By Corri Zoli
(Re-published from syracuse.com, Sept. 14, 2016) There is a disconnect between what we talk about when we talk about terrorism and the facts evident in recent attacks. Take the idea that recent attacks in Europe are disconnected from global terrorism and are instead the acts of “lone wolves.”
That was the narrative yet again after the Nice attack of July 14, 2016. It later emerged that seven accomplices of Tunisian-born French resident Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel—who drove a 20-ton truck into Bastille Day crowds—were charged with aiding in “murder by a group with terror links.” Such accomplices contradict the “lone wolf” concept that fails to acknowledge a link between perpetrators and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida or Islamic State.
Social scientists and legal scholars value “case facts” in their research on terrorism. With a data-driven view of the often painful facts associated with an attack, we can better advance our efforts to prevent terrorism. In that spirit, I make some recommendations for scholars, public servants, journalists and members of the general public who want to understand how terrorism is evolving.
Scripted & Orchestrated Violence
First, “lone-wolf terrorist” should be replaced with what is really at stake: “low-tech terrorism,” a term that shifts how we orient ourselves to this global problem. After the initial shock of an attack, later analysis often shows that more than one person was involved, that an international network was used, and that the perpetrator’s violence against civilians was scripted and orchestrated.
The Nice attack, for instance, was as part of multinational criminal infrastructure. Bouhlel was a resident of France and a Tunisian citizen who used weapons from Albanian contacts, communicated plans to contacts in Syria, sent images of his conduct and money to Tunisia, and scouted attack sites, per instructions from Mideast operatives.
Some terrorist acts may appear isolated, random, and spontaneous—but that does not mean they are.
Even if personal motives are found — mental health, vendettas, workplace grievances—savvy jihadist recruiters have often “touched” these individuals because of them, radicalizing them online via a tight-knit network of seasoned operatives.
Ultimately, the “lone wolf” concept misunderstands the nature of terrorism, which at its core is an act of strategic communication. It’s about a weak group spreading a violent message using cheap and convenient means of attack: knives, homemade bombs, IEDs, cars, trucks, etc. This form of violent communication involves teamwork, whether direct “material support” or shared ideological, communications, criminal and recruiting networks. Some terrorist acts may appear isolated, random, and spontaneous—but that does not mean they are.
Better understanding these loosely organized jihadist networks means we have a chance to topple terrorism’s organizational edifice. That means paying attention to individual terrorist acts and linking them to global trends, such as those tracked by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorist Data (GTD) project. Such data show increased jihadist attacks globally, thousands of jihadist groups adept at “low-tech” violence, and a broad use of various methods against “soft” targets.
Data also show how recent attacks follow a conventional approach, in which operatives — no matter how plugged into the group — play a key role before, during and after an attack. Terrorists announce their goals online, as they are trained to do, declare allegiances, make martyr videos, or post extremist material on social media. Contrary to the lone wolf myth, terrorist communiqués reveal group commitment to organizations and causes, a large audience for such material, and willing participants worldwide.
Spreading Weapons, Money, & Ideology
Terrorism is built on real—but often hidden—global logistics, social and communications networks. Three of these were used in this summer’s spate of attacks in Europe: trafficked weapons, illicit money transfers and online ideological communications. Many groups, including ISIS, go to great lengths to cover their organizational tracks, creating covert units—such as Emni—to “export terror abroad,” including over 140 attacks worldwide since 2014. An imprisoned ISIS recruit recently told a New York Times journalist that ISIS undercover operatives are common in Europe to recruit new converts who are used as “clean men” (not yet in intelligence agency databases) to “help link up people interested in carrying out attacks” …
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