TSG IntelBrief: A Call to Terror: Inspiration-Driven Wolf Packs
December 5, 2014

A Call to Terror: Inspiration-Driven Wolf Packs

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Dalal al-Hashemi, a United Arab Emirates (UAE) citizen from Yemen, was arrested on December 4 in Abu Dhabi after murdering an American teacher and planting a bomb at the house of an American doctor; early evidence indicates that she didn’t act alone

• This latest attack is a modification of “lone wolf” attacks, that can more accurately be described as “wolf packs” in that, through social media or family ties, recent terrorist actors have committed or planned violent acts with a small number of like-minded people

• The late September exhortation by the Islamic State for its supporters to strike Western targets where and when they can has precipitated attacks committed by either individuals or small groups—acting on inspiration and not instruction—in Ottawa, New York, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia

• These wolf packs present counterterrorism officials with a great challenge, in that they don’t travel to war zones for training or guidance but rather remain off the radar by staying local and conducting low-tech but terrorizing attacks that are within their normal patterns of travel and lifestyle.

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While the connection to international terrorism remains unclear, the December 4 arrest of Dalal al-Hashemi, a UAE-citizen from Yemen who murdered an American teacher in Abu Dhabi and planted a crude improvised explosive device (IED) at the residence of another American, fits into the trend line of small groups of violent extremists acting out through inspiration instead of communication. These unconnected cells are sometimes lone wolves but now can also be seen as wolf packs: a small unit that operates within its normal territory and within its patterns of normal activity while hunting for a target. They are without guidance and communication from extremist groups such as the Islamic State, and so there are no lines of communication and logistics to detect and disrupt.

Since 9/11, counterterrorist (CT) agencies have, at great cost and effort, developed effective measures against node-based terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, in which a home office sends out directives through couriers to branch offices across the region and globe. This apparatus doesn’t work well against the current and coming threat. Wolf packs function without communication and in groups of often less than five, meaning they operate under the radar that CT agencies have set up to detect their operations.

On September 22, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the spokesman of the Islamic State, issued a statement directing supporters to kill Westerners wherever possible, saying, “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.” Wolf packs, as well as lone wolf attackers, are taking this general exhortation and launching specific attacks, cutting out the vulnerable nodes of direct communications that agencies have learned to monitor. It’s as difficult as detecting exactly who will buy a car after watching a car advertisement: the terrorist leaders themselves don’t know their operatives.

Traveling to fight in Syria is an indicator that CT officials use to monitor suspects, often with great success—as seen in Brussels where law enforcement thwarted a plot of returning jihadists. A lone wolf attacker committed an earlier shooting at a museum in Brussels, but he had been on the radar due to his previous travel to Syria. Wolf packs don’t need to travel; they operate within their home range, and avoid flagging themselves in the process.

Two days after Adnani’s message, an Algerian group called Jund al-Khalifa, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, murdered French national Hervé Gourdel in Algeria. Since then, terrorist attacks of exactly the nature urged by Adnani have transpired in New York City, with an axe attack on police officers; in Ottawa, with the murder of a Canadian soldier and the breech of parliament; in Saudi Arabia, with the deadly attack on Shi’a and the separate attacks on Danish and American nationals; and now in Abu Dhabi, with the murder of an American teacher. An earlier attack in August on an American oil/gas professional in Sinai Egypt predates Adnani’s statement but is attributed to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), a group now aligned with the Islamic State. The New York City and Ottawa attacks appear to be perpetrated by individuals, while the attacks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to be from packs, presenting great difficulty to CT agencies looking for patterns.

All of these attacks however, were apparently incited indirectly, but resulted in direct action. There may be more established lines of communication between the Islamic State and groups like ABM and Jund al-Khalifa, but the important CT lesson is that there doesn’t have to be: the ideology and messaging is taking the place of planning and coordination. These attacks are intentionally crude, since it is in the planning and testing phase that terrorist groups are most vulnerable. As they’ve done with their social media messaging, terrorist groups are now crowdsourcing their operations as well, making it nearly impossible to disrupt the scattered wolf packs.

The hallmark of these groups is that the attacks might fail as often as they succeed—a reversal of the post-9/11 period where al-Qaeda was hesitant to fail in the “next spectacular,” lest it be seen as a defeat. The new generation of attackers aren’t concerned with that image. These wolf packs are not aiming for the next spectacular attack; they are trying to inflict death by a thousand small cuts. In doing so, they strike out in counterintuitive ways, without communicating with the core of the group—circumventing current CT measures that are aimed at preventing the next 9/11.

 

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