The Boy Who Cried Lone Wolf

If someone hands you a completed bomb and sends you on your way, you're doing it wrong.

The Friday, Feb. 17, arrest of a would-be suicide bomber in Washington, D.C., led to a fresh paroxysm of analysis in the media on the ominous threat of "lone wolf" terrorism on U.S. soil.

"How to catch a 'lone wolf'" was the headline at the Christian Science Monitor. The headline at "The 'lone wolf' -- the unknowable face of terror." ABC's World News reported on the arrest and warned of other "so-called lone wolves" with a quote from former White House counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke, who claimed that people "spontaneously can become terrorists without any real communications connection to al Qaeda."

ABC then cut to a picture of Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber, who had traveled to Pakistan to train with a branch of the Taliban, which helped pay for the attack and publicly claimed responsibility within hours of its failure.

"Lone" wolf, indeed.

The Moroccan-American man arrested Friday for attempting to blow up the U.S. Capitol building, Amine El Khalifi, was also far from alone. He was in contact with men he thought were part of al Qaeda, and those men handed him a complete (but inert) suicide vest and an automatic weapon to carry out his attack. The fact that those men were FBI undercover agents is beside the point: If someone claiming to work for al Qaeda hands you a fully assembled bomb for your attack, you are not a lone wolf.

While lone-wolf terrorism exists and is legitimately cause for concern, the threat it presents revolves around the idea of an individual who will carry out attacks without direction from abroad and without help from a terrorist organization or cell.

Consider the following cases, all of which have been cited as examples of lone-wolf terrorism:

  • Jose Pimentel: A New York man tries to build a pipe bomb using a recipe from Inspire, the now-defunct English-language magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He enlists a neighbor in the plot, works on building the bomb in another man's apartment, and is accompanied by the second man during virtually every stage of the project.
  • Antonio Martinez: A Baltimore man plots an attack on a military recruiting station. He tries to enlist at least four people from the community to help. Only one agrees to help, introducing him to a fifth person who represents himself as an operative for an AfPak militant organization. The fifth man provides Martinez with a fully assembled bomb.
  • Mohamed Osman Mohamud: A Portland, Oregon, teenager emails someone in Pakistan with links to a terrorist organization to volunteer his services. He subsequently comes into contact with a ring of jihadists who provide him with a fully assembled bomb that he tries to deploy at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
  • Rezwan Ferdaus: A Massachusetts man provides electronic detonators of his own design to two al Qaeda members who promise to send the devices to al Qaeda in Iraq. The al Qaeda members and a third man discuss plans to attack government targets in Washington, D.C., using remote-controlled planes loaded with explosives. The al Qaeda members provide Ferdaus with money to buy the components for this attack.
  • Faisal Shahzad: A Connecticut man single-handedly assembles and deploys a bomb in New York's Times Square. But Shahzad had received financial help and training from the Pakistani Taliban. He was an individual actor, but he was not a lone wolf. He was an agent for a robust terrorist organization.

Does it matter that some (but not all) of the terrorist network members described above were actually undercover law enforcement agents or informants? It doesn't change the fact that none of these individuals was working alone. They were receiving advice, concrete assistance, and passive reinforcement from people they believed -- rightly or wrongly -- to be part of larger terrorist organizations.

None of this means that these guys aren't dangerous, and none of this is to argue that they shouldn't have been arrested. But they are not lone wolves. They are essentially al Qaeda volunteers -- people who step forward and offer their services to a terrorist organization that can provide them with resources and support.

Real lone wolves do exist, and they do present a threat. Only three terrorists have succeeded in killing Americans on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks, and all three were arguably lone wolves, albeit with complications:

  • Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, appears to have acted on his own initiative and using only his own resources. He was in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, the late Yemeni-American cleric, which muddies the issue, but no evidence has emerged so far to indicate Awlaki specifically directed Hasan's actions.
  • Carlos Bledsoe similarly carried out a shooting attack in Little Rock, Arkansas, with no apparent assistance from any other individual. Bledsoe claimed he was affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but no concrete evidence has surfaced to support his claim. He did spend 16 months in Yemen prior to the attack, so it's difficult to completely dismiss the possibility of a link.
  • Hesham Mohamed Hadayet shot and killed two people at the El Al airline ticket counter at the Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. No evidence has ever emerged to suggest Hadayet had an organizational link, but the case is rarely cited by those who would warn us of the growing threat of lone wolves.

Other genuine lone-wolf incidents do exist, and we should be concerned about them. Naser Jason Abdo was allegedly planning to attack Fort Hood soldiers based in part on guidance from al Qaeda's Inspire magazine, and he appears to have acted entirely on his own. This case is exactly what al Qaeda has in mind when it encourages lone-wolf activities.

But the most terrifying lone wolf in recent history was not a Muslim extremist -- quite the opposite. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik made exorbitant claims about a secret organization that backed his anti-Muslim agenda, but no evidence has emerged to suggest this is true. Breivik documented his activities in such detail that it's clear he pulled off the July 2011 terrorist attack in Norway on his own initiative and using his own resources, and he succeeded because of his careful planning. Breivik epitomizes the kind of lone-wolf terrorism that is most dangerous, but also extremely rare.

At this point, you might be thinking, "Who cares? This is all semantics." But there is peril in describing the recent string of individual actors as lone wolves. It's about how we classify and respond to threats.

The primary threat presented by a lone wolf is the difficulty of detection, and that threat is significant. If someone truly acts without any support or significant contact with other conspirators, it is very hard to identify him and prevent him from carrying out an attack.

To combat that tactic, we have to understand it. Lumping all individual actors -- such as El Khalifi, Pimentel, Martinez, Mohamud, Ferdaus, and Shahzad -- under the same heading as genuine lone wolves -- like Hasan, Bledsoe, Hadayet, Abdo, and Breivik -- creates a distorted profile that will frustrate our efforts to identify the threat.

The lone wolf we need to worry about is truly solitary and self-motivated: someone who doesn't talk to people about his plans and doesn't require meaningful assistance from informed accomplices. Anyone who fails to meet those conditions is a different kind of threat.

Dangerous? Yes. Lone wolf? No.

Multnomah County Sheriff Office via Getty Images


The Odd Couple

Iran and al Qaeda might seem like strange bedfellows. But their relationship goes back years.

The U.S. Treasury Department's designation last week of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) as a terrorist supporter is only the latest ratcheting up of pressure against Tehran, and it seems like background noise compared with all the talk of oil boycotts and military strikes. But the designation also highlights one of the most important -- and one of the most mysterious -- partnerships of our time: Iran's relationship with al Qaeda.

It is easy to caricature Tehran's ties to Ayman al-Zawahiri's organization. Believers in the relationship point out that they are natural friends because both endorse an extreme anti-U.S. agenda and seek to spread radical Islam. Skeptics contend that Iran's Shiite regime is anathema for Sunni jihadists, making cooperation prohibitive. Both sides have a point: Shared enemies drive Iran and al Qaeda together, but mutual suspicion keeps the partnership tactical and gives both sides reasons to play it down.

Unclassified data on Iran's relationship with al Qaeda are scarce, but enough can be gleaned or inferred from open-source material to get a sense of the scope of and reasons for the relationship. Last week's designation accuses the MOIS of "facilitat[ing] the movement of al Qa'ida operatives in Iran and provid[ing] them with documents, identification cards, and passports." It continues: "MOIS also provided money and weapons to al Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), a terrorist group designated under E.O. 13224, and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives." Earlier designations have highlighted specific tactical links between al Qaeda and Iran, but the connection goes back years.

Iran's ties to terrorists are undisputed, but its closest relationships are with groups, like the Lebanese Hezbollah, that are composed of Shiite Muslims who embrace Iran's revolutionary Shiism and feel an affinity toward Tehran as the leader of the Shiite world. Al Qaeda, of course, rejects both. Yet while Iran's heated rhetoric leads many analysts to focus on its revolutionary ideology, strategic thinking often dominates the clerical regime's policies toward terrorist groups.

Iran is often more pragmatic than many think. It backed terrorist and militant groups against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, and other enemies even though it had little in common with some of its proxies. In the 1990s, Iran began to forge strong relationships to Palestinian Islamist groups, particularly Palestinian Islamic Jihad but also, to a lesser degree, Hamas. Such relationships weakened Iran's adversary, Israel, and undermined the U.S.-led effort to isolate Iran. They also served the broader Iranian goal of bridging the Shiite-Sunni divide to build a pan-Islamic, anti-American front. (In a recent Friday sermon, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hinted at this ecumenical approach. "We will continue to support any nation or group that fights or confronts the Zionist regime, and we are not afraid of saying this," he said.

Tehran's relationship with al Qaeda grew from these seeds. In 1991 and 1992, Sudan's chief ideologue, Hassan al-Turabi, made Sudan a home to Sunni militants from around the world, including al Qaeda from 1992 to 1996. During this time, al Qaeda and Iranian officials met in Sudan, though it is unclear how fruitful these meetings were. And when al Qaeda left Sudan for Afghanistan in 1996, Iran became a route for fighters to go to and from Afghanistan (though a much less important one than Pakistan).

After the 9/11 attacks, Iran's role grew more important. Facing the loss of its haven in Afghanistan and pressure (albeit fitful) in Pakistan, some of al Qaeda's leadership fled to Iran. The regime there both welcomed and limited them, not stopping all their activities, but placing some leaders under a form of house arrest. However, the relationship seemed rocky. After the United States went to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan following 9/11 -- when Iran at first tacitly cooperated with U.S. efforts -- Zawahiri publicly blasted Tehran for siding with the United States. "All of a sudden, we discovered Iran collaborating with America" and that "Iran stabbed the Muslim ummah [community, in this context] in its back," he said.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq put Iran and al Qaeda on the same page again. Both wanted to make sure the United States was bloodied. Both organizations usually backed different -- and opposed -- groups in Iraq, but both their local allies often opposed the United States. The lesson is clear: Although Iran and al Qaeda often have wildly different goals, they both want to weaken and hurt many of the same adversaries. Both are willing to fight and cooperate at the same time.

With al Qaeda members and their families under its control, Iran can loosen its restrictions on al Qaeda operatives in the country and facilitate their travel if it wants to stir the pot in Afghanistan or Iraq (or against the United States generally); on the other hand, it can constrain their mobility or even surrender them if it wants to improve relations with Washington or al Qaeda's Arab foes. In particular, Iran also seeks the return of members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an anti-Iran group that was long based out of Iraq. Although the United States considers the MEK a terrorist organization, it granted the MEK's members in Iraq the status of "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions and did not send them to Iran when it controlled Iraq. Since then, it has pressed Baghdad to let the MEK stay in Iraq.

Iran has successfully used the al Qaeda members resident in Iran to ensure good behavior from the broader Sunni jihadi movement. In 2005, Zawahiri, in internal correspondence with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then leader of al Qaeda of Iraq, urged the leader not to target the Shiites in Iraq and Iranian assets, reminding him that in Iran "we have more than 100 prisoners -- many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries" and thus vulnerable to Iranian pressure.

Ties to al Qaeda and other jihadists, like ties to terrorist groups in general, give Iran options for possible or even unforeseen contingencies. In its relationship with Saudi Arabia today, for example, Tehran is no longer calling for the overthrow of the Al Saud leadership, but remains a rival to Riyadh. Should the relationship worsen, Iran would like the option of working with anti-regime Sunni jihadists. Iran could also use its ties to Sunni jihadists to retaliate for a strike on its nuclear facilities.

From al Qaeda's point of view, the logic of Iranian help is even more straightforward. Although al Qaeda remains a formidable terrorist organization, it lacks the resources of a major state like Iran. Having the ability to transit via Iran is exceptionally useful for fights in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Some degree of a haven is also vital for al Qaeda, as it needs respite from U.S. and allied efforts to arrest and kill its members. As the U.S. drone campaign has taken its toll on al Qaeda's senior leadership, having a place where senior leaders can at least survive makes Iran more important than ever.

Despite their common goals and needs, Iran and al Qaeda have had a contentious relationship at times. Many Sunnis, particularly within the jihadi wing, see Shiites as apostates. At times this sentiment has led to massacres and other abuses of Shiites who are unfortunate enough to live under or come across Sunni jihadists. Some groups that share some of al Qaeda's goals, like Jundallah, a relatively small Sunni group based out of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, have even attacked Iran itself.

And though Iraq offered a common enemy, it also created new frictions. Al Qaeda's Iraqi branch went on a murderous rampage against Iraqi Shiites while Iranian-backed groups carried out bloody raids of their own against Iraqi Sunnis. Tens of thousands died in this sectarian fighting.

For both sides, this sort of antagonism leads them to keep their relationship quiet. Al Qaeda would suffer considerably if potential recruits and donors learned it had a close relationship with the hated Shiite Iranians. For Iran, the incentives for keeping the relationship quiet are different but no less profound. Many of al Qaeda's enemies are countries Iran wants as friends -- like Russia -- or at least doesn't want to alienate further, like those in Europe. In addition, many Iranians abhor the Sunni jihadi community for its anti-Shiite words and deeds, and as such any alliance would be unpopular at home.

The United States is already going full-bore against al Qaeda and, appropriately, is putting Iran's nuclear program front and center in formulating policy toward Tehran. But highlighting Tehran's ties to al Qaeda, as the Treasury designation quietly does, is a valuable form of pressure. Because Iran and al Qaeda both have an interest in keeping their relationship hidden, making it public may undermine it -- or at least stop the ties from getting stronger.