Lone-Wolf or Low-Tech Terrorism? Emergent Patterns of Global Terrorism in Recent French and European Attacks
According to media reports, seven accomplices of Tunisian-borne French resident Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel—the man who drove a 20-ton truck into Bastille Day crowds in Nice—have been charged with aiding in “murder by a group with terror links” and violating weapons laws “in relation to terror groups.” The existence of such accomplices would seem to contradict initial news reports denying any link with terrorist organizations—a lack of connection that French authorities initially maintained, as well.
This disconnect between public narrative and fact pattern is prevalent in recent incidents, both in France and beyond. In a preceding incident, on June 13 in Magnanville, Larossi Abballa, a French citizen of Moroccan descent previously convicted in 2013 of criminal association to plan terrorist acts, used a knife to kill a police officer and his wife in front of their three-year-old child. While initial reports underscored the perpetrator’s solitary lone wolf status, less than a week later French prosecutors charged two other men—Charaf-Din Aberouz and Saad Rajraji, both convicted in 2013 of “being part of a French jihadist group”—for providing support to Abballa.
Accomplices—often discovered weeks after the media loses interest in a case—are not the only or best indicator of the durable links, ideological and material, that have animated a terrorist act. It is impossible to treat the 14,000+ terrorist attacks worldwide in the past year individually, but focusing on France, two January 2016 incidents involved similar suspects, tactics, and motives. First, a 29-year-old French national of Tunisian descent drove his car into soldiers protecting a mosque in Valence on January 1, and a Tunisian native, Tarek Belgacem, used a fake explosive vest and meat cleaver to attack police in the Goutte d’Or district on January 7, the one-year anniversary of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings. In both cases, news reports found the attackers “acting alone” with “no particular link to any movement.” Aside from the fake suicide vest, a symbolic weapon of contemporary irregular wars, Belgacem held more than 20 aliases from seven different countries, had migrated to the EU through Romania in 2011 by falsely posing as an asylum-seeker from Iraq or Syria, and lived at an asylum center in Recklinghausen, Germany. Both men, as per ISIS-dictated cliché, shouted a version of Allahu Akbar at imminent victims, amassed jihadi content on their electronic devices, and rationalized their acts by vague reference to global grievances against “Muslims” (excepting, of course, those they attacked).
Empirically-minded social scientists and legal scholars share an appreciation for “case facts,” a methodological impulse too often set aside in even expert commentary on recent attacks. In calling for “a better taxonomy of mass violence” after the Orlando shooting, Lawfare editor Benjamin Wittes made what should be a simple request: rather than seeking “confirmation” of one’s “particular worldviews” in ascribing motives in these “horrific” events—a “self-validating” exercise that affirms one’s “prior assumptions”—it is time to acknowledge these attacks both defy easy “categorization” and require us to put some effort into “reduc[ing] the story-telling and lesson-drawing impulse from all quarters in the description of these crimes” so as to “develop a more clinical, more Linnaean taxonomy for mass violence.”
In the spirit of that request for social scientific rigor, and with attention to “case facts,” this essay makes three data-driven suggestions to move past the lone-wolf terrorist concept, with implications for how we design better concepts for understanding and preventing contemporary terrorism in the future.
Category Confusion: Terrorism’s Strategic Embrace of Low-Tech Methods
First, it is time to do away with the confusing term “lone wolf” and instead recognize the distinct category of “low-tech terrorism.” This recognition is hovering on the edges of recent innovative analyses of “amateur terrorism” and the “lack of sophistication” of ISIS as a mark of its footprint in Europe. The term “lone wolf,” particularly when used in the public domain, misunderstands the fact that terrorism is at its core an act of strategic communication —a very loud message using the cheapest, often least sophisticated means and methods of attack: knives, homemade bombs, vehicles-as-weapons. This form of “low tech terrorism” combines weak organization with a strong message (i.e., public violence) as the defining feature of this form of political violence. This mismatch of message and organizational strength is one reason why strategic scholars categorize modern terrorism as a form of asymmetric warfare, in which the militarily weak can win wars, exert political influence, and exploit stronger adversaries’ vulnerabilities.
Creating terrorist messages is almost always a collaborative endeavor, and the current discussion often misses that lone-wolf actors are an exception, not the rule. Teamwork—even if not direct support, material or logistical—usually involves intensive ideological messaging, network building, and the leveraging of both. This work is increasingly done via online infrastructures and targeted recruitment strategies, as deradicalization professionals know. Terrorist acts can thus appear isolated, random, or even spontaneous, given the clandestine nature of these criminal activities—but that’s not because they actually are. The lone-wolf concept unfortunately feeds this myth.
As journalist Rukmini Callamachi shows in a recent essay, ISIS goes to great lengths to cover over its organizational links and its many specialized operational units—such as Emni, “dedicated to exporting terror abroad”— which contributes to ISIS’s strategic success in mounting since the June 2014 caliphate more than 140 attacks in more than 20 countries. Aside from encrypted communications, the German recruit whom Callamachi interviewed in prison “suggested that there may be more of a link than the authorities yet know,” as “undercover operatives” based in Europe often sit tight and instead use “new converts as go-betweens,” as these “clean men” (that is, not in European intelligence agency databases) “help link up people interested in carrying out attacks with [those] who can pass on instructions on everything from how to make a suicide vest to how to credit their violence to the Islamic State.”
Lone-wolf actors are often “clean men”—although they might still be committed, linked, or instructed by organizational operatives—because they are less likely to be tracked, especially in the West. The use of these individuals is operationally necessitated by countries with sophisticated intelligence and law enforcement sharing services. To adapt to this government capacity, ISIS targets and recruits those unknown to the system. For instance, French fighter Reda Hame, captured in France in three months before the August 2015 Paris attacks, told authorities that Paris attack planner Abdelhamid Abaaoud rushed to get him back into Europe to carry out an attack as his passport was due to expire, personally giving him “a crash course” in weapons training, telling him “getting weapons in France was not a problem,” and instructing him in choosing “an easy target, like a place where there are people,” such as “a rock concert in a European country.”
Consistent with this strategic logic is a third issue, best captured with the term “low-tech terrorism:” terrorists routinely transform everyday tools into low-tech weapons or attack vehicles—whether cars, trucks, scooters, or kitchen knives. Again, making everyday objects weapons and turning everyday places into settings for mass execution serves the core message-delivering function of terrorism, by heightening the horror of this violence, a tactic repeatedly pushed by ISIS operatives. This minimalist, “low tech” approach is seen not only in the tactical choice of weapons but also in all operational aspects of this form of political violence: building a movement by exploiting base, sectarian ethnic and religious differences; assembling seemingly unsophisticated, internationally dispersed cells and organizations; and relying on participants of convenience such as common criminals; the naïve, young, and alienated; and vulnerable people, including those with mental health issues.
Attention Must Be Paid: Linking Terrorism Case Facts
My second suggestion is for increased attention both to individual case facts as to how particular terrorist acts proceed, as well as a focus on the broader, global patterns of terrorism. Recent, case-specific data implies premeditation, organizational learning, and shared ideological commitments and contacts, which are all areas in which social scientists are increasingly working toward better research and understanding.
Recent attacks in France and elsewhere follow a highly conventional script in which operatives, no matter how plugged into a network they are, play a key role, not only in the attack itself, but in seizing the post-attack narrative. Actors announce rationales before, during, or after the violence—while the world is listening—by declaring group or leader allegiance, making martyr videos, or posting extremist content on social media. Each element in this genre of terrorist communiqué reveals group connectedness: organizational commitment for which one would die; awareness of a ready-made audience consuming such acts and expressing support, often in real time; solidarity statements over similar goals with others equally willing to die or kill for them; and willing participants who are not confused about the aims or means of an organization. This oft-repeated script is often disseminated verbatim by a breathless media and makes a farce of official statements of disconnected, solitary, and non-determined actors.
To make matters worse, authorities make absurd claims about everyday annoyances as key motivators for the lone-wolf actor—as if unrequited love or workplace aggravation are more pertinent factors causing terrorist-based mass murder than the global jihadist insurgency comprised of hundreds of competitor groups, the most savvy of which are keen to internationalize their message. By denying the obvious and implying that what is organized is actually random, these messages have the unintended effect of amplifying the terrorist message, thus undercutting public trust in security, a helpful outcome for terrorist groups aiming to destabilize strong states.
Beyond causing unintended policy consequences, the lone-wolf frame is also an empirical mistake because it rarely fits the fact patterns and does not reflect global trends. For instance, the terrorist dataset of record—the University of Maryland’s START Global Terrorist Data (GTD)—attests to increased jihadist attacks globally in the last decade plus, countless jihadist organizations practiced at using violence, and a broad range of attack vehicles and targets, much of which has implications for Europe. Actual instances of leaderless, self-starter, lone actor, or loosely connected terrorist actors—all terms to get around the limits of the lone-wolf concept—are an important part of terrorist and criminological inquiry and emergent data-collection efforts. Yet, on examination, those instances still turn on pathways to radicalization that involve groups, enablers, sympathizers, etc.
In the French context, the penchant for the lone-wolf narrative would seem anachronistic after the indisputably coordinated Paris attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, the worst mass-casualty terrorist attack in French history. In this case, three teams used trafficked guns, grenades, homemade IEDs, and suicide vests with identical detonators to attack eight Paris venues, killing 130 people and injuring 368 more. Given the attack’s multiple teams, scale, tactics, expertly-made explosives, leadership, and planning, much of it conducted inside Europe, one would think that traits of coordination, teamwork, committed operatives would shape subsequent attack narratives. And it no doubt heightened French consciousness as to their status as target and the severity of their homeland threat, with ripple effects across law enforcement agencies beyond the continent. All nine perpetrators were EU citizens of Arab heritage, most of whom travelled to Syria (among other conflict zones) and some of whom used refugee crowds to enhance their EU mobility, including Belgian-Moroccan attack leader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was missed at border checkpoints despite an international arrest warrant for terrorist-related charges.
While policymakers note the game-changing nature of the Paris attacks, France had been on high alert since the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Île-de-France attacks. In those linked attacks, French-Algerian brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi attacked Hebdo headquarters on January 7, killing 12 people and injuring 12 more, before escaping. Simultaneously, their close French-Malian friend Amedy Coulibaly synchronized three shootings in which he killed a jogger in Fontenay-aux-Roses on January 7, an unarmed police woman in Montrouge on January 8 (also severely injuring a street sweeper), and four patrons, after taking hostages, at the Jewish Hypercacher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes on January 9. After the Hebdo ambush, the brothers Kourachi, on January 9, stormed the printing offices of Creation Tendance Decouverte, taking one hostage during an eight-hour standoff with elite forces in which they were both killed. The attacks were inspired by different organizations—the Kouachi brothers received training in Yemen and were associated with Al-Awlaki and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while Coulibaly pledged bay’at to ISIS—but there are clear overlaps in the tactics, training, targets, and teamwork.
In the 10 months between the Hebdo attacks at the start of 2015 and the Paris attacks at year’s end, four additional high-visibility incidents occurred, as well as a spate of smaller or failed plots: the August 21 Thalys train attack and attempted mass shooting by Ayoub El Khazzan thwarted by US servicemembers; the June 26 Saint-Quentin-Fallavier beheading by Yassine Salhi who killed his employer, staked his severed head, covered it with a cloth of the Shahada, and used his van to ram gas cylinders to blow up the facility; the April 19 attack against two churches in Villejuif by Sid Ahmed Ghlam; and the February 3 stabbing by Moussa Coulibaly of three servicemembers guarding a Jewish community center in Nice.
Using the occurrence of seven fatalities or more as a data trend, this cluster of French attacks begins not with Charlie Hebdo but with the March 2012 Toulouse and Montauban attacks by French-Algerian petty criminal Mohammed Merah. Prior to that only two incidents in the 1980s and 1990s have similarly large fatalities. Merah consecutively killed (much like Coulibaly would later do) a paratrooper in Tolouse on March 11 and three paratroopers in Montauban on March 15, and then—on March 19, using a motor-scooter—he attacked Jewish schoolchildren at Ozar Hatorah, killing four civilians, including a rabbi and three children. Days later, on March 22, during a 36-hour siege at his apartment, Merah injured police using a wealth of trafficked firearms: three Colt 45s, an AK-47 assault rifle, an Uzi, a Sten, a Winchester 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, a 9mm Glock, and a Colt Python .357 Magnum revolver. In a country with restrictive gun laws, such a cache of weapons is a result of organized, illicit supply chains, something that again belies the familiar narrative of a single individual working alone.
Much is known about Merah’s criminal acts because he filmed them using a GoPro camera strapped to his body. The recording and desire to disseminate these attacks is a prime indicator of this actor’s alignment with the core communicative goal of terrorism and his commitment to a preexisting audience and community of supporters. Merah made a video of his crimes, setting murders to music and Quranic verses, and pitched it to the Al Jazeera news agency. However, in the aftermath of the attacks, news media and experts posited Merah as a solitary figure, disconnected from organized efforts, and even a victim of French immigration policies. Later developments from the investigation, less thoroughly covered in the media, found Merah had not worked alone. He made more than 1,800 calls to more than 180 contacts in 20 different countries, in addition to trips to the Middle East and Afghanistan. It appears he was a devotee of Al Qaeda, ISIS’s erstwhile competitor for extremist hearts and minds.
One of the most outspoken voices against Merah’s terrorist victory narrative turned out to be his older brother Abdelghani Merah, who wrote a book “to counter the hero-worship of Mohamed among some young French Muslims,” which he dedicated to the victims. In interviews, the elder brother recalls a climate of hate and anti-Semitism during their childhood, recording his sister praising her brother’s action in support of Bin Laden, and visiting his mother’s house for his brother’s wake only to find neighbors “congratulating” his mother: “Be proud. Your son brought France to its knees.” Worrying for his own son, whom he made sure had “a proper education” and a “good foundation” to “resist their doctrine,” Abdelghani was firm in responding that his brother was “no hero” but a “common assassin.”
Abdelghani anticipates an increasingly vocal and articulate group comprised of self-conscious community and religious reformers, dissidents, extremist defectors, among others, who are now beginning en masse to play a pivotal role in both resisting jihadist doctrine and in exposing tacit supporters (including those unwittingly educated into extremism) by challenging the terms of extremist debate and by raising sensitive issues from inside religious and ethnic communities. Figures such as Maajid Nawaz of the UK-based counter-extremist think tank Quilliam, among many others, are doing yeoman’s work in research, policy best practices, engaging hard-core extremists, and in educating confused members of the press, public, and government, who are often too quick to conflate Islam, Islamism, and jihadism, or recycle the lone-wolf narrative without realizing its costs, especially for young people coming into contact with jihadist extremist networks.
Toppling the Edifice: Targeting Terrorism’s Logistical Infrastructure
A third and final suggestion is to make ideological and material links the analytical bedrock for understanding and preventing future terrorism.
Terrorism is a regional and global problem, one built on a logistical infrastructure of ideas, resources, committed actors, and incentivized groups. In the case of the recent Nice attacks, three types of terrorist infrastructures were mobilized: (1) trafficked weapons involving crime networks and smuggling; (2) illicit money transfers involving organizations with a stake in the act and often deep pockets; and (3) online communications and social networks tied to Islamist ideology. In fact, the Bouhlel case highlights that contemporary terrorism relies not only on accomplices but on an increasingly multicultural and international infrastructure. This dual citizen of France and Tunisia used weapons from Albanian contacts; communicated his plans to a contact in Syria; sent images of his criminal conduct as well as money to connections in Tunisia; and scouted attack sites days before the attack, as per alleged instruction from Mideast operatives. He was known to law enforcement and likely to local communities, and both could have pushed back harder against Bouhlel, highlighting the fact that civic and civil society must do more to identify terrorist infrastructures and offer counternarratives to harmful ideas and unlawful practices. The same could be said for the recent Normandy attackers, Algerian-born Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean, who killed the elderly French priest Jaques Hamel, both were under law enforcement surveillance or supervision.
In order to identify such behavior at an early stage, it is essential to shift from unhelpful, media-friendly concepts to empirically based frameworks: to “low-tech” not “lone-wolf” terrorism; to case facts and fact patterns involved in individual and cross-case acts of terrorism; to the obvious symbols and conventions of message-driven forms of political violence; and to the ideological frameworks and logistics networks that fuel terrorist activities. We forget such organizational empirics at our peril.
Beyond giving us an accurate understanding, analysis based on case facts reduces the risk of unwittingly amplifying jihadist messages. Well-intentioned analysts—government officials, journalists, or law enforcement—occasionally find themselves serving precisely the strategic message-function for which many global terrorist organizations are designed. One example of this entanglement is the use of nebulous “Muslim grievances” to excuse or rationalize political violence, as if well-planned mass atrocities deliberately targeting noncombatants, the lion’s share of which afflict Muslim-majority states, are accidental. By falsely attributing terrorism to existing “grievances” instead of organizations, we are led to believe that individuals are committing acts of extreme violence largely on their own, without help from a global terrorist infrastructure. While the mechanisms of radicalization are complex, validating “grievance narratives” as an excuse for political violence has also crept into government explanations, again as if lack of employment, say, explains countless unspeakable atrocities deliberately committed against civilians worldwide.
The reality is that such grievance narratives are often supplied by terrorist ideologues who target western-based immigrant audiences for recruitment, especially those removed (by time, geography, or culture) from direct exposure to sectarian violence or structural (that is, legal) disenfranchisement. As social movement theorists like Quintan Wiktorowicz show, the heightening of real or perceived grievances is a pivotal first step in the radicalization process. Manufactured grievance narratives are designed to distort and direct individuals to groups with no capacity to remedy the grievance itself. And officials and experts in recent months have muddied the organizational waters by denying obvious terrorist links, obfuscating religio-political inspiration (no matter how fringe or iconoclastic), or piling a slew of speculative, ancillary motives on top of perpetrators’ expressed claims of terrorist organizational commitment.
The use of the flawed lone-wolf concept indulges such habits and it denies the collaborative, strategic logic of most acts of jihadist terrorism—thus adding to a climate of insecurity. Policy statements that refute terrorist actors’ own publically disseminated statements about their actions are especially caustic to public trust (as in the case of Orlando, Florida). Likewise, in describing organized low-tech tactics as lone-wolf incidents, authorities introduce a fear-inducing element of randomness and omnipresence into these events, with the idea that the normal frustrations of everyday modern life—workplace irritation, unemployment, unrequited love—are plausible vectors of extreme terrorist violence.