Lone Wolves in Perspective
Posted by James Lamond
The arrest of a Rezwan Ferdaus, a 26 year old Massachusetts man has once again brought the scary term “lone wolf” back into the news. Ferdaus, a graduate of Northeastern University in phyiscs was plotting to make to fly homemade “drones” made from remote-control model airplanes packed with five pounds of explosives into the Pentagon and Capital building. He was caught by FBI agents posing as members of al Qaeda. As Eli Lake writes this case, “gives a rare glimpse into how the government has been focusing on the threat of lone wolves and homegrown terrorists in the United States.”
Plots by lone wolfs are inherently difficult to disrupt. Suspects with no training, record, or communication with outside groups are difficult to identify. Eli quotes analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in his story, saying “It is very hard to stop a lone-wolf attack once it is in progress. That’s the reason that the FBI has been making use of sting operations such as this in order to try to disrupt attacks before they begin.”
It is certainly true that these sort of attacks are less likely to pop up on a radar making them more difficult to see and prevent. However in the media, it often takes on a sort of mystical appeal, as an unstoppable force.
The lone-wolf threat is nothing new, but it has received a great deal of press coverage in recent months, and with that press coverage has come a certain degree of hype based on the threat’s mystique. However, when one looks closely at the history of solitary terrorists, it becomes apparent that there is a significant gap between lone-wolf theory and lone-wolf practice. An examination of this gap is very helpful in placing the lone-wolf threat in the proper context…
… On its face, as described by strategists such as Beam and al-Suri, the leaderless-resistance theory is tactically sound. By operating as lone wolves or small, insulated cells, operatives can increase their operational security and make it more difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify them. As seen by examples such as Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed British lawmaker Stephen Timms with a kitchen knife in May 2010, such attacks can create a significant impact with very little cost.
Lone wolves and small cells do indeed present unique challenges, but history has shown that it is very difficult to put the lone-wolf theory into practice. For every Eric Rudolph, Nidal Hasan and Anders Breivik there are scores of half-baked lone-wolf wannabes who either botch their operations or are uncovered before they can launch an attack.
It is a rare individual who possesses the requisite combination of will, discipline, adaptability, resourcefulness and technical skill to make the leap from theory to practice and become a successful lone wolf. Immaturity, impatience and incompetence are frequently the bane of failed lone-wolf operators, who also frequently lack a realistic assessment of their capabilities and tend to attempt attacks that are far too complex. When they try to do something spectacular they frequently achieve little or nothing.
… When we set aside the mystique of the lone wolf and look at the reality of the phenomenon, we can see that the threat is often far less daunting in fact than in theory.
Perhaps the most important lesson that Stewart finds from this brief history of the lone wolves, is that when “a group promotes leaderless resistance as an operational model it is a sign of failure rather than strength.” But this is often not the perspective in which the threat is presented in the media. And public officials do not always help. For example, back in February Secretary Napolitano described the changing threat from large-scale 9/11-style plots to the smaller-bore lone wolves threat, stating that, “The terrorist threat to the homeland is, in many ways, at its most heightened state since 9/11.” While it is probably true that a successful, if less ambitious, attack is increasingly likely to occur, these sort of statements miss the larger perspective.
This is not meant to say that a lone wolf terrorist is not a threat. We have clearly seen that this is a tactic adopted AQAP. And officials should remain vigilant and citizens alert. However, it is also important to keep in mind a historical perspective that this is a move made by weakened organizations that has had little success through history.