I’ve waited for a bit too post on this, hoping that some sort of sanity would prevail but it looks like that could take longer than the years I have left.
It’s time we cut through the fear mongering and take a realistic look at lone wolf terror attacks (which actually turn out not to be so “lone” in most instances) and radicalization in general. I’m not talking about well-organized jihadi attackc carried out in Madrid or in Paris, those are a risk of being at war with jihadist groups and not acknowledging it as a war (still no Congressional AUMF for ISIS, much less a declaration of war after Paris; hypocrisy rules the day in politics). I’ve said enough about that issue already.
Lone wolf attacks in London, Boston, San Bernardino and other places over the past few years are a product of Muslim religious radicalization, not strategic attacks organized by al Qaeda or ISIS for true psychological warfare. You did not find an Isis flag when a British soldier was attacked with knives in London, at the site of the Boston bombing or even in San Bernadino – you also didn’t find well prepared videos of the attacker’s jihadi declarations and al Qaeda or ISIS propaganda trailers. You might find a last minute Facebook statement or an affiliation tweet but that’s about it.
These days radicalization of all types occurs almost entirely via internet contact and social networking – it may be facilitated by trips overseas but that isn’t mandatory. And the radicalization process itself is really not new at all. In the 1960’s, bombing and shooting attacks against Jews and Blacks were carried out by radicalized lone wolves (and their friends) who had been converted and incited via Christian Identity social network propaganda. That message was distributed via radio broadcasts and by the dispatch of “ministers” across the nation, carrying cassette tapes to areas outside the reach of the radio (most of the broadcasts coming from the LA area). Numbers of people were injured and killed in attacks, including dozens in the bombing of Synagogues and black Christian churches – as well as the homes of Rabbis and black voting rights organizers. In one incident, a CI terrorist planned to dynamite a conference center in LA, killing Martin Luther King and hundreds of Jews as the meeting he was to address. Informants allowed that plot to be aborted. In later decades we have the example of the terrible Oklahoma City bombing – where the primary attacker was radicalized by ongoing contacts with ultra-right, anti-government “believers”, in particular by the leader of a cult retreat in eastern Oklahoma.
In the late 1960’s, when the FBI was ordered to stop the White Knight/Christian Identity terror attacks in the south – primarily in Mississippi – and verbally given the directive to do whatever was necessary, the networks were broken and the vast majority of the attacks were interdicted. There is no doubt the FBI violated civil liberties in doing so and that it conducted stings and entrapment. There is also no doubt that the agents involved stopped a vicious and escalating domestic terrorism initiative. Stu Wexler and I tell part of that story in The Awful Grace of God. In terms of the basic process and religious motivations the radicalization of Tommy Tarrants and Kathy Ainsworth was not all that different than the Muslim couple radicalized in San Bernadino – Tommy was recruited and converted to terror attacks by individuals carrying a apocalyptic message and went to LA for the final steps in his operational conversation and tasking. Syed Farook was recruited by radical jihadi’s carrying an apocalyptic message and went to Saudi Arabia (and possibly Pakistan) for the final conversion to becoming a terror attacker.
The fundamental difference is operational, Tommy and Kathy were using bombs and were targeting Synagogues and Rabbis while Syed and his wife had automatic weapons, and had been trained for much broader, mass murder type attacks. Of course that makes jihadi terror attacks more fearsome, since they are designed for mass murder. However the intelligence work and activities required to identify and defeat such converts are not all that different.
There are two points to be made here. First, like it or not the world is simply not a safe place. Apocalyptic religious causes make it less safe, so do politics – which can itself feed the radicalization process. The recent Colorado Springs lone wolf shooter (a true loner in that instance and imbalanced as well) was radicalized through political messaging – something actively denied by the politicians involved. Nothing new there, the Atlanta Olympics bomber was radicalized by the same message, he just didn’t kill as many people (bombs vs. automatic weapons again).
Second, the number of such attacks can be minimized. Intelligence groups and law enforcement know what to do and they are happy to tell the politicians what tools they need. I cover that in detail in Surprise Attack. I also dig into the numerous lone wolf attacks that have been aborted (the sort of successes something not much mentioned on talk shows). The sane solution would be to the defenders the legal powers and data access they request – and no more – and let them do the job as best they can, knowing attacks and casualties will still occur. Of course the trade-off is that increased security does involve some loss of privacy and total personal freedom – it always has, always will.
Back to the first point – the world is not a safe place now, but it never has been. Radicalization of all types will continue, the internet and social media of all sorts will facilitate it. There will be more attacks of all types and there will be more causalities. The sane solution lies in using all the tools available, focusing the defense as much as possible, interdicting as many of the attacks as possible and minimizing the ones that do occur by training and quick response – which was done extremely well by all the first responders in San Bernardino (need I say that I am always in awe of the first responders and always despise the attackers who leave bombs for them).
We just need to get beyond the search for quick solutions. There are no “magic bullets”, CIA executive action programs were a fool’s game during the Cold War, so is targeted assassination. Getting rid of dictators does not bring democracy. Attacking Mosques in America and shouting at Muslim worship groups does not defeat jihadi terror attacks. I can only paraphrase the lines from a classic Eagles song – “No more pitching and whining and throwing a fit – get over it.”