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Are Lone-Wolf Terrorists Really a Big Threat?

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The recent attacks in Canada have raised concerns about lone-wolf terrorists who operate without orders from groups abroad. Members of Congress say it's a "huge" threat that require pre-emptives measures. But experts say lone-wolf attackers are a rare phenomenon, and efforts to stop them are a waste of time and money.

Appearing on CNN, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein warned:

"The multiplicity of attacks in 2014 is showing propaganda is having some effect," she said, noting that she did not think recruits saw the "vicious side" of the Islamic extremism.

Feinstein said, "the only defense is intelligence. You have to ferret it out, you have to be able to watch it, and you have to be able to disrupt them."


In truth, however, such measures are ineffective and costly—which is why, within the FBI, trying to prevent lone-wolf attacks is described as a BFWAT, or a Big Fucking Waste of an Agent's Time.

A Lethal Needle In A Haystack


The media is describing the attacks in Canada as an "intelligence failure," noting that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) released a report earlier this month, which identified 90 radicalized Canadians who were either trying to leave Canada and fight for the Islamic State militants in Iraq, or planning to launch attacks in Canada.

One such radical was Martin Rouleau-Couture, a Quebecer who had converted to Islam and had already attempted to travel to Iraq. He killed a veteran member of the Canadian forces in an attack near a Quebec military base.


However, writing in Foreign Policy, David Gomez—a former FBI special agent on counter-terrorism—observes that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who carried out the shootings at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, was neither a "high priority" nor on the list of "90 or so individuals under criminal investigation as potential threats."

True lone wolves, he says, remain a fairly rare phenomenon by law enforcement or criminal investigative standards:

No one familiar with law enforcement procedures will be surprised to learn that Zehaf-Bibeau wasn't on the radar of the RCMP or CSIS. Until he began his shooting spree, Zehaf-Bibeau had committed no recent crime nor telegraphed any specific intent to do so. Yet the Globe and Mail reported later that Zehaf-Bibeau "tried and failed to use prayer as a shield against the drug addiction and mental instability stalking him through adulthood." And the New York Times reported "despite a criminal record, an embrace of extremist ideas and an intent to travel to Syria" Zehaf-Bibeau "was not identified as a threat."

Even if Zehaf-Bibeau had somehow signaled his growing radicalization, the RCMP would still have been constrained in its ability to investigate him. In the United States the standard is for "reasonable suspicion." In Canada it is the same. Prior to the shooting there was no evidence that the shooter presented a specific or articulable threat.

The public dilemma for the RCMP, and also the FBI in the U.S., is how to identify the less than one percent of offenders who will evolve and mature into violent, psychopathic, spree-killing terrorists— and, possibly, self-organized lone wolf offenders — without violating their civil rights— and everyone else's. Absent specific intelligence to direct law enforcement to the most dangerous terrorist threats and develop reasonable suspicion to open a case, the FBI or RCMP will be forced to conduct assessments on every wanna-be jihadist, angsty teenager with a grudge, psychopath looking for an excuse to kill, and generally disorganized murderous wing-nut seeking revenge— whether religious or otherwise— in order to find that one percent reflecting a potential "lone wolf" terrorist.


A Sign of Weakness


Social media today does make it far easier for an organization with a clear message to inspire others to take some action. Indeed, the Islamic State has already hailed Zehaf-Bibeau as one of their own on Twitter.

But, we shouldn't imbue the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups with the power to trigger lone-wolf terrorists as if they were sleeper agents waiting to be activated. The ability to inspire does not translate into "global reach." Real power comes from the capability to plan and implement a terror attack from half a world away.


In that respect, analyst Jeff Danovich, a U.S. Army veteran of the Iraq War, explains that Ottawa's lone gunman should be seen as a sign of the Islamic State's weakness:

ISIS is actually less successful than Osama bin-Laden-era al-Qaeda, which devised, planned, funded, controlled, coordinated, and executed an attack on the United States in three places at once. Before they did it, no one would have thought it could be done.

That is not to say that we should not be worried about attacks such as what took place in Ottawa. The point is that just because ISIS' well-oiled propaganda machine claims it can strike at the heart of Western states at will does not mean we should take it at face value. Attackers such as Zehaf-Bibeau are a threat. But because one man—or even a few men—are inspired by ISIS propaganda to murder innocent people does not mean that "ISIS is winning" or that ISIS can strike anywhere. Sadly, it just means that there are lonely, alienated, and misguided individuals who have grievances against society which ISIS is fully ready to exploit. This is the same tactic used by sex traffickers, drug dealers, and pedophiles.

As Canadians—and the rest of the world—decide how to respond to this tragedy, we should keep in mind that the goal of terrorism is to force political change and concessions in the target through the use of and fear of violence. Believing ISIS claims that it is responsible in any large measure for the Ottawa attack and is a powerful "Islamic State" would give the organization more credit than it deserves and be an undeserved victory for its propaganda machine.


"ISIS is an exploitative, murderous army of criminals that should be eliminated," Danovich argues, "but we should not feed the atmosphere or terror they are attempting to create in order to affect our political systems and change the way we live our lives."