Best Defense

Book excerpt: Thoughts on our approach to ‘The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism’

The United States can play an important role in countering the international threat of lone wolf terrorism.

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Excerpted from The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism, by Mark S. Hamm and Ramón Spaaij. Copyright (c) 2017 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

The United States can play an important role in countering the international threat of lone wolf terrorism. Indeed, America has more experience with this particular form of political violence than any other nation. Research indicates that the United States leads the world in lone wolf terrorism; an estimated 40 percent of the world’s lone wolf terrorism attacks have occurred in the United States. This may be due to any number of reasons, be it America’s tradition of individualism, its gun culture, or its foreign policies, the echoes of slavery, the appeal of conspiracy theories, celebrity worship, or what Richard Hofstadter famously called the “paranoid style” in American politics. “The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote about the American radical Right in 1964 though he could have been describing today’s anti-government extremists and jihadists as well, “is that the paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, and whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.”

Lone wolf terrorism is a complex crime that will present enormous challenges for security agencies in the years ahead. Given its familiarity with the phenomenon, America’s efforts to prevent lone wolf terrorism may provide the kind of information that authorities in other countries can either use in their prevention strategies, or avoid because they have proven ineffective.

The United States has a three-pronged approach for combatting lone wolf terrorism and each has its complications.

The first is digital diplomacy designed primarily to prevent terrorist attacks from abroad. Since 9/11, the U.S. State Department and the National Security Staff at the White House have tried a range of approaches for engaging youth of the Middle East — from slick Madison Avenue public relation campaigns to student exchange programs and visitation initiatives — but they have shown little promise in curbing radicalization.

The second U.S. approach to countering lone wolf terrorism is a joint FBI–Homeland Security program to forge ties with Muslim community leaders who are positioned to detect potential militants in their midst and disrupt their radicalization.

The program provides training to help state and local law enforcement in identifying and countering the terrorism threat, including indicators of violent extremism and lone wolf attacks.

The third approach is the FBI sting program, America’s leading strategy for preventing lone wolf terrorism. The FBI’s lone wolf sting program has not aided the government’s ability to stop this violence. On the contrary, it has impaired that ability by diverting essential resources away from the real problem.

To effectively fight lone wolf terrorism, the FBI should review its full range of options. If a hammer is the only tool the FBI has for this fight, then the whole world begins to look like a nail. Here again, the ethics of the sting program matter. That is, there comes a point in each sting when FBI agents might have called on a family member, a psychologist, or a member of the clergy to provide counseling in a secure setting, instead of encouraging a person to kill innocent Americans with a bomb. There were numerous opportunities for such an intervention with Sami Hassoun. Many loved him. We can only wonder what might have happened if FBI agents had given Omar Mateen an off-ramp to his radicalization when they had a chance to do so. The outcome of the stings would have been the same (no one was hurt in the operations), except that those targeted in the stings would have received help for their problems rather than severe punishment. Muslim communities might have been spared the fear of wondering whether their family members would be the next ones rounded up in a sting and hauled off to federal prison for decades.

By reconsidering options available for lone wolf investigations, the FBI could convert costly methods of wrecking lives into soft-power approaches to save them. Ultimately, that may be the only way to stop lone wolf terrorism.

Photo credit: Amazon.com

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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