Over the past several years, sporadic lone wolf terror attacks have bedeviled the United States and Europe. Acting alone, or in very small groups, lone wolves carry out terrorism on their own initiative without answering to any formal leadership hierarchy. Not only are lone wolf attacks becoming more common, they are also becoming more lethal, as evidenced by the case of Omar Mateen whose shooting rampage at a night club in Orlando, Florida, killed 49 people. Recognizing this peril, numerous public officials—including CIA Directors John Brennan and Leon Panetta, FBI Director James Comey, and even President Barack Obama have identified lone wolf terrorism as a serious challenge to American national security.
Although often self-radicalized, lone wolves are usually inspired by extremist subcultures. Many have left digital fingerprints indicating that they had been radicalized online. But other factors besides ideology come into play as well. Recent attacks suggest an ominous convergence of mental illness, marginality, and cyber radicalism. And investigations following lone wolf attacks often reveal that a large segment of the perpetrators had difficulty functioning adequately in their lives and maintaining healthy relationships. Paradoxically, the roots of the lone wolf problem stem in part from the effectiveness of counterterrorism policies implemented since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against America.
Post-9/11 Policies and their Consequences
In the aftermath of 9/11, the West became a less hospitable place for the traditional, clandestine terrorist organizations. As to be expected, the U.S. government, with support from the American public, implemented more vigilant measures to root out terrorists at home and abroad. The USA PATRIOT Act was hastily signed into law in October 2001 and the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003. Moreover, after 9/11, there has been greater intelligence sharing not only among federal agencies, but also among state and local law enforcement agencies. And despite differences over Iraq, foreign governments increased coordination of their counterterrorism efforts with the United States. Finally, new technology has enhanced the government’s ability to monitor potential terrorists and their supporters. As a consequence, in the West, large terrorist groups are increasingly vulnerable to infiltration and disruption. The absence of socalled “spectaculars” in the style of 9/11 suggests that many policies applied over the past 15 years, while controversial, have been effective in curbing terrorism. In order to adapt to this new strategic environment, terrorist movenments have exploited the growing popularity of social media.
How Terrorist Movements Adapted to the Post-9/11 Strategic Environment
The communications revolution has empowered individuals, making it possible to move money, products, information, and ideas across borders, previously done mostly by governments and big corporations. The new media developed concomitant with the Web 2.0, which arose after the dotcom bubble burst in the year 2000. Out of the rubble, a new crop of Web-based companies and services emerged that offered interactivity and “user-generated content,” thus ushering in a new era of communications, providing much greater and broader participation from users, not only in the spheres of commerce and social networking, but terrorism and insurgency as well.1 More and more, terrorist movements use the Internet to disseminate propaganda, communicate, raise money, and plan and coordinate operations. The Internet empowers dissident movements in a number of ways. For instance, it delivers greater interconnectivity and the power to communicate and network with far more people and more quickly than ever before. The ubiquity and availability of the Internet enables small groups to maintain a global presence. Furthermore, encryption technologies allow for covert communication and anonymity. Because it is difficult to regulate, the Internet allows political dissidents to circumvent restrictions on speech and avoid censorship.2 The growth of bandwidth, combined with the development of new software allows users to disseminate complex information by the Internet.3
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