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10.24.14 4:30 PM ET

Lone Wolves, Terrorist Runts, and the Stray Dogs of ISIS

Why ISIS and al Qaeda rely on loners and losers to carry out their terrorist agenda in the West.

The hatchet-wielding man who attacked four New York City police officers Thursday has no known connections to foreign terrorist groups but exhibited “extremist leanings” online, according to police sources and a terrorist monitoring group. “We would describe him as self-radicalized," Police Commissioner William Bratton told a press conference on Friday.

It’s not clear, in fact, what motivated Zale Thompson’s ambush, which injured two officers before he was shot and killed. Some sources point to radical Islamist sentiments Thompson posted online; others claim he was motivated by racial hatred, not jihad. But one does not necessarily exclude the other—especially when we’re talking about the kind of marginal characters being sucked into the latest wannabe holy war against Western targets. 

ISIS sets its sights on a global caliphate. Al Qaeda plots against “the far enemy” (meaning you and me). Both put out the word that anyone can do his savage duty anywhere by murdering an infidel or two. But those who are moved from seething anger to spontaneous deadly action most often fit the profiles of borderline psychotics more than hardcore believers.

Like the killers who brought terror to Canada this week, the New York attacker is being called a “lone wolf,” meaning he acted essentially on his own. But terrorism expert Brian Jenkins at the Rand Corporation, in a groundbreaking 2010 study that looked at more than 80 such cases since 9/11, decided there was a better name for them.

“Lone wolves,” wrote Jenkins (PDF), is a romanticizing term that suggests a cunning, deadly predator, and while a few of those he studied displayed that sort of lethal determination, most, “while still dangerous, skulk about, sniffing at violence, vocally aggressive but skittish without backup. ‘Stray dogs,’ not lone wolves, more accurately describes their behavior.”

The killers in Canada seem custom made for the stray dog profile, and the kind of terrorist the West could be seeing a lot more of in the future.

The man who opened fire in Ottawa on Wednesday, killing one soldier before he was shot inside the Parliament building, was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a small-time criminal with a history of drug arrests. A misfit according to his mother, he reportedly told a friend the devil was after him. Yet while more sophisticated terrorist plots against the West have been thwarted, Zehaf-Bibeau succeeded.

Earlier this week, Martin Rouleau-Couture ran his car into two Canadian soldiers in Quebec, killing one and wounding another. The attack was “clearly linked to terrorist ideology,” Canada’s public safety minister said Monday.

Both Zehaf-Bibeau and Rouleau were recent converts to Islam who were reportedly frustrated in their efforts to travel abroad to join the fight on the jihadist battlegrounds in Syria. Instead, it appears, they decided to go for DIY jihad at home. They both acted alone, though Zehaf-Bibeau may have been inspired by Rouleau’s earlier attack, with Thompson motivated in turn by the news from Canada, urged on by the media attention in the same way that suicide can become a kind of contagion after one is publicized.

Canadian authorities are still investigating the two men’s pasts and the radicalization that led to their attacks. They may have had only tenuous connections to established terrorist networks like ISIS and al Qaeda, or none at all.

Less is known about Thompson, the man behind the New York attack, but he too seems to have run from a troubled past into an act of suicidal violence. He enlisted in the Navy in 2001 but was dishonorably discharged for misconduct two years later, according to CNN.

In recent years, terrorist networks have become more connected to a Western audience at the same time that they have become more physically cut off from the West. Effective counterterrorist measures have disrupted the planning that groups like al Qaeda use to coordinate large attacks, making it harder for them to communicate directly with cells inside Western countries. But with the Internet’s instantaneous web of connections, it’s become easier to reach individual Westerners who can be coaxed or coached into conducting their own attacks. The result is the lone wolves or stray dogs who may lack connections and experience but need only an Internet connection to find inspiration.

Clint Watts, a counterterrorism expert and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says the current trend started almost a decade ago. The 9/11 model, where terrorist groups would “plan and train together before going to carry out an attack, became defunct around 2005 because counterterrorism pressure picked up so much in the West,” he said.

A key figure in the next phase of terrorist attacks, which moved away from coordinating intensive group efforts and toward encouraging individual attacks, was American-born al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Before he was killed by an American drone strike in 2011, Awlaki had been an influential voice for American jihadis, posting blogs and videos sermonizing on behalf of al Qaeda and corresponding with the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hasan.

“Awlaki was a key radicalizer. He could radicalize people at a distance,” Watts said. As a native English speaker, Awlaki was especially influential among Americans. “He could speak to people in English but still look like a bin Laden. Awlaki pushed that model of ‘Do your own terrorism and stay in place.’”

The earlier al Qaeda model Watts described, which still had a figure like Awlaki who could act as a personal mentor, has become even further decentralized. Now a potential terrorist may not speak with anyone as prominent as Awlaki, if he or she coordinates with anyone at all before carrying out their attack.

For aspring jihadists the bar for radicalization has plummeted. Finding clips of violent incitement is a matter of only a few clicks online. 

YouTube

In an audio message released online last month and translated by watchdog group MEMRI, an ISIS spokesman exhorts followers: “In Europe, America, Australia and Canada don’t sit out this war, wherever you may be. [Attack] the tyrants’ soldiers, their police and security forces, their intelligence [forces] and collaborators.

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“If you are able to kill an American or European infidel,” ISIS continues, “particularly any of the hostile, impure Frenchmen—or an Australian or a Canadian…Do not consult anyone and do not seek a fatwa from anyone. It is immaterial if the infidel is a combatant or a civilian. Their sentence is one; they are both infidels, both enemies.”

The ISIS spokesman claims his so-called Caliphate is the victim of the West, not the other way round. (This is boilerplate for any terrorist group: “We’re just doing to you what you did to us.”) And he holds out the promise of reward to wannabe holy warriors when their forces triumph: “When the war ends we will be the ones to invade your countries,” he warns the the West, “whereas you will no longer invade [ours]. We will invade your Rome, break your Cross and enslave your women, with Allah’s help. This is His promise, and he will not break it until it is realized. And if we do not achieve this, our sons or grandsons will, and they will sell your sons and grandsons as slaves.”

At this point, the ISIS strategy against the West is both murderous and, slave-market propaganda notwithstanding, somewhat disinterested. The group lacks the resources to coordinate large attacks and has other priorities, but it can send out calls like the message from last month and count any violence they engender as a victory. By inciting individual sympathizers to carry out attacks in Western countries, ISIS believes it can advance its cause at no cost.

The lone wolf attacks such messages inspire can cause great harm but, because they rely on hasty plans and inexperienced actors, their scale is often small. And calls to violence like this often appeal as much to the psychologically damaged as they do to committed ideologues. These exhortations sound like dog whistles for certain people, bringing out the head cases who visit violence on others as the answer to their own demons.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated and edited for length.