From Manchester to Orlando, the followers of the Islamic State aren’t operating “alone” anymore. And there are no easy answers to defeating an online community of terrorists.
Once again, the world has awoken to news of another terrible terrorist attack — this time in Manchester, England, where a man detonated a bomb in the foyer of an Ariana Grande concert, killing at least 22 people. And, once again, the so-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility. Amid this continuing stream of terrorist attacks around the globe associated with the Islamic State, much has been made of the phenomenon of so-called lone-wolf terrorism. From the killing of 49 nightclub revelers in Orlando, Florida, to the murder of a police officer and his partner in the suburbs of Paris to the assault on holiday shoppers at a Christmas market in Berlin, individual terrorists have wreaked havoc, seemingly removed from plotters in faraway safe havens.
During our time at the White House, the U.S. government remained intently focused on detecting and disrupting the Islamic State’s ability to centrally plan, resource, enable, and coordinate external attacks from its physical safe haven in Syria, but the group’s unique capability to inspire attacks online became a key concern. This is largely how the Islamic State has been able to penetrate our borders: not through flows of refugees intent on conducting attacks against Americans but through the bits and bytes of today’s digital age.
This is a core security problem for open Western societies: So-called lone actors may be inspired by the recruitment videos and hashtag campaigns delivered via social media by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, but they move from inspiration to action on their own, without direct communication with terrorist groups’ leadership. They may respond to, for example, the generalized call of now-deceased Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani to “make [Ramadan] a month of calamity everywhere for the nonbelievers,” but ultimately they select their own targets, choose their own weapons, determine their own timing, and, increasingly, record their own press releases.
Is this new? Yes, but not quite in the way most people think. The Islamic State hasn’t unleashed lone-wolf terrorism; instead, its unique manipulation of modern communications technologies portends the end of lone-wolf terrorism.
Understanding that claim requires understanding how the Islamic State has revolutionized terrorist recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization in our digital age. It also requires understanding why certain individuals are susceptible to this messaging — perhaps precisely because the Islamic State holds out the promise of no longer being alone. By taking up arms for its cause, getting behind the wheel of a truck, or building a pressure cooker bomb, these men become part of a community, part of something bigger than themselves, and indeed part of history — anything but alone.
Anyone exposed to mainstream media has seen elements of the Islamic State’s messaging campaign. Indeed, for many Americans, it was the stream of grisly beheading videos that emerged in August 2014, showing the murders of U.S. hostages, that brought the group to public notoriety. These demonstrations of purported strength — really cruelty — are part of the Islamic State’s recruitment plan, but that plan has another key dimension: conjuring a sense of community. Even as the group produces — with near Hollywood-quality slickness and narration — videos of barbaric violence, the Islamic State churns out equally savvy portrayals of the purported community it claims to be fostering. Part of that community is local: for instance, particular towns in Syria where foreign fighters have found new, “better” homes, wives, and lives. And part of that community is global: meaning that, if you embrace the Islamic State and act in its name wherever you are, you instantly find yourself with brothers, sisters, meaning, and a place in history.
In his important study of Islamic State messaging, “The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy,” Charlie Winter identified six key narratives deployed by the terrorist group: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, belonging, and utopia. Winter emphasizes that the fifth, belonging, “is one of [the] most powerful draws to new recruits, particularly those from Western states. Through their regular publication of, for example, videos and photographic reports depicting istirāḥat al-mujāhidīn — fighters relaxing with tea and singing with each other — the propagandists emphasise the idea of brotherhood in the ‘caliphate.’”
The Islamic State thus offers a chance to those who feel alone — those who may lack opportunities or who may simply disagree with the politics or mores of the society around them — not to be lone actors. Indeed, as Shane Kavanaugh and Gilad Shiloach have reported for Vocativ, there is a pro-Islamic State Telegram channel dedicated to “lone wolves” on which the group has disseminated a “handbook” for lone-wolf terrorists. Of course, by communicating with fellow supporters through Telegram and sharing a handbook of bomb-making tips, the Islamic State builds a virtual community of hundreds or thousands of sympathizers and recruits. This type of broad community formation goes beyond the virtual enabling of specific plots by the Islamic State leadership that Rukmini Callimachi expertly documented in her February 2017 New York Times story, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar.” Our point here is complementary to Callimachi’s: While some purported lone wolves actually received specific direction via encrypted messaging, even terrorists who receive no such specific direction are no longer really alone — nor do they consider themselves to be.
Of course, the Islamic State needs more from its recruits than just a feeling of oneness; it needs those recruits to act in certain specific ways that advance its strategic agenda. And that is where the Islamic State may give the lie to another traditional characterization of terrorist attacks. Experts have long distinguished between attacks “directed” by a group (or, more recently, attacks “enabled” by a group via encrypted communications) and those merely “inspired” by it — that is, attacks for which a terrorist group’s central leadership provided particular tactical direction and those broadly consistent with a group’s strategic direction but not specifically conceived or planned by the group’s leadership.
But the Islamic State has defied just how much direction is needed for operatives to advance a terrorist group’s objectives. It offers, in publications such as Rumiyah and the now discontinued Dabiq magazine, ideas for targets (for example, one issue of Dabiq called for attacking the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade), weapons (firearms and homemade explosives are among the easiest to obtain or assemble), and timing. But the Islamic State has, at the same time, explicitly encouraged its recruits to be opportunistic: to attack where they are, when they can, with what they have.
And that seems to be all of the direction that some of its would-be followers need. Omar Mateen, who attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, might once have been categorized as a prototypical terrorist “not directed” by any group. To date, no information has suggested that he traveled to, trained with, or even received individualized direction from the leadership of the Islamic State, to which he pledged allegiance via a 911 call during the attack. But what further direction did Mateen need? As former President Barack Obama noted, Mateen was “inspired by various extremist information that was disseminated over the internet,” which, in the end, proved to be all of the direction Mateen needed to select a target, a method, and a night to slaughter 49 innocent people.
Direction from a terrorist group like the Islamic State, it turns out, is a spectrum, not a dichotomy. The capacity to seduce someone like Mateen — who seems to have felt very much alone in this world for an array of psychological and social reasons — into feeling not alone is more than a striking sociological phenomenon. It makes that capacity a very real and palpable threat.
We often hear about “homegrown violent extremists,” presumably meaning those who have never gone abroad to train with a terrorist group before acting in its name here at home. But what does it mean to be “homegrown” in today’s digital age? The Islamic State brings its portrayal of the marketplaces of Raqqa in Syria directly to computers and iPhones everywhere, its attacks in the cafes of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the streets of Nice in France directly to the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of the whole world. The very problem, in a sense, may be that individuals like Mateen do not, themselves, feel “homegrown” at all; they feel grown of Raqqa and at war with their false homes of Orlando; San Bernardino, California; or wherever else they may find themselves.
To recognize that the Islamic State poses a real, persistent, and distinctive threat is by no means to concede that today’s pace of terrorist attacks represents the new normal or an enduring condition. Other terrorist groups posing unprecedented challenges have been beaten back and degraded in their critical capacity to execute external operations, most notably al Qaeda’s core in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Moreover, the strategy carefully developed under the Obama administration to deprive the Islamic State of physical safe havens — in places like Mosul, Iraq, and Sirte, Libya — appears to be working, with the group having lost significant swaths of territory it once held in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the group’s loss of physical terrain has elevated the emphasis that the group places on its exploitation of virtual terrain.
Already, other terrorist groups — including al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen and Syria — have begun emulating the Islamic State’s manipulation of modern communications technologies to reach those who would feel alone, offer a sense of community, and provide inspiration and just enough direction to spark attacks that fulfill those groups’ own strategic purposes. Modern communications technologies are here to stay and will evolve into forms yet unknown. Understanding how to meet this challenge is thus critical not only to addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State today but also to anticipating and mitigating the threat posed by other groups tomorrow — and groups yet to come. That’s a shared challenge for the governments charged with keeping us all safe, as well as for the companies whose technologies are being exploited for these purposes. It’s only with both sets of actors doing more that we can, collectively, undermine the false sense of belonging that the Islamic State has cultivated to such deadly effect.
Photo credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images