The possibility that a killing rampage by a French gunman was a solo campaign will inject fresh urgency into Western efforts to detect “self-starter” or “lone wolf” terrorists before they strike.
The tactic Al Qaeda calls “individual jihad”—low-tech attacks by untrained sympathizers acting largely or completely on their own—may seem a sign of weakness in an organization that mounted the team-based raids of Sept 11, 2001.
But the approach makes up in stealth for what it can lack in lethality, because the lack of outside support reduces the risks of detection, and such attacks can still have a huge impact.
So for Western counter-terrorism agencies the loner, often radicalized unseen and online, is an increasing cause of concern, and security specialists are worried the low-level gun rampage in France may now inspire copy-cat attacks.
“‘Lone wolves’ who plot to carry out small-scale attacks on soft targets, like those in which seven people have been killed in France, could be the future of terrorism,” said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation counter-terrorism research group.
“This has sent out the message that followers of al Qaeda can carry out successful attacks, can precipitate terror, on their own. This is exactly what happened in France: people were scared to go out, schools were under guard, there was a real sense of insecurity - that is true terrorism.”
Mohamed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, died from gunshot wounds on Thursday at the end of a 30-hour standoff with police at his apartment in southern France. He confessed to killing three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi.
ACTING ALONE, OR WITH OTHERS?
He told negotiators he was trained by al Qaeda in Pakistan and killed three soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan.
His death deprives police of the opportunity to obtain the information they needed most of all - a first-hand account of whether he was acting alone or in concert with others.
Britain, host to the 2012 Olympics and, like France, often cited by al Qaeda as a priority target, will be paying close attention to any lessons that are learned from the Merah case.
London police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said in February the prospect of a lone wolf attack had been on their minds since the killing of 77 people last July by anti-Islam militant Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik.
“After we saw the attack in Norway by a single individual - that has been part of our planning over the last year,” he said.
“It has been about identifying an individual in this country or abroad and if there is a possibility of someone like that attacking the Olympic event. We think that is very unlikely but obviously it has formed part of our planning this year as we lead up to the Olympics.”
President Barack Obama said on Aug. 16 a “lone wolf terrorist” like Breivik now presents a bigger risk to the United States than a large-scale operation.
DRIVEN BY HATE, OR MERELY DERANGED
“When you’ve got one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage, and it’s a lot harder to trace those lone wolf operators,” he told CNN.
Equally troubling, from a counter-terrorism perspective, is that the attributes of loner militants vary hugely, representing a phenomenon that is poorly understood by security specialists with expertise in hunting transnational networks of cells.
The more untrained or unintelligent the militant is, the more likely he or she is to be detected. Incautious Internet activity or sloppy pre-attack surveillance of a target are two ways Western security can be alerted.
Risk of detection rises also in the event that al Qaeda sympathizers try to build a bomb: police in many countries monitor purchases of potential components.
But the challenge remains considerable.
Merah had been under intelligence surveillance and the MEMRI Middle East think tank said he appeared to belong to a French al Qaeda branch called Fursan Al-Izza, ideologically aligned with a movement to Islamise Western states by implementing sharia law.
But he had done nothing especially to arouse suspicion that he was planning an act of violence.
Anna Boyd, a terrorism expert at Exclusive Analysis, said that the location of self-starter attacks was “very often somewhere you would not expect, just because it’s where the person happens to live. It’s ‘just up the road’ from them.”
Gohel said if a cell was only one or two people “it’s a lot harder to monitor their activities, to trace their networks, and so on. In previous cases, the ability of the authorities to disrupt the planning stage has been low, because you don’t get the leakage of information that you get with a larger cell”.
“WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?”
Will Hartley, a terrorism expert at IHS Jane’s, said it was possible for an individual to generate a huge amount of media attention merely with a gun attack.
Counter-terrorism experts will be examining every aspect of Merah’s life and recent activities to try to discern if his alleged killings were part of a joint effort.
But some experts said that even if al Qaeda had nothing to do with the attacks, it is likely to voice approval of them, if not claim credit for them outright.
“We’ve definitely seen them encourage it more since the Fort Hood shooting,” said Boyd, referring to the killing of 13 people at a U.S. army base by an army major who prosecutors have said was inspired by an al Qaeda preacher online.
“And though they never commented on the Breivik shooting they were probably watching that with great interest, and seeing how effective that managed to be.”
Even before Breivik, al Qaeda was examining the loner tactic. Under pressure from a relentless U.S. missile campaign in its Afghan-Pakistan border hideouts, the group appeared to have concluded that lone wolf attacks were better than nothing.
The group, which had long favored complex, team-based plots like the Sept. 11 attacks, gave its most explicit endorsement of the tactic after Osama bin Laden’s May 2011 killing.
On June 2, 2011, Islamist online forums carried an appeal by al Qaeda core leaders for individuals in the West to carry on bin Laden’s work with “do-it-yourself” strikes.
“Muslims in the West have to remember that they are perfectly placed to play an important and decisive part in the jihad against the Zionists and Crusaders,” al Qaeda official Adam Gadahn says in the video, entitled “You Are Responsible Only For Yourself”.
“Take America as an example. America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms ... What are you waiting for?”
Reporting by William Maclean; Editing by Robert Woodward