National Security

The Origins of ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist Attacks

“As individuals, a nation, and a civilization — we have to be prepared to confront terrorists with arms when and where we can.”

On Friday, July 21st, the Salomon family sat down at their table at their home in Halamish, a Jewish community in Samaria, to celebrate the arrival of a newborn grandson and welcome the day of rest, Shabbat. A 19-year-old Arab knocked on their door and when they answered he proceeded to kill three, (Yosef, 70; Elad, 36; and Chaya, 46) and left Tovah, Yosef’s wife, seriously injured.

Elad’s wife was able to rush the five children into a separate room and hold the door shut while she called the police. The attacker did not know the family — they thought he was a visitor coming to wish them well and celebrate the birth of Chaya’s son. The attacker, who acted alone, did not target them for a specific reason other than the fact they were Jews in Samaria. His weapon was a knife. The scene of the attack was gruesome.

In a Facebook post made two hours before he carried out the attacks the Arab wrote: “They are desecrating the Aksa Mosque and we are sleeping. It’s an embarrassment that we are idly sitting by … You, those who have a gun and who are worn out, you who only bring out your gun at weddings and celebrations, are you not ashamed of yourselves? Why are you not declaring war for God? Here they are closing al-Aksa and your gun is silent. All that I have is a sharpened knife, and it is answering the call of al-Aksa.”

He carried out what we have taken to calling a “lone wolf terror attack.” These same types of attacks have been conducted throughout Israel and were prevalent in the wave of violence that began during September 2015. Such attacks have also been seen in Europe and the U.S. and they all carry some of the same basic hallmarks.

An individual, or a small number of confederates, become inspired to conduct an attack. They may be motivated by a terror network’s message or an attack, or they may be motivated by a situation or incident. They want to take part in fighting, but they are not a member of a larger group. They do not receive training, funding, or support from a terrorist organization, but conduct their attack in the name of the terror organization or as vengeance for the motivating situation or incident.

The individual terrorist may or may not ever communicate with a terrorist organization. They may give bayah, a pledge or oath of allegiance, to a larger terrorist organization’s leader in a pre-attack message, or, as the Pulse Night Club Shooter did, when talking to first responders, during the attack. The attacks themselves are simple and typically use low technological means. In Israel and Western Europe, knife attacks and ramming attacks are the norm. In the U.S., individual terrorists have easier access to firearms but can also fall back on knives or motor vehicles.

In recent years, the individual terrorist has emerged as a primary threat. The terrorist networks that came to the forefront of our consciousness after 9/11, with their centralized leadership that controlled, trained, supplied, and supported the cellular structure beneath them is still a threat, but has largely been replaced by individuals.

Instead of traveling to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, or Syria, these individuals choose to pick up a weapon and bring the war to the neighborhoods they live in. These new individual terrorists are employing, wittingly or unwittingly, the teachings of Abdullah Azzam and the strategy of Abu Musab al-Suri.

Abdullah Azzam and Individual Obligation

In late November 1989, a bomb exploded outside a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan. Among the casualties was Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, who had come to be known as “The Imam of Jihad.” Azzam was Palestinian by birth, studied in Damascus, received his doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence from Cairo’s al-Azhar University, and taught at Abd’ al-Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

One of Azzam’s teachings was that jihad was an individual obligation of Muslims. Jihad was not, as many thought, a communal obligation. Like prayer, fasting, and tithing, it was the responsibility of every Muslim everywhere. Further, Azzam taught that permission to join the fight was not needed from parents, imams, or governments –it was sanctioned in Islamic law and therefore not only just, but it was required in the same way as prayer, fasting, and tithing.

Azzam’s tenure at Abd al-Aziz was brief, as shortly after taking his position there he left to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. One of his former students followed him to Afghanistan, and together he and Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda.

For a more thorough reading on Azzam, read Dr. Uriya Shavit’s “Al-Qaeda’s Saudi Origins.”

Al-Suri and The Call to Global Islamic Resistance

Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, better known by his kunya, Abu Musab al-Suri, was born in Allepo, Syria in 1958. He studied mechanical engineering before joining the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated al-Taliaa al-Muqital (the Fighting Vanguard). Like Azzam and Bin Laden, al-Suri was an Arab mujahid in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the war, he traveled through Europe before returning to Afghanistan to take charge of the Taliban’s training camp for foreigners. He is believed to have masterminded the March 2004 Madrid train bombings. The U.S. State Department had a $5 million dollar reward on information leading to his capture. He was captured in Pakistan in 2005 and sent to Syria — as of 2014 he was held in a Syrian prison.

In 2008, al-Suri’s main work, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance, was praised by al-Qaeda’s then second in command and current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as an “intellectual treasure.” The works most important point, for our consideration, is his military strategy of “solo or cellular jihad,” which calls for “individual jihadist organizing and carrying out attacks without any connection to or support from an established jihadist group.”

Al-Suri further advocates avoiding direct confrontation with Western powers, eschewing the way the mujahedeen fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in favor of guerilla and urban warfare where conditions are suitable. Al-Suri’s strategy acknowledges the asymmetries between the global jihadist and the Western world they seek to attack.

Al-Suri states “the necessity of planting the idea of globalizing jihad in all aspect, for the enemy has forced us to do this … so the enemy globalized our cause by attacking us” referring to the Global War on Terror’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Echoes of al-Suri’s military strategy can be heard in Islamic State (IS) propaganda videos. He stated that “any Muslims who wish for jihad and resistance can participate in this battle against America in his country or anywhere else, and with hundreds of times more efficacy than if he could go to the field of open jihad.”

An IS video released in June this year at the outset of Ramadan called for “Muslim brothers in Europe who can’t reach the Islamic State lands, attack them in their homes, their markets, their roads and their forums.” Al Suri is considered to be a major ideological inspiration for IS.

For more thorough reading on al-Suri read “Abu Musab al-Suri’s Military Theory of Jihad.”

Mitigating the Effects of Individual Terror

Individual terror attacks are harder to thwart before they are conducted. Due to their nature, there is little hope of intercepting coordinating communications as there are few if any. There is little hope in identifying the purchase of suspicious materials or equipment as they are small and low tech. There are few, if any, links in the chain of command, control, and coordination which can be targeted. Intelligence and policing are difficult under such conditions.

In Israel the first responders to attacks are frequently civilians, armed or unarmed. Israeli civilians regularly step in and neutralized the attackers before the police or military arrive. In November 2015, a former Krav Maga instructor for one of Israel’s elite military units witnessed the immediate aftermath of a knife attack. He exited his car, chased the perpetrator and used his skills to eliminate the threat.

In response to a knife attack in Jaffa an Israeli sitting on the beach pursued the terrorist and hit him with his guitar, slowing the attacker down before police responded.

On Monday, July 24, 2017 an attacker in Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv, was hit in the head with a wooden pizza tray before being subdued.

Due to their nature, as an individual or a small group of attackers, they will look for soft targets where their attack will cause the most harm. They will likely avoid well protected areas. The attacks are planned, but remain flexible, allowing them to avoid temporary police presences. As seen in the examples above, it will likely fall to civilians, trained or untrained, to act immediately to stop the attacks before they claim more lives. In this war, citizens will be their own first line of defense.

Such terrorists likely know they are going to die when they conduct their attacks. They seek death — to them the reward is worth it. So how can someone set on their own death be deterred?

On June 10th, a friend and I went to Max Brenner, an Israeli chocolate bar and restaurant, for a late breakfast. The draw was not the chocolate, the sandwiches, or the coffee, but the fact that about 36 hours before it had been the site of an attack that killed four and injured 16. The day before, mere hours after the attack, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited. The restaurant was back open and buzzing with customers.

While we were there, Israeli Member of Knesset Yair Lapid was hosting more than 20 foreign diplomats to show them how Israel responds to such attacks: by living. The attackers wanted Israelis to be too afraid to do something as simple as to go and eat dinner.

When they stab Israelis in the Old City, they are trying to make Jews afraid of visiting Jerusalem’s Old City. When they ram them with cars at bus stops, they want them to fear the simple act of leaving their home. They want them to not feel safe anywhere, anytime. They want to change the way Israelis live. When Israelis continue to live their life by going and eating, visiting the Old City, and leaving their homes, the terrorists lose and their death becomes meaningless.

We, private citizens, must be prepared for this type of war. Whether it be getting a concealed carry license, taking training classes with firearms or in first aid, or being situationally aware and having a plan, we have to be prepared. As individuals, a nation, and a civilization — we have to be prepared to confront terrorists with arms when and where we can. In addition, on a daily basis, especially after an attack, if we can carry on and live the way we are accustomed to, their aim is defeated.

Kenneth Depew

Kenneth Depew is retired from the U.S. Army after having served two tours in Baghdad, Iraq as an Infantryman and one tour in Kunar Province as a Human Intelligence Collector. He served on Senator Ted Cruz’s 2012 U.S. Senate election campaign and on Senator Cruz’s senate staff. He is an alumnus of the University of St. Thomas in Houston where he studied political science and philosophy and Tel Aviv University where he earned a master of arts in security and diplomacy studies.

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