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French municipal police boat near the beach in Nice.
Op-Ed

Rethinking lone wolf terrorism

The man who drove a truck through packed crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing more than 80, may have acted alone, according to the early reports. We don’t know if he was inspired by a jihadist ideology or linked to any specific group. In any event, these extremist groups are increasingly embracing a “lone wolf” approach, and the West should prepare for more such attacks.

I’ve argued that such lone wolf” attacks are deadly but often fail in the long-term. Part of the reason is that historically many are poorly prepared and incompetent, bungling the attack or at least not killing as many as a more skilled and trained individual might.

Yet the horrific body count in Nice, along with the 49 dead in recent Orlando nightclub shooting, shows how deadly even an unskilled loser like Omar Mateen can be.

This deadliness is not new – Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, largely acting alone, killed 168 people when they bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 – but it suggests the potential lethality of lone wolves.

A Weaker Islamic State

The Islamic State is putting more emphasis on lone wolves out of desperation.

In the past, it urged its sympathizers to go to Syria to help the fledgling state defend itself and expand. However, the United States, France, and other countries and local fighters hitting hard at the Islamic State’s core in Iraq and Syria. Other major areas of operations, like the Islamic State’s “province” in Libya, are also under siege. The self-proclaimed state is short of funds, and the number of foreign recruits is declining.

Like all terrorist groups, the Islamic State needs victories to inspire new recruits and prevent existing members from losing hope. CIA Director John Brennan foresaw this in testimony and warned, “as the pressure mounts on [ISIS], we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”

A silver lining is that lone wolf terrorism, even if lethal, usually fails in a strategic sense. As one IRA terrorist said, “you don’t bloody well kill people for the sake of killing them.”

Violence with no strategy behind it terrifies, but it can backfire against a group and the cause it embraces. McVeigh and Nichols, for example, discredited other far right movements. McVeigh claimed he was dealing a blow against a tyrannical government, but the death of 19 children and three pregnant women in the bombing made it hard even for anti-government zealots to defend him.

In Nice, the driver killed children out to watch the fireworks, and the dead included innocent Muslims, like the grieving young man asking Allah to accept his mother into heaven may (and should) become the face of the attack, hardly a heroic move in a holy war that would inspire others.

Although the Islamic State’s moves smack of desperation, that is no comfort to anyone concerned about terrorism.

Difficult To Prevent

Terrorist groups that draw on foreign fighters or otherwise are organized tend to be more deadly and dangerous in the long-term, but lone wolves are exceptionally hard to stop. The very organizational connections that give most terrorism direction are by definition lacking, and thus it is harder to find and disrupt the attacks. So more attempts, and likely some successful ones, seem inevitable.

One clear recommendation – and the one least likely to be heeded in the aftermath of a terrorist attack – is to ensure community support. If a community has good relations with the police and society in general, it has fewer grievances for terrorists to exploit and is more likely to point out malefactors in their midst.

Even though he was never arrested, Mateen came to the FBI’s attention because a local Muslim found him worrisome. In France in particular, however, relations between the Muslim community and the government are often poisonous, and a terrorist attack will probably make this worse as France’s already popular far-right movement becomes strong. And this will only mean more lone wolves will slip through in the future.

This piece originally appeared on NPR’s Parallels.

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