agencies should identify such people and then instead of moving in with a team to catch them doing something bad, send in a team to dissuade them from doing anything. Make it obvious to them that they are wandering down a dangerous path and they should get off it. This might scare some sense into them and lead them to choosing another path. It might also have the opposite effect in some cases, but I am certain if an intervention is handled properly, it could save a lot of time and effort from courts, prisons and intelligence agencies.
But to return to the question I started this whole post off with: when is a lone wolf a lone wolf? He can be considered a “lone wolf” terrorist when he tries to carry out a terrorist act by himself or herself, without any support or command and control from known or unknown networks. To call individuals like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi “Lone Wolves” is a misinterpretation of the term that is only going to complicate the struggle in identifying such individuals that really are “Lone Wolves.” The real “lone wolves” are people like Khalid Aldawsari, the Saudi student in Texas whose romantic and poetic blog masked a desire to build a bomb to attack America. He quietly worked away on his plot until he tried to purchase chemicals from an attentive seller. They reported him to authorities and he was subsequently arrested and is now awaiting trial. People like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi may indeed have been potential “lone wolves” in the future, but the reality is we shall never know whether they were actually going to go down this path or not.