The horrible tragedy in Orlando is rightly focusing attention on the threat posed by lone wolf terrorists—that is, radicalized individuals or couples who carry out attacks like those in Boston, San Bernardino, and Orlando. Yet there is a greater threat to the national well-being from small groups of terrorists, we can call them wolf packs, that could bring much greater carnage. If America’s Muslim community is scapegoated and ostracized, the wolf pack threat will grow.
The idea of lone wolf attacks goes back well before the emergence of the self-styled Islamic State two years ago. The New Mexico-born radical Anwar al Awlaki urged individual Muslim Americans to carry out mass casualty attacks years ago. His English-language web magazine “Inspire” was the vehicle for self-radicalized extremists to learn how to make bombs and conduct violent jihad. The Fort Hood shooter was his disciple. Awlaki’s message is still virulent despite his death by drone in Yemen in 2011.
More recently, Hamza bin Laden, the son of al-Qaida’s founder, has issued two messages from his hide-out in Pakistan urging lone wolf attacks in Europe, America and Israel. The first came out a year ago and included the endorsement of Ayman Zawahiri. The second came out last month.
The Orlando shooter paid little attention apparently to the differences between radical Islamic organizations. He reportedly praised the Shiite Hezbollah, Sunni al-Qaida, and the Islamic State. The message of jihad is so pervasive now that has become a part of the global dialogue.
As deadly as the Orlando shooting was, it is not hard to envision worse given the horrific attacks in Paris and Brussels this year. Organized conspiracies of a relatively small number of extremists prepared to die in their attacks can do far more damage than individuals or couples.
Organized conspiracies of a relatively small number of extremists prepared to die in their attacks can do far more damage than individuals or couples.
The role model of a wolf pack attack was the November 26, 2008 attack in Mumbai. A pack of ten well-armed and trained Pakistani terrorists attacked simultaneously and sequentially luxury hotels, fancy restaurants, a train station, and a Jewish hostel. Westerners and Israelis were singled out for attack but the majority of victims were innocent Indians. The operation even had a secure command post back in Pakistan where the terrorist handlers from Lashkar e-Tayyeba and Pakistani intelligence coordinated the plot by cell phones.
The Paris attacks imitated many of the Mumbai tactics and added suicide vests to the mix. The Islamic State took the Mumbai model to Europe. It no longer required a foreign base like Pakistan, the conspiracy operated in the depressed Islamic slums of Brussels and Paris where the security services had few sources.
The closest to a wolf pack attack in the United States was an al-Qaida plot in 2009 to attack the New York City subway system. That was foiled because our intelligence services detected the conspiracy.
Islamophobia is the path to more catastrophic violence.
By definition, conspiracies involving even small numbers of plotters are easier to detect than lone wolves. The first line of detection is the local Muslim community where the plot is hatched. When local communities become angry pockets separated from the rest of the nation, it is much harder to find and foil conspiracies. In Europe, unfortunately, there are many such disaffected Islamic communities. America doesn’t have them, at least not yet.
That fastest and surest route to wolf pack conspiracies in America is to scapegoat all Muslims and create an angry jihadist sub-culture. That is why calls for prohibiting Muslim travel to America are so dangerous and counter-productive. It will inevitably create a backlash. Islamophobia is the path to more catastrophic violence.