CATF Reports Feb. 9, 2017, 4:10pm


The two words ‘lone wolf’ have quickly become a worldwide household concept over the past few years and especially in light of terror attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, and most recently, Quebec City. At the helm of the ever-evolving threat discussion is the growing awareness for counterterrorism authorities that ISIS – one of the most persistent perpetrators of recent attacks – is far more of a puppet master in orchestrating many “lone wolf” attacks, debunking the common misconception that these individuals operate in a complete and solitary “vacuum”. Authorities have even begun to refer to lone wolf attacks as “enabled or remote-controlled attacks” via virtual plotting from ISIS handlers, who serve as coaches, spiritual advisors and therapists for their young recruits, and are often in communication with them just minutes before the attack.

Interrogation records acquired by the New York Times from a recent terror plot foiled in Hyderabad, India, delineate ISIS’ intense involvement in many lone wolf attacks. Tech engineer Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani was in virtual communication with ISIS operatives over a period of 17 months, during which he recruited seven other hopeful jihadists among his friends and family, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State through secure internet channels, and received four different dead drops of weapons, ammunition and chemicals for explosives. To break up any trail of their plotting, Yazdani and his Hyderabad cell were instructed to alternate between various encrypted messaging applications like ChatSecure, Tutanota and Pidgin, as well as transfer any confidential documents through secure file-sharing website www.gulf-up.com. Perhaps the most compelling punch line in this case is that Yazdani never even knew the nationality, name or description of his handlers, as everything was organized online through a complete “wall of anonymity”, which is exactly how ISIS is successfully able to facilitate these attacks.

Unfortunately, the level of ISIS guidance of these coordinated attacks is not unique to the Hyderabad case. Interrogations, wiretaps and evidence recovered post-attack have shown similar orchestration in attacks throughout Germany, France, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, all of which revealed constant communication between perpetrator and handler. Istanbul nightclub shooter Abdulgadir Masharipov had allegedly been to Afghanistan for training and received support for the attack that killed 39 people this past New Years. He was ultimately arrested on January 2016 with “$197,000 in cash along with weapons and ammunition”. The Orlando shooter’s wife, Noor Salman, was arrested the very same day and charged with “obstruction of justice, as well as aiding and abetting by providing material support” in the June 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub. Both cases were originally labeled as lone wolf attacks by radicals inspired by ISIS internet propaganda, while more recent evidence has divulged a larger network.

In comparing these cases, law enforcement officials have detected a common theme. Oftentimes, the recruit made unsuccessful quests to go to Syria for training and the obligatory ISIS’ “hijrah”, or spiritual journey, and “under the instructions of a handler in Syria or Iraq…[began] planning an attack at home”. For months Yazdani attempted trips to Syria by way of Greece and Turkey, and ultimately retreated back home to plot ISIS’ first attack in India. The New York Times notes this system has undermined the necessity of travel for terrorist attacks, which has in turn enhanced ISIS’ ability to virtually channel its schemes.

Strategic security consulting firm, The Soufan Group, pointed out that the awareness of larger ISIS collaboration leads many citizens to feel that authorities should better detect plotting, when in reality small cells of individuals – often family members – are extremely difficult to disrupt because of their “contained footprint”. To date, authorities have discussed or pioneered many countermeasures to disrupt lone wolves, ranging from the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) following 9/11 to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and a general effort towards boosting information sharing and cross-agency relationships. One of the more recent initiatives introduced by the U.S. Department of State is the creation of a small internal unit known as the Global Engagement Center, which launched a social media guerilla campaign last September aimed at interrupting the path of radicalization at the outset. The group anonymously posts anti-terrorism advertisements on Facebook, often depicting images of young Muslims questioning terrorist recruiters about why they kill others of their same religion.

While the ads’ success rates are difficult to quantify, the State Department highlights the 14 million views the videos have garnered in a mere five months, illustrating that such creative tactics are certainly necessary in keeping pace with the evolving worldwide lone wolf phenomenon. A layered approach inclusive of “ideological warfare” is paramount while engaging ISIS’ propaganda machine, as weapons alone will not help diminish the appeal of the group’s extremist ideology in the eyes of the most vulnerable targets.

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