The March issue of Al Qaeda’s Inspire Magazine is now out and is this time featuring The Lone Mujahid Pocketbook—drawing heavily on past issues—and emphasizing home-grown, lone wolf and softer target attacks with instructions to make them accessible to many. While on some levels it’s laughable —it also brings up some troubling issues to consider regarding possible attacks from potential home-grown terrorists.
First question—if the current administration’s drone strikes are so effective in decapitating Al Qaeda’s leadership why is there still an active al Qaeda core that is able to put out such a publication? Are the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Adam Gadahn and their brothers residing within reach of Internet capability—in Pakistan perhaps—as did now slain Osama bin Ladin who was living almost right next door to their military academy? And are our troops sacrificing life and limb fighting the so-called “War on Terror” while our so-called ally is harboring them? If so, this is deeply troubling…
Likewise with advice being promulgated over the Internet of “Don’t travel to jihad—instead strike at home—work alone and hit domestic western targets to create economic havor, terror and harassment”—we must ask ourselves how likely are these al Qaeda inspired home-grown and lone terrorists to emerge from among us?
When I interviewed terrorists and violent extremists over the last decade in places ranging from the Middle and Far East to all over Europe, I found that there were four necessary ingredients that made up the lethal cocktail of terrorism—1) the group and its many functions, 2) the ideology that justifies attacking civilians, 3) some level of social support and 4) the individuals vulnerable to be caught up in it all. And I found that inside conflict zones revenge and trauma were often enough to make many willing to join if they had exposure to a terror group and its ideology. Whereas in non-conflict zones—such as in Western Europe—it’s more about personal experiences of discrimination and marginalization, looking for a positive identity, belonging, adventure and escape. And as the terror groups bring—through pictures and videos—disturbing images from the conflict zones to the nonconflict zones—the misplaced belief in altruistic heroism also is a draw as terrorist operatives come to believe they are helping the wider ummah by enacting terrorism.
In Europe I found the Muslims converts and reverts who resonated to the al Qaeda ideology and who were willing to consider “martyrdom” operations were mostly second generation immigrants facing ethnic tensions, unable (or unwilling) to fit into society angry, marginalized, and unemployed, or under-employed as a result of discrimination. Seeking meaning and adventure in their lives they decided to belong elsewhere—to terrorist groups.
What about in the United States? Will we see the call to rise up and fight made from the likes of American terrorists like the Somali-American rapper Omar Hammami, California raised Adam Gadahn and others—to strike at home and abroad—resonating with American Muslims?
We saw Major Nidal Hasan taking a gun and attacking at his own military base—as a lone active shooter—in the way al Qaeda advises. We have seen Somali boys resonating to the call made in person by European Somali militant jihadis coming from the battlegrounds—who portrayed themselves as manly heroes to these impressionable youth. And we’ve seen another wave of Somali boys go in response to the first wave who telephoning and messaging back home glorified the militant jihad to those still at home. We also watched in horror as Faisal Shahzad placed a vehicle laden with explosives in Times Square.
We need to ask ourselves why did these Muslims here in the U.S. join? What did they resonate to and if others follow—why, how and where will they attack and what can we do about it?
First it’s important to realize there are very few lone wolf terrorists—it requires too much (misplaced) courage and self-initiative to go it alone—so most require a group and ideology to act. However, there is now a group and an entire “university of jihad” (as Reuven Paz terms it) available 24/7 via the Internet to anyone who logs on—so both the group and ideology are there for the taking all day and night long. Indeed as the latest issue of Inspire encourages—avoid Internet and phone—use instead SITE and Memri (two excellent counter-terrorism monitoring sites) to read AQ documents on how to carry out attacks. So solo actors can now take instructions virtually from al Qaeda with no meetings and no training camps needed.
Will those living amongst us respond? In the case of some we already know the answer—yes.
Some already did. In all cases their responses were mediated by deep and emotionally laden concerns over our actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and by our collateral damage in drone strikes. In addition Nidal Hasan had a Palestinian background and may have already been deeply and personally affected by the events of the Second Intifada in which “martyrdom” suicide missions there became nearly the norm.
What can we do to make it a no?
The best answers are what is already good about America—that those living here believe that we are a free and open society, that they can protest and right things they believe are wrong through existing institutions that work well—rather than through the use of violent attacks—and that they have the hope of a good future. Those are not the only answers but good things that we need to insure for all of us, on all levels of society, if we don’t want to end up in the European situation of having disgruntled minority groups resonating to the AQ call to terrorism.
Likewise we need to keep civilian deaths, torture, soft torture and all compromises to the conscience of our great country to a minimum so that Adam Gadahn and his ilk cannot use pictures of Abu Ghraib, pictures of children burned up in drone strikes or stories of war crimes committed by our soldiers to whip up vulnerable individuals living here.
If we can do that we have taken significant steps to ensure that the Lone Mujahid Pocketbook remains a meaningless and laughable document in al Qaeda central’s back pocket and stays there—unlikely to be implemented by anyone here.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is the author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”