The recent attacks across the world have seen a twist in the modus operandi of terrorists making prediction and prevention of terrorism extremely difficult for law enforcement agencies. So called ‘Lone Wolves’, operatives working in ones or twos, without any ostensible connection to known terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State or any prior known record of such activities suddenly seem to crawl out of the woodwork and create new and unique mayhem, adding to the list of terrorist actions which were not on the radar of any agency. The sheer lack of anticipation, or improbability, or both push these acts (increasingly so) in the category of Black Swan events, which by their very definition are deviations from the normal.
As a result, and due to the very audacity of the act, they create ruptures in the development of defence strategy against such acts in future. These unconventional strategic shocks have been classified as ‘Known Unknowns’ by veteran Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Freier of the United States Army. In our ongoing analysis of these terrorist acts whether in Paris or Orlando or Istanbul or Medina, and most recently in Nice in France, it becomes critical to dwell upon certain underlying factors for accurate prediction and prevention of such acts in the future.
Why They Do It
Though the reasons may be multifarious, they share a common thread- fanatical or jihadist Islam. This in itself is a thought provoking term, since learned Muslims differ on the meaning attributed to jihad by those who choose extremist means; a growing section within Islam itself feels that the term has been abused to suit their extremist purposes and tendencies. Also, recently a debate has been initiated as to whether the right description is radicalization of Islam or Islamisation of radicals. In itself, source for a stimulating debate, albeit the end result being the same.
European states such as France have had long histories of colonial rule over large tracts of the Middle- East and North Africa, and therefore large populations of immigrants from these former colonies. These European countries are perceived as being responsible for the hopeless state of affairs in their former colonies. They have also left lasting legacies of suppression both by their armed forces and by mercenary militias. It is these former colonies where the current threat is now sprouting from, probably seen in equal measure as giving a bloody nose to their former masters as being religious in nature. The United States is viewed as being responsible for the present state of complete chaos owing its flawed policies over control of oil, a bid to foist its democratic principles, and perhaps anything else which goes wrong in the region. To add fuel to the raging fire, recent reports in the UK and the US have attributed much of the present state of affairs on the Blair and Bush administrations respectively, including certain reports that hold the US responsible for the creation of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as a means of furthering it’s own policy in these regions. No doubt, these give sufficient ‘WHY’ to any new recruit, especially when it is spiced up by impactful images and quasi- religious and hate rhetoric.
The West is not the only one target, in fact it is any corner of the earth where signs of going against the terrorists notions of ‘unbeliever’ are evident. Or any corner where they want to impose their perception of Islam. Therefore, an act in Dhaka or in Medina is equally acceptable. Which makes it all the more difficult to ascertain where the next such act would be or who the targets would be, because the world is full of people who do not agree with their notions or live their lives in accordance to what they feel is right.
Who are they?
It could be just about anybody. Despite high terror alerts, the perpetrators still manage to get through, indicating that they exist below the threshold meriting attention by anti- terrorist agencies. Organisations seem to be tapping certain criminal underclass who may have a police record, but may not go beyond that. Or disenchanted students. Or unemployed youth. Or even educated converts for their new found religious zeal. Or attention seeking hyperactive individuals looking for their moment under the sun. Or immigrant population not having social security or identity papers. These people may be model citizens in their normal lives, could be going to work with you on the same bus or train, attending PTAs just as you do. Occasionally you may feel the lack of communication with some of them, but don’t we all attribute it to those Arab types? They cannot even be termed sleeper agents and hence be traced by reverse engineering. What they do in their private time is simply beyond the reach of investigative agencies, they may be getting indoctrinated via social media, that all pervasive new demon of our times. And then one fine day this person gets up, leaving that normal life of his behind, drives a truck over a promenade full of people or on a shooting spree at the local nightclub or theatre or makes a bomb from ingredients available at the local hardware store and decides to explode it on a busy Street.
Investigative and watch agencies simply do not have the resources to keep a check on every single individual of society, something which works very well in favour of these Lone Wolves. Technology has added to our headache; an encrypted phone is as easily available as grocery. A city has deployed anti aircraft batteries and 50 calibre machine guns on rooftops, backed up by phased array radar and F16s in near proximity, yet a postal worker managed to fly a gyro copter into these defences. The same city has deployed pathogen detectors against possible biological weapons. The city is Washington D.C. What about all the other cities around the world? It is these lacunae that are exploited by the Lone Wolf.
How do they do it?
Again, as unexpected and unanticipated as could be. While the national and financial capital is being watched with an Eagle eye, an attack takes place in Orlando. Or an attack in Nice, not in Paris. Or an attack in a little known third world capital when everyone is busy looking west. Or suddenly in Istanbul for aligning against the Islamic State.
This is probably most indicative of a deviation (Black Swan). Or even worse, you may be expecting it on Bastille Day, but not by a truck driver on a promenade in a Mediterranean city; known unknown shock at its best.
What they expect to achieve
Obviously the idea is to create an atmosphere of trepidation, uncertainty and disquietude. In using tactics of hit and run ( or hit and die!) The Lone Wolf does not expect to follow up or follow through on his actions; it is a standalone action, to be treated as such but with sufficient impact to generate palpable fear. But what it definitely achieves in addition is further alienation of immigrants and racial profiling which works in favour of the terrorists’ rhetoric. It also tends to instil a feverish pitch of activity amongst anti terrorist agencies, but usually in the wrong place and just trying to piece together the last act. Invariably this makes the next attack even more unexpected.
Since these Lone Wolves are just that, working in isolation, there is no apparent connection between one attack and another, therefore there are virtually no unravelling threads during an investigative process. Moreover since they are usually ordinary people, it leads to the question of who all should be investigated. As brought out earlier it becomes humanly impossible to probe every single individual despite all the technology at their behest. For instance it is not possible to monitor cellular conversations of an entire city of people, and if it is tried, it utilises resources from elsewhere and leaves discernible gaps that may be exploited.
Lastly, alienation and racial profiling work in favour of terrorists. In the eventuality that they are able to upset the balance to such an extent that the target country decides to impose a an extended state of emergency, it serves to further existing social divides on racial and economic lines. Such a possibility is being discussed in places such as France and will only serve the interests of terrorist organisations by providing them more fertile grounds for recruitment, more number of people ready to go that extra mile for the cause.
In the same pattern of unpattern that works for a Lone Wolf no fixed time or date is a good or a bad time. It may be sometimes symbolic in nature, such as the Medina ( 4th July) or Nice (14th July or Bastille Day) or it may simply be a bolt out of the blue.
*Amitabh Hoskote, PHD, Development and Conflict Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, India