Post-9/11: Why the ‘lone actor’ is a significant terrorist threat today

The radicalized lone-actor who resides in the United States is an increasing threat


When we solemnly remember the deadliest foreign attack on American soil in our history, we should take stock of how the threat of terrorism has changed since that sunny Tuesday in September 2001. 

Recall that on September 11, 2001, 19 radical Islamist jihadi terrorists hijacked four airliners and flew them into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth airliner – which had been heading for Washington, D.C. – crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the hijackers were defeated by the courageous passengers of Flight 93. 

Nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed and more than 6,000 others were injured that day. It was also the most deadly day in American history for law enforcement. According to ODMP, 71 officers were killed when the two World Trade Center buildings collapsed in New York City. Dozens more have passed away in the years following 2001 as the direct result of illnesses contracted while working in the hazardous conditions immediately following the attacks in New York.

The dust and smoke over lower Manhattan has long since cleared, but the threat of radical Islamist terrorism remains. The symbols of American freedom remain targets, and our law enforcement officers are on the frontlines of the domestic counterterrorism fight. (AP Image)
The dust and smoke over lower Manhattan has long since cleared, but the threat of radical Islamist terrorism remains. The symbols of American freedom remain targets, and our law enforcement officers are on the frontlines of the domestic counterterrorism fight. (AP Image)

Very quickly, the intelligence community suspected al Qaeda. That terrorist organization had a penchant for coordinated and spectacular-scale attacks most notably, its operatives had carried out the bombings on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While al Qaeda has been all but dismantled, ISIS is on the rise overseas, and there is another (and less-detectable) threat that has emerged the radicalized lone-actor who resides in the United States.

A different threat today

For a whole host of reasons, a 9/11-type attack has become monumentally more difficult to successfully pull off. For starters, on Monday, September 10, 2001, our national level of consciousness about the mere topic of terrorism was painfully and foolishly low. Now, it’s all about “see something, say something” for the public while a dedicated group of federal agencies listens to, infiltrates, and arrests potential plotters. 

Furthermore, the level of preparation and planning necessary for the 9/11 attacks code named “The Big Wedding” was unprecedented. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the attacks cost “somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute.” According to the BBC, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed first presented his idea to Osama bin Laden in 1996. The “pilots” in the attack had to obtain enough training to adequately fly technologically advanced airplanes two Boeing 767 aircraft and two Boeing 757 aircraft were used — and the “knife guys” needed to conduct multiple dry runs. 

Putting 20 remember that one of the terrorists did not make aboard Flight 93 to participate in the attack people into such a complex plot today would almost surely be detected by authorities. Indeed, even a vast number of lone-actor plots have been defeated from Faisal Shahzad in in New York to Mohamed Osman Mohamud in Oregon, the Feds have shut down many would-be lone-actor attackers. 

Prevention is obviously the primary objective, but response has also been important and each case of a successful attack on our soil, American law enforcement has show itself to be true heros. Most recently, we had cops in Orlando and San Bernardino take care of business, but recall the heroic work of police in Boston, DC, and Fort Hood. This is because cops are better trained than ever before in our history they are getting much more of the type of training which is taking place during Urban Shield this weekend.

Indeed, American cops are on the front lines of the domestic counterterrorism fight, and time and again we have seen officers rise to the challenge. However, our record of interception and prevention is not 100 percent successful.

Here is a partial list of terrorist attacks conducted by radical Islamic jihadists since September 11, 2001. Recall these incidents and think for a moment on their commonalities. 

    2002: Shooting at El Al ticket counter at LAX 2 dead
    2002: DC Beltway sniper killings 10 dead
•    2006: Shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation 1 dead
    2009: Shooting at Fort Hood 13 dead
    2009: Shooting at a Little Rock military recruiting office 1 dead
    2013: Boston Marathon Bombing 4 dead
    2014: Beheading in an Oklahoma food processing plant 1 dead
    2015: Shootings at two military facilities Chattanooga 5 dead
•    2015: The San Bernardino shooting 14 dead
    2016: The Orlando nightclub shooting 49 dead

In all but three of those 10 attacks, the terrorists were lone-actors. In the three instances in which more than one terrorist was involved, one pair was virtually father and son (DC Beltway), one pair were brothers (Boston), and one pair a married couple (San Bernardino). In all but two of those attacks, the weapons used were small arms (rifles and pistols) the outliers were a pair of homemade bombs and a blade. 

Those abovementioned attacks did not involve 19 people from a half a world away. Not a half million dollars in investment. Not five years in the planning. These were simple attacks. In fact, that’s the whole point. It is much easier to keep a secret in a family home than among unrelated compatriots. It is also easier to use simple weapons than multi-million-dollar aircraft. And that is our new reality.

Inspire, Dabiq and open-source Jihad

For several years after 9/11, various terrorist organizations most notably AQAP sought to recruit vulnerable, disaffected, mentally and emotionally unstable young men via online channels. Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan created Inspire with the specific mission of influencing these impressionable individuals into conducting attacks on the West. In their footsteps, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ISIS colleagues created Dabiq, named for the city alleged in some Islamic writings to be the site of the final apocalyptic battle between Muslims and the Kafir/Infidel.

Light fires in the forests, Inspire advised. Use automobiles as weapons on the freeways, it said. For years, none of that happened those instructions simply went unheeded. Most terrorism experts believe the majority of susceptible individuals felt that unless there was enough of a “body count” from an attack, it was not worth risking life and limb. 

Then a U.S. Army psychiatrist with a handgun killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others at an Army base in Texas. Following that, the Boston bombers found an article online called “Making a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” and brought brutality to Boylston Street. 

While al Qaeda is largely on the decline, ISIS has been active in elicitation of lone-actor attacks in fact, that organization has also influenced some of the abovementioned attacks. Further, here is a partial list of ISIS-influenced attacks that did not produce fatalities, but were terror attacks nonetheless:

  • A hatchet-wielding man charged at four NYPD police officers in 2014
  • Two men opened fire in a Dallas suburb outside cartoon contest in 2015
  • The ambush attack on the Philly cop at a downtown intersection in 2016

Furthermore, other terror groups from al-Shabaab to Boko Haram to Lashkar-e-Taiba  have developed an online audience sympathetic with their terrorist agendas. Their YouTube channels and other social media sites may not be as sophisticated as the slick propaganda magazines Inspire or Dabiq, but they are just as dangerous. 

Looking to the future

Indeed, times have changed. The threat is at once at once smaller and larger the difficulty in a successful large-scale attack is higher and yet, there are more potential attackers lying in waiting who we may never see until they unleash their nefarious attack. They are being radicalized by online forums, chat rooms, and even mainstream social media sites, taking simple instructions from sources such as Inspire, Dabiq, and others, and plotting attacks on Americans. 

For the past decade and a half, overseas attacks in places like Ankara, Beslan, Belgium, Mumbai, Paris, and other places have signaled what we might someday see here. 

In August 1996, UBL issued a 30-page fatwa entitled, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” In it bin Laden said called on followers to concentrate on “destroying, fighting and killing the enemy until, by the Grace of Allah, it is completely defeated.”

Cops call that a clue yet most people had no idea what that declaration of war meant. Even after the bombing on the USS Cole in Yemen and the abovementioned embassy attacks in Africa, most Americans knew nothing about the Islamist menace on the morning of September 11. 

For many in law enforcement, 9/11 was a shock, but it was not a surprise. And herein lies the most important lesson of the day, a decade and a half later: We’ve got the clues. We’ve seen the warning signs. We know the threats. We know the enemy. We need to consider the many clues that now lay bare before us. 

Radicalization on the Internet has become widespread. Groups like al Qaeda and ISIS have specifically targeted the mentally unstable in their recruitment efforts. Some have been interdicted and stopped others have been highly successful. We need to redouble our efforts to see the warning signs, and have the fortitude to act before a plot is unleashed, rather than bow to political correctness and wait until something cooks off and respond in the aftermath. 

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