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10 years after 9/11: Police watch for 'lone wolves' following death of Anwar al-Awlaki

To many people in the English-speaking world, al-Awlaki has been the face of al Qaeda since SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan

With the reported killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the United States has secured an important victory over al Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise, dubbed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, while al-Awlaki’s death is a significant blow to al Qaeda, we must resist any temptation to believe it decapitates the organization in a significant way, or that it reduces the overall threat posed by the type of radical Islamist Jihadist attacks which are still the most likely to occur here on American soil — that of the lone wolf Jihadi.

To many people — particularly those in the English-speaking world — al-Awlaki has been the face of al Qaeda since U.S. Navy SEALs killed the terrorist network’s leader in Abbottabad five months ago (actually, probably for years before that day in May). In fact, then-CIA Director (now U.S. Defense Secretary) Leon Panetta said in July that al-Awlaki was a “priority target” alongside Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s official successor as al Qaeda’s number one. All day, on the PoliceOne newsroom TV, CNN has called al-Awlaki al Qaeda’s “heir apparent.” While this is not precisely correct, to many individuals, it is a de-facto truth.

Having been born, raised, and educated in the United States, al-Awlaki has served as al Qaeda’s primary spokesman to English-speaking Muslims, and his efforts have inspired a number of attacks and attempted attacks. He has been linked to Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, the would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and two of the 9/11 hijackers. Most recently, al-Awlaki (and AQAP) appears to have inspired U.S. Army Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo, arrested in July and charged with planning another attack on Fort Hood.

Anwar al-Awlaki’s death could deprive al Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise of an important asset in the group’s outreach to the English-speaking world and its efforts to inspire grassroots operatives there, which is the primary threat he posed to the United States and the West. (AP Photo)
Anwar al-Awlaki’s death could deprive al Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise of an important asset in the group’s outreach to the English-speaking world and its efforts to inspire grassroots operatives there, which is the primary threat he posed to the United States and the West. (AP Photo)

Hunting Lone Wolves
To get a sense of what al-Awlaki’s death could mean for American security in the near term, I spoke today with my good friend Fred Burton, a top counterterrorism expert at STRATFOR. Regular readers will recall that Burton — for several years now, my go-to guy on all matters related to counterterrorism strategy — has spent most of his adult life in the counterterrorism arena, beginning with his service with the U.S. Department of State Counterterrorism Division, where he orchestrated the arrest of Ramzi Yousef.

“I’ve been talking with a lot of folks inside the beltway today and they haven’t raised the issue [of organized reprisals] as a concern,” Burton told me. “We have not heard of any specific reprisal attacks. Obviously, when you have this kind of an event you run the risk of turning the individual into a martyr. But if you see anything [happen], in all probability you’re looking at the kind of lone individual who has a pistol and does something along the lines of the Little Rock shooter — the guy who did the drive by and just started shooting. Those would be more of the emotional kind of responses by like-minded individuals who want to be Jihadis.”

This concept of the lone wolf attacker being the most likely type of possible reprisal in the short term fits for myriad reasons, not least of which is that for a more coordinated effort to occur, there would be more planning, more moving parts, and consequently requiring more time to unfold. But there’s something more.

Anwar al-Awlaki has been closely linked with Nasir al-Wahayshi, who has placed a great deal of emphasis on strategic communications as a form of Jihad. This has been reflected by the amount of resources the group has devoted to its Arabic-language magazine (called Sada al-Malahim) and the English-language magazine Inspire.

It is important to note that al-Wahayshi has taken the lead in advocating that Muslims embrace a leaderless Jihadi model. The terms “leaderless Jihad” and “lone wolf Jihadi” are about as interchangeable as you can get without being purely interchangeable. For example, Inspire magazine regularly features a section called “Open Source Jihad,” which has simple picture+caption instructions on everything from field stripping a rifle to building homemade IEDs. The magazine also contains previously published material from Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab al-Suri and, of course, the now-deceased Anwar al-Awlaki.

Furthermore, there are reports that Samir Khan, the creator and editor of AQAP’s Inspire magazine, was also killed in the airstrike, according to an email alert I received from my friends at STRATFOR. Khan, a longtime publisher of Jihadist material, was born in Saudi Arabia but raised in the United States (Khan moved to Yemen from his parent’s home in North Carolina when he learned the FBI was investigating him for publishing Jihadist material).  

What’s a Cop to Do?
To put it simply, just keep your eyes peeled — if something looks “hinky” it probably is.

“Obviously, with this kind of event, it’s always good to be on point,” Burton told me today. “If I was wearing my hat back in DC or if I was wearing my hat as being in charge of the State of Texas Operations I’d make sure that the patrol officers in the vicinities of military installations, major military facilities, and recruiting stations are more alert for that kind of activity. Every department should already have this kind of data mapped and done threat assessments on these places.”

You may want to drive past that bridge one more time today than you ordinarily would, you may want to look for dumpsters or other things that are oddly out of place. If you have a bar or nightclub in town where a number of off-duty military personnel spend time, you may want to stop by before the place gets busy and say hello to the proprietors. Then stop by again later — you may be there anyway to cart off some inebriated patron, but if not, stop by again nonetheless.

Burton concluded that while we are not likely to see any kind of large-scale, highly-coordinated, multiple-location attack in the days to follow Anwar al-Awlaki’s death, we must all remain vigilant for the emotionally-driven, lone wolf attacker. His bullets can be just as deadly as those of the ten men whose swarm attack held the city of Mumbai in a state of pure terror for nearly three full days. In all probability, any reprisal attack that happens here over the weekend or into next week would be an emotional-driven, lone wolf type of an event.

We need only remember the body count in Oslo just a couple of months ago to be reminded that a highly-motivated, reasonably-well-equipped, and strategically-savvy individual can wreak havoc with just a diversionary tactic and a “small arms” follow-up attack.

It can happen here, my friends.

One Final Word...
Anwar al-Awlaki had been in the U.S. crosshairs since his killing was approved by President Barack Obama in April 2010 — making him the first American placed on the CIA ‘kill or capture’ list. The fact that he was American-born has a handful of civil liberties groups questioning the government’s authority to kill an American without trial.


Without even getting into the fact that I don’t view our counterterrorism activities conducted overseas as being a strictly law enforcement or a strictly military endeavor — it’s a shared responsibility of both American law enforcement and the United States military, obviously — any such Constitutional argument doesn’t square with my reading of Tennessee v. Garner.

Garner  says that deadly force may be used when it is “necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

Let’s take that apart for a moment, the last part first.

• First off, U.S. officials say al-Awlaki had taken a direct operational role in organizing attacks as he hid alongside al Qaeda militants in the rugged mountains of Yemen — thereby posing “a significant threat of death or serious physical injury” to others
• Second, al-Awlaki has been in near-constant hiding — classic “escape” and evasion tactics — ever since he left the United States to recruit young men to attack our citizens

So: check, check, and Checkmate, in my opinion.

Granted, I’m not a lawyer, but when I look at the letter and the spirit of the Garner ruling, and use it as the measuring stick in the killing of al-Awlaki, I can comprehend no objective person who could reasonably say that dropping a bomb on al-Awlaki ’s head wasn’t totally warranted and justified.

I have good friends who would agree — and good friends who would disagree — with my opinion that justice was done today. What do you think? Sound off in the comments area below.

Stay safe... stay vigilant.

STRATFOR and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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