Was the May 22 attack in Manchester, England, claiming at least 22 innocent lives and apparently carried out as a suicide bombing by a young British man of Libyan descent, Salman Abedi, a “lone wolf” attack, as first thought? Or was it a directed, more organized terrorist operation, as British intelligence now consider “likely”?
Or do we need to refine our vocabulary, to better reflect the reach and influence of groups such as ISIS in today’s world?
Authorities initially disclosed that Abedi may have been a “mule” – a mere bomb carrier – rather than its creator, raising the specter of another ISIS-affiliated, remotely-guided lone wolf attack. Lone wolf attacks, whether inspired by ideology or mental illness, have historically been a rare phenomenon. Since the 1990s, however, their numbers have dramatically increased in the United States and western Europe, with more casualties per attack, more countries reporting lone wolf attacks, and more attacks overall.
The definition of “lone wolf” is contested. Some researchers include small teams, while others insist on one single actor; some include personally-motivated attacks, while others require political motivation. The total number remains small, but the trend is clear: even with the most restrictive criteria, there were 36 attacks in the US from 1950-2000, versus 58 from 2000 to 2016. Perhaps more important, lone wolf attackers require different counter-terrorism approaches and seem to exhibit relatively few common characteristics – aside from mental illness.
A University College London study published in 2015 found that lone wolf terrorists are 13.5 times more likely to suffer from mental illness than is someone involved in an organized extremist group, suggesting that lone wolves are not so much organized groups’ recruits as uncontrolled, and uncontrollable, spin-offs. That makes preventing attacks difficult, and it may mean that media coverage of each successful attack does encourage copycat efforts. But what this latest attack gives us is the chance to assess ISIS’ impact from a different angle.
The world of extremism continually changes, and extremist organizations evolve in ideology, goals, approaches, and outlooks. ISIS appeared to be a game changer in 2014: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the founding of a caliphate, with an exclusive claim to be the Islamic state. Recruiting efforts focused not only on attracting fighters, but educated professionals ready to build a nation.
The July 2014 inaugural issue of Dabiq, ISIS’ first English-language monthly, included “A call to all Muslim doctors, engineers, scholars, and specialists” as well as articles that promoted ISIS as bringing good governance. In Aleppo province, it claimed to have “pump[ed] millions of dollars into services” and achieved a “reduced crime rate” as well as a “flourishing relationship between the Islamic State and its citizens”.
By its final issue, published in August 2016, Dabiq promoted attacks made abroad by various “soldiers”, denounced Euro-American support for gay rights, and highlighted testimonials from Guyanese, Trinidadian, and Finnish converts. The positive, state-building focus of early Dabiq issues had disappeared, and so did the magazine. In its place came Rumiyah, focused on jihad against the Rum (literally, Romans), or Western Christians.
“One need … even own a gun or rifle in order to carry out a massacre,” began an October 2016 article on “just terror tactics”. (The magazine called “just terror operations” its preferred replacement for “lone wolf” attacks.) “A hardened resolve, some basic planning, and reliance on Allah for success are enough for a single mujahid to bring untold misery”, it added, before focusing on knives. The November 2016 issue’s tactics article focused on “vehicle attacks”, featuring a photograph of a U-Haul Truck and the caption “An affordable weapon”.
Both “tactics” appear to have been taken up by lone wolf attackers in recent months, with Briton Khalid Masood using first a car and then a knife in the March 2017 “Westminster attack” in London. There have been several vehicle-born terrorist attacks, from the July 2016 “Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France to the December 2016 “Christmas market attack” in Berlin. Yet these tactics, and the idea of a “lone mujahid” causing havoc through “open source jihad”, didn’t start with ISIS. They began with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose online magazine Inspire was the first of its kind when it began publishing in July 2010.
But by its spring 2013 issue, AQAP leader Anwar al Awlaki and Inspire’s creator Salman Khan had both been killed by a US drone strike, and the group’s fortunes appeared to have waned. “We will defeat you even if by a matchstick”, noted an article on “Torching Parked Vehicles”. “How much more safe will the West feel parking their vehicles, when they know they’re up for a TORCHING,” it asked. It also suggested pouring oil on the road to cause cars to spin out, or placing nails covered in black paint on the road to puncture tires.
After enough road accidents, Inspire stated hopefully, “the Kuffar [unbelievers, here used for non-Muslims] and their insurance companies will be so sick of the terror caused and money wasted … that they will press their government to stop the tyranny against Muslims”. Open source jihad seemed a pitiful come-down for a group whose “parent” organization had brought down the Twin Towers.
After the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda’s “brand” went global. Even in its decline, the declassified emails sent back and forth to bin Laden in Abbottabad suggest that groups around the world wanted the legitimacy that came with the al-Qaeda name. Bin Laden was reluctant to associate with most of them – but ISIS has been willing to claim credit for any attack carried out by a Sunni Muslim. Analysts have been so focused on the state part of ISIS, and on its declining fortunes in Iraq and Syria, that they may have missed what could be ISIS’ most significant impact: the normalization of extremist-inspired lone wolf attacks.
ISIS borrowed from AQAP both its willingness to recruit born- and convert Muslims from Europe and North America, and the specter of American-, French-, Belgian-, British, German-, and other Western-born Muslims streaming to Syria has unnerved those countries’ security officials. As ISIS’ state-building project falters, it borrowed again from AQAP: open source jihad, and with it a shift from recruiting fighters for the caliphate to the general self-empowerment of disaffected Muslims in Europe and the United States.
This is the biggest change that ISIS has brought to the extremist scene, and not the caliphate: the crystallization of what began with AQAP. Inspire sparked the first great security concerns over the roles that the Internet and social media could play in spreading extremist ideas and recruiting potential attackers. But some analysts wondered whether social media activism led people to become extremists, or just allowed them to blow off steam.
AQAP’s online approach, in this view, might produce more passive supporters of extremism, but primarily acted to dilute the impact of the small, dedicated cohort approach that bin Laden had espoused. What ISIS’ impact over the past three years suggest is not so much dilution as diffusion: the individualization of extremism, and the personal empowerment of autonomous attacks. Lone wolf attackers likely share ideological sympathies with ISIS, but are much less likely to adhere fully to the organization, or follow a coherent program.
ISIS’ decline as a state project should not obscure the likelihood of continued lone wolf attacks. As long as ISIS exists as a formal entity, it will likely maintain a symbiotic relationship with those attackers. On Tuesday, ISIS claimed through its Amaq news service that Abedi was a “fighter of the Islamic state” (muqatil al-dawla al-islamiyya). However, Amaq had initially called him a “follower” (tabi`a). That statement was deleted and replaced with the one using “fighter”. Its possible that the replacement announcement was intended to strengthen ISIS’ claimed connection to Abedi. In any case, the group has a history of exaggerating its connection to lone wolf attackers.
CNN notes that ISIS called Omar Mateen, the man who killed 49 innocent people in Orlando in June 2016, a “soldier of the Islamic state” “despite the fact that Mateen had had no training or direction from ISIS but was instead simply inspired by the group”. Jason Burke in 2009 argued that Al Qaeda the organization had been replaced in influence by “al Qaedism”, the general al Qaeda worldview. Whether directed or inspired, lone wolf attacks may be the joint legacy of AQAP and ISIS: the concrete caliphate replaced by a toxic ISISism.
Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites. Stanton’s recent work on the Middle East includes an examination of the role of the Olympic Games in fostering national and regional identities in Lebanon and Syria, and an analysis of themes found in US-based Syrian aid appeals and in Syrian political cartoons.