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 CNN.com: "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.