“He is a terrorist.” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s unflinching description of the person responsible for the tragic attacks on Muslim worshippers in her country captured the changing nature of political violence in the 21st Century. In the past, a terrorist was mostly recognizable as someone committing violence at the direct behest or on behalf of some existent organizational entity or movement that had an identifiable chain of command. This criterion, as Ardern’s statement suggests, has outlived its usefulness.
In recent years, a variety of both foreign and now domestic extremist movements have adopted and vigorously advocated via social media a strategy that encourages “lone wolves” to engage in individual acts of violence against a broad array of designated enemies. This breed of inspired adversary is a more recent and distinctly different kind of terrorist — to which traditional organizational constructs and definitions do not neatly apply. Terrorism today is thus also populated by individuals who are ideologically motivated, inspired, and animated by a movement, a leader, or a mélange of ideological mentors but who neither necessarily formally belong to a specific, identifiable terrorist group nor directly follow orders issued by its leadership.
This is a structure and approach that has been most closely associated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the militant Salafi-jihadi, Islamist militant organization, whose governance over parts of Syria and Iraq has been systemically eroded since 2014 by the global coalition of 79 countries mobilized to defeat it. In response to this historically unprecedented onslaught, the Islamic State actively embraced the lone wolf strategy to retain an operational capability and also ensure its survival. Thus, far from the battlefields in Mosul and Raqqa, Islamic State disciples have independently carried out vehicular, stabbing, and shooting attacks in France, Finland, England, Australia, the United States, and Canada, among other countries.
Although these lone wolf attacks may be less sophisticated and their perpetrators perhaps less capable than their more professional, trained counterparts — such as the Islamic State terrorists who executed the simultaneous suicide attacks that convulsed Paris in November 2015 — they can be just as bloody-minded. The truck driven into a crowd of Bastille Day celebrants in Nice the following summer, that killed 86 persons, is an especially heinous example of this now familiar threat.
However, this strategy has its origins not in the Middle East or with a foreign Muslim terrorist organization but in America and with our own variant of far-right terrorism. It dates, moreover, to the late 1980s. Then, frustrated by the FBI’s success in penetrating the racist white supremacist movement then active in the western United States, a Vietnam War veteran and former Grand Dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan named Louis Beam conceived the lone wolf strategy. Beam’s concept was to avoid the mistakes of the past whereby white supremacist groups were undermined and ultimately neutralized by arrests and informants. His idea was instead to encourage individuals, who would operate completely independently of one another, whose individual terrorist acts would serve and fulfill the aims and ambitions of the broader ideological movement.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al-Qaeda’s leader, adopted this same strategy for that organization following that organization’s defeat and expulsion from Afghanistan in December 2001. In his treatise, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner: Meditations on the Jihadist Movement, published just three months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, al-Zawahiri advocated lone wolf operations in the chapter titled, “Small Groups Could Frighten the Americans.”
It was not, however, until the rise of the Islamic State, that al-Zawahiri’s original summons acquired the impact, impetus, and momentum that the al-Qaeda leader had hoped. In language strikingly reminiscent of al-Zawahiri’s, the statement issued by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman at the time, subsequently proved much more effective in inciting random acts of violence on a truly global scale. Utilizing a variety of freely available social networking platforms, al-Adnani’s fiery summons to violence reached a far wider and more geographically diffuse audience via social media than al-Zawahiri’s comparatively priggish exhortation to violence that was only available in print.
The Islamic State’s remarkable success in speaking to a global audience via social media and digital means is another inheritance of sorts from Louis Beam and America’s own domestic terrorists. Indeed, in the early 1980s, Beam also pioneered the use of now-primitive computer bulletin boards as a means for like-minded hatemongers in the United States and Canada to communicate with and inspire one another to violence as well as to circulate ideological treatises otherwise outlawed by these two countries’ respective postal services. Beam had therefore well positioned the 21st-century far right to exploit and make full use of the advanced capabilities afforded by the Internet and the variety of social media and messaging apps available today.
The Christchurch gunman indeed took full advantage of modern communications technologies both before and during his attack. He hinted at it on Twitter; publicized it on the anonymous message board 8chan; and posted links to his 74-page manifesto titled, “The Great Replacement,” explaining himself and his actions, on both sites. He also strapped a camera to his forehead in order to live-stream the shootings and posted links on the Internet on how the footage could be accessed. Nearly half a century ago, terrorism expert Brian Jenkins famously described terrorism as “theatre.” The power of social media turned the terrorist attack in New Zealand into a heinous act of performance art.
For the past couple of decades we have rightly been focused on the threat from violent Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Yet, American law enforcement and national security officials have also been warning about the growing threat from the violent far right. A 2004 FBI strategic planning document, for instance, firmly placed the lone wolf threat in the United States within the context of an ongoing threat from the far right at a time when everyone was completely preoccupied with al-Qaeda. “Right wing extremists, espousing anti-government or racist sentiment,” it stated,
will pose a threat because of their continuing collection of weapons and explosives coupled with their propensity for violence. The most significant domestic terrorist threat . . . will be the lone actor, or ‘lone wolf’ terrorist. They typically draw ideological inspiration from formal terrorist organizations, but operate on the fringes of those movements. Despite their ad hoc nature and generally limited resources they can mount high-profile, extremely destructive attacks, and their operational planning is often difficult to detect.
This assessment accurately presaged over a dozen attacks perpetrated by white supremacists, racists, anti-Semites, militant opponents of legalized abortion, and anti-federalists. It also fits the profile of last fall’s shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and tragic killings in New Zealand. A 2009 Department of Homeland Security report titled, Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment had also warned that a combination of the previous year’s downturn in the economy coupled with the election of the country’s first African-American president and unemployed veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were potential flashpoints leading to a resurgence of far-right violence. It was rescinded by Secretary Janet Napolitano after complaints from Republican legislators and conservative commentators and bloggers.
Further, on October 1, 2018 — nearly a month before the Pittsburgh synagogue attack — the White House and National Security Council issued an updated National Strategy for Counterterrorism. This fourth iteration of our strategy in this area since the September 11, 2001 attacks notably was the first to cite the growing threat of violent far-right extremism both globally and domestically.
Given that the violent American far right is responsible for the articulation of two of the most consequential trends in global terrorism today — lone wolves and the first known use of computers for radicalization, recruitment, and inspiration — their growing global footprint and the threat they pose will likely continue to evolve and possibly increase. Their historically innovative approach to terrorism coupled with the spread and resurgence of their malignant ideology presents yet another formidable challenge to law enforcement and intelligence agencies already inundated with terrorists from a variety of adversaries, both foreign and domestic.
White nationalist terrorism and its violent, politically motivated variants — embracing racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-government sentiments — have existed in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Australia among other countries for decades. The difference is that in the past these acts were mostly isolated, spasmodic outbursts of violence. Today, however, the Internet and social media are capable of uniting disparate, disgruntled individuals into an ideologically more cohesive echo-chamber that serves as a platform to radicalize, inspire, motivate, and ultimately perpetrate acts of wanton violence as we have recently seen. The New Zealand authorities demonstrated how governments can quickly intervene to restrict the spread of this repugnant, violent propaganda online — but this is reaction not prevention and the latter will be the subject of intense debate, discussion and scrutiny by governments and these media platforms. As when all threats to society surface, a balance has to be struck between the preservation of the free and open expression inherent to the Western, liberal-democratic state and the protection its citizens expect from the authorities.
Five years ago, for instance, when U.S. law enforcement agencies were asked to identify the most serious violent extremist threats they faced in their respective jurisdictions, they cited far-right, anti-government extremists; followed by Salafi-Jihadi inspired extremist violence; radical environmentalists; and, racist, violent extremism. But, given the rise of violent white nationalism and far-right extremism, and the power of 21st-century communications platforms, the threat is evolving rapidly. The relevant authorities both in the United States and elsewhere need to be fully knowledgeable about these dangerous advances in radicalization and recruitment, the ease of exchanging operational and attack information, and the indicators that can facilitate intervention, prevention, and hopefully the thwarting of future terrorist incidents. Additional intelligence sharing, training, and education to keep pace with this dynamic, unfolding threat is needed. And, immigrants and citizens alike need to be confident that those charged with their protection are thoroughly versed and capable of effectively responding to this threat.
Bruce Hoffman is a professor at Georgetown University and the Shelby Cullom & Katharine W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations.