By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, CNN
Khalid Aldawsari lived in a nondescript apartment block in the university town of Lubbock, Texas. He was – ostensibly – a student, who had arrived in the United States in 2008 from Saudi Arabia. But he was also keeping a journal, which allegedly included this entry:
“After mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives, and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.”
His preparations allegedly included research online into bomb components, life-like dolls in which explosives could be placed, and a number of possible targets including the Dallas residence of former U.S. President George W. Bush. The FBI were only alerted to the alleged plot after a North Carolina-based chemical supply company reported their suspicions over an online purchase made by Aldawsari in late January. He was arrested a month later and subsequently pleaded not guilty to attempting to carry out a bomb attack on U.S. soil. His trial begins next January.
In the indictment against Aldawsari, there are no conspirators mentioned. In many ways, such cases are the worst nightmare of counter-terrorism officials: “lone wolf” individuals acting alone, untraceable through any contacts with other terror suspects, capable of teaching themselves how to launch a terror attack.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CNN this month that lone wolves “were harder to detect in part because by their very definition, they're not conspiring with others, they may not be communicating with others, there's very little to indicate that something is underway.”
Last month, President Barack Obama said the threat of lone wolf attacks was "the most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now.”
The president told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “When you've got one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage, and it's a lot harder to trace those lone wolf operators.” He pointed to the case of Anders Breivik, who went on a bombing and shooting rampage in July in Norway, killing 77 people. No evidence has been uncovered linking Breivik to other conspirators.
A growing wave
The Norway attack and the Aldawsari case show how modern technological tools, especially the availability of vast amounts of information useful for bomb making and targeting, have made lone terrorists more dangerous than ever before.
In the last two years, eight of the 14 Islamist terrorist plots on U.S. soil involved individuals with no ties to terrorist organizations or other co-conspirators.
These included plans to blow up buildings in Illinois and Texas in September 2009, the November 2009 Fort Hood shootings allegedly carried out by U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, an alleged plot to bomb a tree-lighting ceremony in Portland in November 2010, and another aimed at blowing up an Army recruiting station near Baltimore the following month.
In Europe, too, there have been an increased number of attacks by terrorists acting alone in recent years, sometimes with deadly results. There was the Stockholm suicide bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab; and a Kosovan Islamist, Arid Uka, who confessed to shooting and killing two U.S. servicemen at Frankfurt Airport in Germany. He was acting alone and had been radicalized by videos online.
A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official told CNN that lone assailants have been responsible for every deadly terrorist attack in the West since June 2009, when a U.S. servicemen was shot dead outside a recruiting station in Arkansas by a convert to Islam, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad.
The role of the internet and social media
Counter-terrorism officials and analysts say the “lone-wolf” phenomenon is often fed by self-radicalization on the internet. In its report this month, the National Security Preparedness Group said, “While there are methods to monitor some of this activity, it is simply impossible to know the inner thinking of every at-risk person. Thus, self radicalization poses a serious emerging threat in the U.S.”
The rise of extremist websites in English or other European languages and the emergence of charismatic clerics such as Anwar al Awlaki who speak these languages has spread al Qaeda’s message more widely than ever before, even as some of the hot-button issues it has exploited - such as the Iraq war - have lost resonance.
Online forums and chat rooms are even more influential. According to terrorism expert Marc Sageman, online discussions are much more likely to influence individuals than passively accessing radical online content.
Accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan exchanged internet messages with Awlaki, while Frankfurt shooter Uka was Facebook friends with a number of known Islamist extremists in Germany.
Al Qaeda encouragement
Al Qaeda, partly out of necessity, has now thrown its weight fully behind “lone” terrorism. Its media production arm As Sahab recently released a video titled “You are Only Responsible for Yourself,” encouraging followers to carry out acts of individual terrorism in the West. In the recording, al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn (born in Oregon) said it was easy for American al Qaeda sympathizers to go to a gun show and purchase an automatic assault rifle – without having to submit to a background check.
Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has been especially vocal in encouraging lone acts of terrorism. Its English language magazine Inspire has a section dedicated to helping terrorist sympathizers in the West carry out attacks, including bomb-making recipes. According to authorities one such formula, “How to Make a Bomb in Your Mom’s Kitchen,” has been downloaded by individuals plotting terrorist attacks in both the U.S. and the UK (although explosives experts say the formula is unlikely to work).
This Inspire magazine recipe was allegedly downloaded by Naser Jason Abdo, a Muslim U.S. soldier who allegedly plotted to attack the Fort Hood military base before his arrest in July. At a subsequent court appearance he shouted “Nidal Hassan, Fort Hood 2009.” U.S. officials have told CNN all the indications are that Abdo acted alone. He has yet to enter a plea to charges of possessing weapons and explosive materials.
Inspire magazine has also heavily featured the writings of a Syrian al Qaeda-linked terrorist Abu Musab al Suri (real name: Mustafa Setmariam Naser) who pioneered the concept of individual terrorism in classes given to recruits in al Qaeda-linked terrorist camps in Afghanistan in the lead up to 9/11.
“We ask the Muslim youth to be a terrorist. Why do we ask for such individual terrorism? First because secret hierarchical organizations failed to attract Muslims," al Suri told recruits in Afghanistan in 2000, according to a videotape obtained by CNN.
Assessing the danger
Norway shooter Anders Breivik, for his part, made clear the advantages he saw in individual terrorism in a manifesto he posted online just before his attack. “Solo Martyr Cells are completely unknown to our enemies and has a minimal chance of being exposed,” he wrote.
But so far, few “lone wolf” terrorists have had the resources or skills to turn their plans into reality. Norwegian Breivik pointed out in his "manifesto" that his Norwegian roots, integration into society and deep financial pockets helped him advance his plot.
Breivik also showed great discipline and method in his planning. He was able to teach himself how to make an explosive device by online research and experimenting at a remote farm. But making bombs out of chemicals available in the West has been seen as tricky and dangerous by Islamist militants plotting terrorist attacks, because of how unstable many of these substances are.
Breivik’s own document underlined the risk involved in making bombs out of readily purchasable chemicals. “30% chance of blowing yourself up,” he wrote above a recipe for an explosive substance he included for followers.
Bomb-making manuals produced by al Qaeda and its sympathizers tend to contain many errors, according to Sidney Alford, a British explosives expert who has reviewed many such manuals, making following their instructions hazardous.
“The overall quality of the documents that I’ve seen so far has been pretty low, but some of the content is certainly technically viable and they do contain, among some pages of rubbish quite practical means of causing havoc,” Alford told CNN.
Countering the threat
The Obama administration believes the general public can play a key role in protecting against plots by lone terrorists. “When people see something and they say something, that helps us with the lone actor scenario,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CNN. She cited the example of the gun store owner who reported purchases being made by Naser Abdo near the Fort Hood base before his arrest in July.
Counter-terrorism analysts say that outreach by U.S. law enforcement into Muslim communities is key in providing early warnings of threats. U.S. law enforcement agencies have also kept a watchful eye over individuals who may be moving toward violent extremism. Warning signs include ties individuals may have developed with known Islamist radicals or online interaction through jihadist websites.
Undercover agents and informants have also played a key role in helping the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies uncover threats. The New York Police Department has developed the most extensive informant network in the country and has the largest number of undercover police officers assigned to terrorism cases. It has also developed a Cyber Intelligence Unit in which undercover “cyber agents” track the online activities of suspected violent extremists and interact with them online to gauge the potential threat they pose. The unit has played a key role in several recent terrorism investigations including that of Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, who authorities allege attempted to travel overseas to Somalia to fight Jihad.
“By monitoring his activity on radical websites, the NYPD were able to build up a picture of his radical trajectory which was invaluable to the investigation,” a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official told CNN. Shehadeh, who was arrested in Hawaii in October 2010, has yet to enter a plea to charges of lying to authorities in a matter involving international terrorism.
The use of undercover agents has proved controversial in some cases. Legal documents indicate that undercover agents have in some instances pretended to sympathize with solo plotters and in some cases have provided them assistance in order to obtain evidence to bring prosecutions. In these plots, rather than believing they were acting alone, the solo terrorists appeared to believe they were part of a conspiracy.
But in the final analysis, it is difficult to pre-empt the lone wolf attack. As the former governor of Illinois, James Thompson, put it: "You don't prevent bank robberies. You solve bank robberies after they happen. ... The notion of trying to prevent attacks by radicalized Americans, or people in this country lawfully, is almost impossible."
The most difficult individuals to track are those who have no communication with other Islamist extremists, either in person or online. Raffaello Pantucci, an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, says that “rather than interacting online, such individuals passively soak up al Qaeda’s message and decide to take action into their own hands.”
Several such cases have emerged in the West in recent years. In April 2008 Andrew Ibrahim, a young white English student who had converted to Islam was arrested as he prepared explosives to carry out a suicide bombing at a shopping center. Ibrahim, who was convicted of the plot, had no known interactions with other Islamist extremist, and was one of the few home-grown terrorists who managed to make a viable explosive device without formal training.
“Fortunately these loner cases are still a relative rarity,” Pantucci told CNN.
Threat here to stay?
Is al Qaeda-inspired lone terrorism here to stay?
“Leaderless Jihad,” wrote terrorism expert Marc Sageman in 2008, “is vulnerable to whatever may diminish its appeal among the young ... I suspect its greatest vulnerability might be that new dreams of glory will displace the old Islamist dreams and make them irrelevant.”
The death of bin Laden and the captivating television images of the Arab Spring may in time make al Qaeda's cause lose its luster among radical-leaning young Muslims in the West. But in the months and years ahead, counter-terrorism agencies will still have their work cut out to detect lone wolf plots before they come to fruition.