Over the past few months, a growing number of jihadist attacks have taken place in western countries. These attacks were linked to the activities of the Islamic State (IS) and were carried out under its mandate. The questions that arise immediately from the current situation are whether these attacks are organized by IS (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria); if any comparison to previous al-Qaeda-organized attacks is feasible; and, finally, whether their rise should be cause for concern in terms of a new approach regarding domestic and international security.
During the month of September 2014, more than 40 countries joined the United States in the fight against the Islamic State.[i] Soon after, territories held by IS (or for lack of a more accurate expression under the sovereignty of al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate), were hit by airstrikes launched by the western coalition. As a direct response to this initiative, a call for “lone-wolf attacks” by IS on the US and its allies’ soil, was made.[ii] It urged the followers of Islam to execute the “infidels” without mercy, all the while detailing the ways with which they could carry out their attacks (i.e. bombings and beheadings). The first group that aligned itself in a public manner with IS, were the self-appointed Soldiers of the Caliphate. They emerged on September 14th, 2014 in Algeria and made headlines quickly by organizing the abduction and subsequent beheading of French tourist Hervé Gourdel, after France failed to agree to the Soldiers of the Caliphate’s terms to cease all and any involvement or support in the Syrian civil war.[iii] The Frenchman’s violent execution on September 28th, 2014 was followed by the group’s declaration of joining the Islamic State’s fight against the “infidels”. With this decision, the group adopted the Caliphate’s violent, gory and unprecedented way of handling things.
Following this were the two incidents that transpired in Canada, on the 20th and 22nd of October 2014, in Montréal and Ottawa respectively.[iv] They occurred in the space of three days and both resulted to the death of their protagonists. The civilian casualties were two Canadian soldiers who were caught in the crossfire. What needs to be acknowledged is that, in both cases, the initiators (Martin Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau) were converts to Islam who had no direct or even indirect contact with the network of the Islamist State. These were men who acted on their own will, engaging in an act – informed by the call for lone-wolves – that ultimately led to their deaths. They were referred to by the media as “would-be jihadists”.[v]
Following this pattern, another event was retrospectively registered on the jihadist attacks radar in Moore, Oklahoma on September 25th, 2014.[vi] Alton Nolen, a recent convert to Islam, attacked and beheaded his coworker after being fired the previous day. The ways with which that particular attack could be – even remotely – connected with al-Baghdadi’s agenda and call-to-arms was tenuous. Although it was treated as such, the event’s ramifications could not, in good conscience, be put aside. The beheading of a 53-year-old worker by Alton Nolen should be examined under the microscope of the ever-evolving clout that the Islamic State’s jihadist propaganda has in the minds of the radicalized Muslim population.[vii]
Nevertheless, after careful consideration of the homicide, one comes to the frightening conclusion that this was, and still is, the predominant difference between these types of attacks and the ones organized by al-Qaeda between 2003 and the Boston marathon bombing of April 2013.[viii] The attacks during that period were planned ahead, meticulously put together, and originated from the core of al-Qaeda’s organization. This was a system from which attacks could possibly be intercepted and prevented. The way today’s lone-wolf attacks work is that anyone, at any time, can turn into a jihadist. That is precisely the fear that the call of September 2014 was aiming at.
It was a piece of jihadist propaganda that targeted western countries, hoping for two outcomes: the first one would be to dissuade western countries from joining the US-led coalition, while the second one would be to get people talking about the Islamic State’s values and attract more volunteers to join the fight in Syria and Iraq. Needless to say, the second objective was far more successful than the first one.[ix] Although the attacks shocked the general public, the countries’ resolve to stay in the fight against the jihadists in Syria and Iraq grew stronger, making, however, the burden on each country’s administration a heavy one.
The next and most recent attack that shares a connection with the call for lone-wolves was the Sydney-based hostage situation by Man Haron Monis, on December 15th, 2014, one that still haunts the minds of the Australian population. The attack, ending with two casualties and four injured, shocked and sent the Australian and worldwide media into a jihadist-seeking frenzy, one that this time, could not be attributed to an overindulging sense of fear and xenophobia.[x] Elsewhere, in France, in the midst of the Christmas season, two acts of violence were reported from the cities of Nantes and Dijon, leaving several injured. The attackers both screamed Allahu Akbar (“God is great”) before engaging in their act.[xi] This was followed by al-Qaeda – essentially taking a page from al-Baghdadi’s playbook – urging lone-wolf attacks on western airlines, such as EasyJet, Air France and British Airways, in the latest edition of its online magazine, published on December 25th.[xii]
The final quarter of 2014 was riddled with attacks that were – one way or the other – connected to the Islamic State’s call to arms. The attacks were perpetuated by mentally unstable individuals, estranged from society, with a history of violence that would easily have gone through the same motions and committed these crimes without any affiliation with IS. Nonetheless, one needs to acknowledge that this affiliation persists, and enables copycats to follow suit.[xiii] Consequently, the threat of another strike in the near future remains imminent, even if the collateral damage has been, so far, limited. As a result, the countries’ administrations have been upgrading their security measures.[xiv]
To this date, the most gruesome attack occurred on Wednesday January 7th, 2014, when two masked men entered the offices of the well-known French satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris, screaming Allahu Akbar, murdering 12 people in cold blood (among them famous cartoonists Charb, Cabu, Tignous and Wolinski) and injuring many more.[xv] The two brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi were killed in northern France following a three-day manhunt. Another man, Amedy Coulibaly, was killed in Paris during a hostage situation at a kosher shop. He claimed he had planned the attacks with the Kouachi brothers.[xvi] On January 9, 2015, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took responsibility for the attacks and confirmed that the brothers belonged to one of its cells in France. These events solidify the copycat theory and the probability of the lone-wolf attacks ushering the beginning of a new and unpredictable streak of terrorism. Soon after, on January 15th 2015, Belgian security forces successfully dismantled a terrorist network planning attacks against the police.[xvii] France and the rest of Europe are now on high alert and the rest of 2015 will surely be plagued by the fear of acts of terrorism. On January 21st 2015, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced a series of counter terrorist measures – estimated at 735 million euros – for the monitoring against jihadism in France.[xviii] The fact of the matter remains that by targeting a workplace near the centre of the cultural capital of Europe, the ensuing publicity was nothing short of staggering.
In the end, its success in attracting followers and volunteers is the edge that al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State has on the al-Qaeda network, whether that is within Syria and Iraq or in the rest of the world.[xix] The whole affair has turned into a popularity contest in which the Internet and its various communication tools have more than proven themselves as the go-to arsenal of the 21st century. Nowadays, al-Qaeda looks obsolete in contrast to the Islamic State’s constantly evolving web presence as well as its well-publicized “success stories” in achieving its goals. These methods effectively point out the main difference in approaches between al-Qaeda and its former affiliate in Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s objective was to plan a large number of attacks that would lead to the toppling of governments and the creation of small hardcore Islamist states that would eventually merge into a Caliphate, whereas al-Baghdadi’s schism originated as a departure from that theory, by developing the notion that taking a territory – one even of small size – and establishing a Caliphate there, was the way to go.[xx] Hence its appeal: while al-Zawahiri speaks of the future from an undisclosed location, al-Baghdadi plans for the present from his own personal State.
When taking all of the above into account, one can give new meaning to this call for lone-wolves, virtually translating it as the Islamic State’s version of “launching airstrikes at the West”. Since the Caliphate lacks the infrastructure or even the extended network to retaliate against the US-led coalition, its influence is the only real – even if unpredictable – weapon at its disposal against the West. And it’s also free of charge.
[i] Ashley Fantz, Who’s doing what in the coalition battle against ISIS, CNN, October 9, 2014.
[ii] Josh Levs & Holly Yan, Western allies reject ISIS leader’s threats against their civilians, CNN, September 23, 2014.
[iii] Le Point, Qui sont les soldats du califat qui ont exécuté Hervé Gourdel ?, September 23, 2014.
[iv] Le Monde, Attentat à Ottawa: le tireur espérait partir pour la Syrie, October 23, 2014.
[v] Richard Valdmanis, Canada’s plan to defang would-be jihadists at home, Reuters, October 29, 2014.
[vi] Reuters, Victim in Oklahoma Food warehouse incident was beheaded, September 26, 2014.
[vii] Heavy, Is the Oklahoma Beheading the First Lone Wolf Attack in America?, September 26, 2014.
[viii] John Eligon & Michael Cooper, Blasts at Boston Marathon Kill 3 and Injure 100, New York Times, April 15, 2013.
[ix] Daniel Byman & Jeremy Shapiro, Be Afraid, Be Just a Little Afraid, Slate, October 2, 2014.
[x] Robert Spencer, Sydney jihad hostage-taker: Australia is under attack by the Islamic State, Jihad Watch, December 15, 2014.
[xi] Reuters, France steps up patrols after spate of lone-wolf attacks, December 23, 2014.
[xii] Susan Edelma, Al Qaeda magazine gives bomb-making recipe for airline attacks, The New York Post, December 29, 2014.
[xiii] Brian Fraga, Jihadist Attacks in the West not going to stop, Aleteia, December 19, 2014.
[xiv] Catherine E. Schoichet, Terror threats Western nations on alert, CNN, December 24, 2014.
[xv] Le Monde, Comment s’est déroulée l’attaque contre Charlie Hebdo, January 1, 2015.
[xvi] Reuters, Charlie Hebdo shooter says financed by Qaeda preacher in Yemen, January 9, 2015.
[xvii] Jean-Pierre Stroobants, Le gouvernement belge déploie l’armée contre la menace djihadiste, January 17, 2015.
[xviii] RFI, France to monitor 3,000 suspected jihadists, spend 735 million euros on anti-terror measures, January 21, 2015.
[xix] David D. Kirkpatrick, Attacks in West Raise New Fears Over ISIS’ Influence, The New York Times, October 24, 2014.
[xx] Armin Rosen, ISIS is running an alarmingly effective terrorist state, Business Insider, December 1, 2014.
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