Rajnath Singh's call for special anti-terror cell: Focus must be on DIY terrorists rather than lone wolves

Home Minister Rajnath Singh recently echoed the apprehensions of the intelligence community in calling for a special cell to combat the so-called 'lone wolf' type of attacks, as well as 'do-it-yourself' terrorists. With a virtual avalanche of extremist online videos on the one hand, and a divisive societal milieu on the other, there is good reason to fear attacks by terrorists who are otherwise not even on the periphery of  intelligence radars.

The term 'lone wolf' is generally used to describe a terrorist apparently acting on his own, self-motivated, and with few if any links with the outside world. The term has caught the public imagination, with its overtones of a solitary wolf, hunting its prey in the darkness of the night.  The reality however, is somewhat different. Most terrorists tend to talk, and talk a lot. A study by the University of Pennsylvania found that in at least 83 percent of cases, others were aware of the grievances that spurred the terrorist to action. Even more surprisingly, in 64 percent of cases, family or friends were actually aware of the individual's intent to engage in terrorism-related activity.

This seems to be borne out by cases where so-called lone wolves such as Afghan American Omar Mateen were actually part of a highly radicalised group. Investigations indicated that Mateen’s attack against a gay bar that killed 49 and wounded more than 50, was not only facilitated by his wife, but that he was part of a highly radicalised family and other supporters. His father had formed a non-profit group in support of the Taliban, and his own web statements indicated his admiration of the Afghan group. As intelligence officers have often found to their cost, the signs were there, and probably picked up at some point. But given the huge volume of data that is generated daily, it got overlooked.

File image of Rajnath Singh. PTI

File image of Rajnath Singh. PTI

A second fallacy arises from the general usage of the term to denote terrorism only, or even Islamic terror. In fact, the majority of lone wolf attacks have been whites for a variety of causes. This is particularly relevant in the US which has witnessed the largest number of such attacks. For instance, the text book 'lone wolf' attack was by Theodore Ted Kaczyinsky, known as the 'Unabomber' who sent letter bombs between 1978 and 1995, in a protest against industrialisation. Between 1990 and 2009, there were only two instances of what might be termed a classic Islamic terror attack in the US, and that was by a Pakistani Mir Aimal Kansi, who shot two employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, and then fled to Afghanistan.

The other was by an Iranian-American who drove a Jeep into a crowd of students, but failed to kill anyone. During the same time period, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma city bomber used a truck bomb to kill 168 unfortunate people, apparently with a view to toppling a hated government. Even in the UK, lone wolf attacks were more associated by Far Right extremists rather than jihadis. This included a Ukrainian student who built a highly-effective bomb in an effort to target a mosque.

Some of the worst attacks of 2017 were by right-wingers or the mentally ill. In October 2017, Stephen Paddock opened fire at crowd in a country music festival in Las Vegas killing 59. He was found to be seriously depressed. Another was in Canada, where on 29 January last year, a political science student opened fire on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City killing six. Yet, in the mainstream, today's lone wolf is associated with jihadism —with such perceptions cemented by the Westminster Bridge attack by British-origin convert Khalid Masood. That attack killed five, and since it was followed quickly by group attack on London Bridge in June, served to emphasise the jihadi threat.  The fact that the Islamic State did call for attacks at home at its very inception, with its spokesman Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani making a particularly incendiary statement in September 2014, certainly helped to focus the source of threat.

The problem with studying lone wolf incidents is that there have been so few, when compared to planned group attacks that have become routine in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Research indicates that lone wolf attacks have constituted about 1.28 percent of all terrorist cases in some 15 countries, with the largest number in the US. A later study commissioned by the US government studied cases from 1940 onwards and found that while lone wolf attacks had increased only marginally from 38 (1940 to 2000) to 45 (2001 to 2013), post-9/11 attackers used a wider variety of weapons. The data set again reinforced the fact that such attacks were also carried out largely by the Far Right. White supremacists generally attacked the police, while Al-Qaeda sympathisers attacked the military.  The latter are of course a post-9/11 phenomenon.

The home minister's separation of the DIY type of terrorist from lone wolves is valid. DIY terrorists could be far more dangerous, since some expertise is a given, as also a high degree of intelligence. An instance is that of Syed Farooq and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple who went on a shooting spree at a Christmas party in San Bernardino in December 2015. The two had a virtual arsenal at their home, including several weapons and pipe bombs. Both were Pakistanis, and Malik had been studying at the ultra conservative Al Huda religious institute.

The Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017, appeared at first to be a classic DIY case since the terrorist assembled the bomb himself, using the highly unstable explosive TATP, also called triacetone trioxide. However, investigations later indicated that the bomb design was similar to those used earlier in the attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016. Clearly, he had expert help. None of these turned out to be at all like lone wolf attacks. DIY terrorists therefore can be taken to be part of a group — however small, though carefully remaining off surveillance radars by keeping their communication signatures low. Alternatively, they may benefit from training given at an earlier time.

India has seen plenty of such DIY attacks. Bombings in Mumbai, Hyderabad and in fact, almost every attempted or successful bombing has been with locally-made bombs. A study of bombs used in a particular series of attacks have usually shown a high degree of commonality, indicating careful instructions or training. The Intelligence Bureau has an unsung history of preventing such attacks, with the nabbing of an Islamic State module in Hyderabad only the most recent.

Classic lone wolf attacks have thankfully, yet to be attempted. But that time is likely to be soon. Terrorists are notoriously 'cut and paste' in their methodology, and attacks seen as 'successful' — that is, where they receive huge media attention — will certainly be replicated.

Given the realities of such terrorism, firstly, a lone wolf attack could come from any source, from any religion, and with diverse motivations. Second, a derivative lesson is that such loners are likely to be in urban settings, where a degree of anonymity is assured. Third, despite the very high Pakistan factor in nearly all attacks, a lone actor — depending largely on the internet, may have no perceptible links to that country at all.  Fourth, the likelihood of low-grade attacks — with a truck or car — is higher than that of a shooting. Thankfully, it is still difficult to acquire lethal weapons in India, though even that is eroding. And fifth, the lesson from all such attacks elsewhere is that somewhere, someone talks. No man in an island, least so a terrorist.

A man who would drive a truck into a crowd is far from stable, and is likely to have shouted out his grievances to those prepared to listen.  The trick is to find out not just who’s talking, but who’s listening.

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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2018 12:49:58 IST

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