Two recent attacks in the West have gotten a lot of press attention. A man in Philadelphia shot a police officer in his vehicle before being shot himself and arrested. He claims to have acted on behalf of Islamic state (see story here). Across the “pond”, police in Paris were able to neutralise a man who sought to attack one of their stations (click here for an account). The man allegedly yelled “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and he may have pledged allegiance to IS as well.
In the immediate aftermath of these two incidents the spectre of the “lone wolf attacker” has been raised again. In this scenario, people magically radicalise on their own, are impossible to detect, and will usher in a new era of carnage and mayhem. We are in deep doo-doo and should all panic.
Wrong. Wrong. And probably wrong.
I have to admit that I am becoming increasingly concerned – and frustrated – that this trope is still out there. It is not based on any real data set and betrays an unfortunate ignorance of both the radicalisation process and the true nature of the terrorism threat facing us.
Let’s start with the first falsity – self radicalisation. I am surprised that this myth persists as many people – including myself in my book The Threat from Within: recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and terrorism in the West – have written ad nauseum about this. To recap: radicalisation is an inherently social phenomenon and rarely – if ever – happens in a vacuum. Just because we cannot definitively identify the who, where and how of radicalisation does not mean that there wasn’t a process that involved other people (in fact, my experience with CSIS showed that we rarely get the whole story). The absence of evidence does not constitute the evidence of absence. I have already read that the alleged attacker in Philadelphia spent considerable time in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia and hence would have had ample opportunity to meet fellow extremists who assisted in his individual radicalisation process (NB of course he could have been radicalised in the US as well). Similarly, the Paris attacker had spent time in a refugee centre in Germany and was identified by German authorities as a radical. Neither man was a hermit.
Which leads me to the second misconception, that these people are undetectable. No they are not. They are always – or almost always – identifiable, as they usually openly profess their violent ideology or demonstrate other signs. Whether or not you call it “leakage” as US forensic psychologist Reid Meloy does, it is inevitable that violent extremists will evince signs of their ideology. Again, my book has an entire chapter on what these signs are.
Lastly, we have no idea whether these attacks, and similar ones in the West over the past few years, constitute a trend. My guess is that they don’t and that we will continue to see a mixture of lone actor plots inspired by groups like IS and AQ, small cells containing individuals who have seen battlefield experience and some schemes planned and directed from abroad. Once again, just because IS and others are encouraging self-generated attacks does not mean that people in the West will take up these ideas. There are lots of ideas in e-zines such as Dabiq and Inspire that have not been acted on. I can’t see why this will change in a meaningful way.
In short, we really have to stop extrapolating from small data sets and one-off incidents to claim that everything has changed. An n=1 sample size is not very good: an n=10 is not much better. We need to be better at making statements and much better at communicating with the public on the real nature of terrorism.