Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lone Wolves = Good News?

The risk of Islamist "lone wolf" terrorism may be on the rise:

A newly declassified Canadian intelligence report is warning about the emerging threat posed by "lone wolf" Islamist terrorists who operate completely on their own.

Terrorists inspired by al-Qaeda have, in the past, tended to work in cells, but the report says they are beginning to use the solo strategy once associated with the militant far right.
Lone wolves such as Timothy McVeigh can do damage, of course. But they're not going to pull off an attack on the scale of 9/11 or the East Africa embassy bombings. So in a sense, this could be seen as good news. If they don't feel secure gathering together, that's a victory for our counterterrorism efforts.

But there's another view: The idea that this is all a great strategic distraction, to keep us chasing our tails:
Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman said he believes the Canadian assessment is correct and that the shift is part of a larger strategy to distract and exhaust Western counterterrorism agencies.

"I think it's right but I think this is yet another example of the strategic sophistication of our adversaries in that by encouraging lone wolves, I think they're trying to suck the resources from our security and intelligence services and police departments," he said.

"In other words, if there's a homegrown threat, which is one thing, now there's a lone wolf threat. And I think they're both legitimate. I think part of al-Qaeda's strategy, the jihadi strategy, is to get everyone so consumed with these grassroots threats that it gives greater scope to the real professionals to operate."
Such a view is in harmony with what bin Laden himself said in 2004:
All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the [American] generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses ...
So, what to do? Spend energy on the risk of lone wolves, or continue focusing on preventing the emergence of more organized operations? My vote is for the latter.

Lone wolf attacks, even in a series, would be localized and unlikely to have a lasting effect on the U.S. From a risk-management perspective, the better option may be to continue focusing on preventing the formation of operational cells that could inflict greater damage.

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