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Why cops should focus on the lone-actor domestic terrorist

At present, terrorist attacks happening in the United States have been different from what typically occurs overseas


In this Dec. 2, 2015 file photo authorities search an area near where police stopped a suspected vehicle in San Bernardino, Calif. State lawmakers want to see if lessons can be learned from the way first-responders reacted to the San Bernardino terror attack that killed 14 people last year.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes,File

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The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Stated simply, a terrorist wants to change the behavior of a targeted group, and uses violence — or the threat of violence — in order to accomplish the objective. Radicalized Islamist terrorists have been increasingly active in Europe in the past eight years, and of course have laid waste to large swaths of territory in the Middle East.

At present, terrorist attacks happening in the United States have been different from what typically occurs overseas.

Overseas — where large volumes of unexploded ordinance and other explosives are readily available — attacks can be relatively large in scale, leaving scores dead and injured from an improvised bomb. Due to the nature of the battlefield in Syria and Iraq especially, terror groups are able to operate largely in the open with little fear of arrest or other consequence. Terrorists can form fairly large groups and conduct somewhat complicated operations. With the exception of suicide bombers, they commit attacks and retreat into the shadows, intending to live to fight another day.

None of this is the case here in the United States.

Because of the difficulty in covertly planning and executing a large-scale attack involving a significantly sized “cell” of like-minded terrorists and utilizing explosives as weapons, the most common type of terrorist attack in the U.S. is now committed by “lone actors” who have become radicalized by online propaganda from groups like ISIS. Their weapons of choice are small arms, edged weapons and vehicles. Their plans are uncomplicated — they can barely even be called plans in many cases. They sometimes include their own deaths in their tactics.

Consider this list of terrorist attacks conducted by radical Islamic jihadists since Sept. 11, 2001. Recall these incidents and think for a moment on their commonalities.

2002 — Shooting at El Al ticket counter at LAX — 2 dead
2002 — D.C. Beltway sniper killings — 10 dead
2006 — Shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation — 1 dead
2009 — Shooting at Fort Hood — 13 dead
2009 — Shooting at a Little Rock military recruiting office — 1 dead
2013 — Boston Marathon Bombing — 5 dead
2014 — Beheading in an Oklahoma food processing plant — 1 dead
2015 — Shootings at two military facilities in Chattanooga — 5 dead
2015 — The San Bernardino shooting — 14 dead
2016 — The Orlando nightclub shooting — 49 dead

In all but two of those attacks, the weapons used were small arms — the outliers were a pair of homemade bombs and a blade. In all but three of those 10 attacks, the terrorists were lone actors. In the three instances in which more than one terrorist was involved, one pair was virtually father and son (D.C. Beltway), one pair were brothers (Boston), and one pair a married couple (San Bernardino).

Three may keep a secret ...

Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

The plotters who work in groups larger than two have a much higher probability of being detected by police. A Sept. 11-type attack has become monumentally more difficult to successfully commit. The level of preparation necessary for the 9/11 attacks was unprecedented. According to the Sept. 11 Commission Report, the attacks committed by those 19 foreign-born jihadis cost somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute and was more than five years in the planning phase. An operation of that scope today would very probably be seen by a much more watchful security apparatus.

A lone actor is far more difficult to discover before they launch an attack. They are, however, often less lethal than a large group working in concert. Sept. 11 cost more than 3,000 lives. While horrible, deplorable and tragic, the most deadly attack by a lone actor has taken the lives of 49 innocents.

It is important to note that lone actors are generally not “loners” who feel detached from society. Contrary to common opinion that lone actors suffer from social isolation, self-radicalized jihadi lone actors tend to be fairly well connected with their community, especially to their friends at their place of worship, whether that is online or in the real world.

This is why one of the most important elements in preventing lone actor attacks is the engagement of the non-radicalized majority of Muslims. They will have the highest likelihood of seeing behavior that might foretell the desire to commit a violent terrorist attack.

Agencies that serve even the smallest community of Muslims should make every effort to make a positive connection with elders and leaders of those houses of worship. It will take a period of time to establish the necessary levels of trust, but that is true of police establishing trust with any community. Police need to build those bridges to allow for the exchange of information that can prevent an attack by a lone actor.

Online propaganda and recruiting

ISIS has stopped publishing Dabiq, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the online recruitment and propaganda game. The group is now putting out a magazine called Rumiyah, which is Arabic for Rome. The name refers to an Islamic prophecy that tells of the downfall of Rome and calls for killing infidels.

The new publication is meant to be easier to read and digest by the potential recruits in the western world. Dabiq — which was named for the location of apocalyptic battle in Muslim mythology — was heavily theological. Rumiyah is written in straightforward “how to” style, which closely mirrors Inspire, the online propaganda magazine published — on and off — by al Qaeda.

For example, the latest issue of Rumiyah contains an article which instructs potential terrorist recruits on how to commit an attack with a fixed-blade knife. It advises, “ When carrying out a knife operation, it is not advised to target very large gatherings or overly crowded areas, as this presents a disadvantage and only increases the likelihood of being prevented from achieving kills.”

Jihadi rhetoric in online videos and recruiting magazines has for some time called for attacks on military and police. In fact, one issue of Dabiq said, “You must strike the soldiers, patrons, and troops of the tawāghīt. Strike their police, security, and intelligence members, as well as their treacherous agents. Ruin their sleep. Embitter their lives for them and busy them with themselves … kill them in any manner possible.”

These two passages form an important nexus. We have already seen self-radicalized jihadi attackers come at police with edged weapons — recall the machete-wielding man who attacked four NYPD officers.

Police should pay attention to the online rhetoric put out by groups like ISIS and AQAP. The fact is those groups have specifically targeted the mentally unstable in their recruitment efforts. They would far rather have American citizens carry out attacks on Americans than have to send fighters from the battlefields of the Middle East to commit terrorism here.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.