Today's Editorial

15 September 2017

The 'lone wolf' menace


Source: By Lt Gen (retd) Bhopinder Singh: Deccan Herald


The new face of terror increasingly, the dimensions of terrorism are mutating into invisible and fluid realms that go beyond the brick-and-mortar construct of a visible terrorist organisation. From the 2014 Lindt café hostage crisis in Sydney, the 2016 Orlando night club shooting in the US resulting in 49 deaths, the deliberate mowing of 86 people by driving over them in France, to the latest Barcelona car rampage in which 15 bystanders were killed – ‘lone wolf’ or ‘wolf pack’ attacks have become the new way of terrorism.

Anti-terror agencies are struggling with this latent, under-the-wraps menace of ‘inspired’ terrorists who perpetuate bloody attacks independent of any material support, command, direction or even financial support of any formal terror organisation. These deadly individuals or small-cells, enmeshed within the mainstream, lurk in the shadows of larger societal unrest and emerge on the fatal day to undertake attacks that can be as deadly and dangerous as those perpetrated by al-Qaeda or Islamic State.

The scale of this menace can be gauged from the simple fact that all terror attacks on US soil, except the 9/11 attacks, have been executed by a ‘lone wolf’ or ‘wolf packs’, who are motivated or angered beyond reason by an ostensible ‘wrong’ perpetrated against a certain cluster of people (based on religion, region, cause or identity struggle) into inflicting extreme violence and vengeance on the society or state. The advent and easy accessibility of technological means and social platforms has afforded the easy sharing and dissemination online of materials that promote radical hatred. These devious inputs stimulate the real and imagined state of political, emotional and personal grievances to such an extent that individuals far from the actual scene of the supposed grievance or injustice are easily converted into dangerously revengeful individuals, who then seek redemption via violence.

While the ‘lone wolf’ concept essentially started as the principal means of expression of white supremacists in the US, it has today engulfed the expression of religion-based terror, too. This philosophy was reintroduced in recent times by the al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Musab Al-Suri, who envisaged a global jihad, composed of individuals or small cells of independent adherents who were united by common ideology, hatreds and dreams.

Later, the more extreme successor of Islamist terror, the Islamic State, would readily accept, embrace and support the concept by spewing vengeance and inciting supporters to carry out attacks in the name of its regressive ideology. The IS spokesperson Muhammad al-Adnani says, “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us and more effective and more damaging to them”. For the marginalised and vulnerable sections of society, like jobless and socio-economically challenged youth, the lure of ‘getting even’, far away from the actual theatre of direct conflict, is irresistible.

The template of ‘wolf’ attacks is simple – target soft and crowded spots like concert halls, night clubs, touristy boulevards, etc., with the singular objective of maximising casualties (as also, sending a subsumed message of attacking the ‘way of life’ in the said environment). Often, attacks on certain dates have the symbolism of ‘celebrating’ anniversaries of past events or adhering to warped notions of religious significance. The relative anonymity and ‘normalness’ of the attackers makes predicting the terror strike difficult and pre-empting it almost impossible.

In ghettoised clusters of society (within the peripheries of the affluent mainstream), the economically and socially marginalised sections actively seek refuge in the puritanical shadows of religious leaders who, in turn, proselytise and stoke the disconcerted and disheartened populace into ‘wolves’ seeking a radicalised sense of immediate redemption in the name of religious duty. Thus, the ‘wolf’ attacks are followed by an impromptu usurpation of ‘credit’ for them by formal terror organisations, who appropriate the impact in their own name, having provided varying degrees of inspiration, funding or even limited infrastructural support.

This hybrid and asymmetric form of terror in the urban areas is challenging the existing security frameworks and systems. The ‘lone wolf’ concept is the exact antithesis of a structured ‘organisation’ as it professes ‘leader-less resistance’ – which is deliberately unobvious, concealed and, therefore, an intelligence nightmare. The added element of ‘pack’, technology and professional accomplices, can make their ‘hits’ extremely deadly. If technology is the enabler of most ‘lone wolf’ attacks, then it can also be the most effective means of disabling them. Tracking movements, content and online behaviour facilitates better understanding of the intent, methods, timeframe and motives of the restive elements. The UK Prime Minister Theresa May had alluded to the same when she insisted on the need to, “deprive the extremists of their space online”.

Beyond casualty-count, this style of terror attack has done unimaginable harm to mixed communities and liberal thought – much of the reigning Islamophobia in the Western capitals owes its genesis to ‘wolf’ attacks. This leads to the vicious circle of mutual suspicion amongst communities and aversion to law enforcement agencies, thereby suffocating the channels of the much-needed intelligence inputs. Such an environment further gives fillip to illiberal, narrow and partisan instincts within mainstream politics, which then elects illiberal governments and governance models. Basically, certain curbs and interventions on the online domain, controls on funding, deliberate engagement with communities or religious leaders and media sensitivity in overall reportage are the essential levers to negate the prospects of ‘wolf’ friendly environments.

The Indian terror scene (Maoist terror, insurgencies in the North East and the Kashmir conflict) has been relatively free of the ‘lone wolf’ menace, with terror attacks taking place mostly in the areas of the primary insurgency, by formal terror organisations. But, as the security forces gain the upper-hand in the fight against ‘organisations’ and negate their ability to confront the state apparatus directly, the focus could shift to the concept of ‘wolf’ attacks to perpetuate the ‘cause’. So, as the prospect of ‘wolf’ attacks rises, the lessons learnt from the West’s experience become invaluable.

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