The Boy Who Cried Lone Wolf

If someone hands you a completed bomb and sends you on your way, you're doing it wrong.

Multnomah County Sheriff Office via Getty Images
Multnomah County Sheriff Office via Getty Images

The Friday, Feb. 17, arrest of a would-be suicide bomber in Washington, D.C., led to a fresh paroxysm of analysis in the media on the ominous threat of "lone wolf" terrorism on U.S. soil.

"How to catch a ‘lone wolf’" was the headline at the Christian Science Monitor. The headline at "The ‘lone wolf’ — the unknowable face of terror." ABC’s World News reported on the arrest and warned of other "so-called lone wolves" with a quote from former White House counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke, who claimed that people "spontaneously can become terrorists without any real communications connection to al Qaeda."

ABC then cut to a picture of Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber, who had traveled to Pakistan to train with a branch of the Taliban, which helped pay for the attack and publicly claimed responsibility within hours of its failure.

"Lone" wolf, indeed.

The Moroccan-American man arrested Friday for attempting to blow up the U.S. Capitol building, Amine El Khalifi, was also far from alone. He was in contact with men he thought were part of al Qaeda, and those men handed him a complete (but inert) suicide vest and an automatic weapon to carry out his attack. The fact that those men were FBI undercover agents is beside the point: If someone claiming to work for al Qaeda hands you a fully assembled bomb for your attack, you are not a lone wolf.

While lone-wolf terrorism exists and is legitimately cause for concern, the threat it presents revolves around the idea of an individual who will carry out attacks without direction from abroad and without help from a terrorist organization or cell.

Consider the following cases, all of which have been cited as examples of lone-wolf terrorism:

  • Jose Pimentel: A New York man tries to build a pipe bomb using a recipe from Inspire, the now-defunct English-language magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He enlists a neighbor in the plot, works on building the bomb in another man’s apartment, and is accompanied by the second man during virtually every stage of the project.
  • Antonio Martinez: A Baltimore man plots an attack on a military recruiting station. He tries to enlist at least four people from the community to help. Only one agrees to help, introducing him to a fifth person who represents himself as an operative for an AfPak militant organization. The fifth man provides Martinez with a fully assembled bomb.
  • Mohamed Osman Mohamud: A Portland, Oregon, teenager emails someone in Pakistan with links to a terrorist organization to volunteer his services. He subsequently comes into contact with a ring of jihadists who provide him with a fully assembled bomb that he tries to deploy at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
  • Rezwan Ferdaus: A Massachusetts man provides electronic detonators of his own design to two al Qaeda members who promise to send the devices to al Qaeda in Iraq. The al Qaeda members and a third man discuss plans to attack government targets in Washington, D.C., using remote-controlled planes loaded with explosives. The al Qaeda members provide Ferdaus with money to buy the components for this attack.
  • Faisal Shahzad: A Connecticut man single-handedly assembles and deploys a bomb in New York’s Times Square. But Shahzad had received financial help and training from the Pakistani Taliban. He was an individual actor, but he was not a lone wolf. He was an agent for a robust terrorist organization.

Does it matter that some (but not all) of the terrorist network members described above were actually undercover law enforcement agents or informants? It doesn’t change the fact that none of these individuals was working alone. They were receiving advice, concrete assistance, and passive reinforcement from people they believed — rightly or wrongly — to be part of larger terrorist organizations.

None of this means that these guys aren’t dangerous, and none of this is to argue that they shouldn’t have been arrested. But they are not lone wolves. They are essentially al Qaeda volunteers — people who step forward and offer their services to a terrorist organization that can provide them with resources and support.

Real lone wolves do exist, and they do present a threat. Only three terrorists have succeeded in killing Americans on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks, and all three were arguably lone wolves, albeit with complications:

  • Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, appears to have acted on his own initiative and using only his own resources. He was in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, the late Yemeni-American cleric, which muddies the issue, but no evidence has emerged so far to indicate Awlaki specifically directed Hasan’s actions.
  • Carlos Bledsoe similarly carried out a shooting attack in Little Rock, Arkansas, with no apparent assistance from any other individual. Bledsoe claimed he was affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but no concrete evidence has surfaced to support his claim. He did spend 16 months in Yemen prior to the attack, so it’s difficult to completely dismiss the possibility of a link.
  • Hesham Mohamed Hadayet shot and killed two people at the El Al airline ticket counter at the Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. No evidence has ever emerged to suggest Hadayet had an organizational link, but the case is rarely cited by those who would warn us of the growing threat of lone wolves.

Other genuine lone-wolf incidents do exist, and we should be concerned about them. Naser Jason Abdo was allegedly planning to attack Fort Hood soldiers based in part on guidance from al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, and he appears to have acted entirely on his own. This case is exactly what al Qaeda has in mind when it encourages lone-wolf activities.

But the most terrifying lone wolf in recent history was not a Muslim extremist — quite the opposite. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik made exorbitant claims about a secret organization that backed his anti-Muslim agenda, but no evidence has emerged to suggest this is true. Breivik documented his activities in such detail that it’s clear he pulled off the July 2011 terrorist attack in Norway on his own initiative and using his own resources, and he succeeded because of his careful planning. Breivik epitomizes the kind of lone-wolf terrorism that is most dangerous, but also extremely rare.

At this point, you might be thinking, "Who cares? This is all semantics." But there is peril in describing the recent string of individual actors as lone wolves. It’s about how we classify and respond to threats.

The primary threat presented by a lone wolf is the difficulty of detection, and that threat is significant. If someone truly acts without any support or significant contact with other conspirators, it is very hard to identify him and prevent him from carrying out an attack.

To combat that tactic, we have to understand it. Lumping all individual actors — such as El Khalifi, Pimentel, Martinez, Mohamud, Ferdaus, and Shahzad — under the same heading as genuine lone wolves — like Hasan, Bledsoe, Hadayet, Abdo, and Breivik — creates a distorted profile that will frustrate our efforts to identify the threat.

The lone wolf we need to worry about is truly solitary and self-motivated: someone who doesn’t talk to people about his plans and doesn’t require meaningful assistance from informed accomplices. Anyone who fails to meet those conditions is a different kind of threat.

Dangerous? Yes. Lone wolf? No.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.