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Lone-Actor vs Remote-Controlled Jihadi Terrorism: Rethinking the Threat to the West

Courtesy of James/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 20 April 2017.

At approximately 2:40 in the afternoon of March 22nd, British-born Khalid Masood — a violent criminal who had previously been investigated by MI5 for links to extremists — deliberately drove into pedestrians making their way across Westminster Bridge. He killed a mother on her way to collect her children from school, a pensioner, and two tourists. After crashing the rented vehicle into the gates of Parliament, Masood ran into New Palace Yard and stabbed an unarmed policeman to death before being shot and killed by plainclothes officers. In contrast to other recent attacks in Western nations, which have frequently (sometimes incorrectly) been labeled acts of “lone-actor” terrorism, Masood’s assault was followed by a volley of articles with titles such as “Remote-Control Terror,” “Don’t Bet on London Attacker Being a Lone Wolf,” and “The Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist.” Analysts were keen to point out that “lone-actors” are very rarely truly alone and that instead they tend to emerge from within broader, extremist milieus. Moreover, what sometimes seems like lone-actor terrorism at first glance turns out to be connected to, if not directed by, foreign terrorist organizations. Yet the official word on Masood is that, regardless of his associations, he acted “wholly alone.” To accurately understand the nature of terrorism today, patient, measured analysis and consistent use of terminology are necessary. It is therefore important to re-examine the concept of lone-actor terrorism and to try and appreciate where it fits within the overall spectrum of jihadist terrorist activity in the West.

Many, if not most “lone-actor” jihadists (including Masood), are indeed connected to other extremists and terrorists in some shape or form. Such connections have been greatly facilitated by the growth of social media and encrypted communication applications, which have also enabled the rise of virtual “planners” or “entrepreneurs” and so-called “remote-controlled” or “enabled” attacks, such as those in Würzburg and Ansbach, Germany, in July last year. Moreover, the number of jihadists with bona fide connections to foreign terrorist organizations, including training and combat experience abroad, has risen sharply since the outbreak of conflict in Syria and Iraq. Western security services are currently bracing for a potential surge in the number of returning foreign fighters. » More

Securing a Nuclear Energy Future

Satsop Nuclear Power Plant

Courtesy of Dave Sizer/Flickr. CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published by the Harvard International Review on 5 December 2016.

Since the atom was first split, the possibilities of war, terrorism, and proliferation have polluted the connotation of “nuclear,” driving public fear and associated dialogue surrounding the development of nuclear technology. In the last half of the twentieth century, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union defined the modern geopolitical layout of the world, from alliances to modern conflicts. Nuclear capabilities became one of the greatest criteria to determine a country’s power and respect on the global stage.

In this year’s US presidential election, the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran was a divisive issue. The multinational agreement aims to prevent weapons development by fostering an officially recognized and heavily regulated nuclear energy program. This deal reflects a shift in the global nuclear narrative, from aggressive prevention efforts to diplomatic limitations. It further recognizes that as more states acquire nuclear development infrastructure, there will be more chances for materials to fall into the wrong hands. Preventing proliferation to terrorists, militant groups, and less amicable state actors is a global priority. Greater involvement and oversight from institutions like the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can facilitate better security standards for protecting nuclear materials.

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Breaking the Cycle of Terror: Democratic Alternative

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Courtesy Syria Freedom / Flickr

This article was originally published by the Harvard International Review (HIR) on 25 August 2016.

In June of 1981, after serving for 16 months as the first president of Iran, I was in hiding. There had been a coup against me; a fatwa had been issued for my execution seven times over. I published an open letter to the Iranian people, quoting Madame Roland’s last words under the guillotine during the French Revolution:

“One day, a condemned woman under the guillotine said – ‘Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!’ Today, and more so tomorrow, it will be said – ‘Oh Islam, such crimes are committed in your name!’ Islam will be so discredited that for a century no one will speak of rights in the name of religion.”

This prediction is truer today than it was then. The dynamics of power remain constant. Power needs an enemy, and violence is the sole means of its interaction. But power cannot exercise itself without legitimacy; it requires ideology, in which ideas are manipulated to serve the needs of power. Gradually, the ideas are divorced from their origins and the process of their alienation in power becomes complete. What is left of the ideas is nothing but an ideological shell filled with violence and power.

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We Need to Rethink the Relationship between Mental Health and Political Violence

 

Abstract image of a face with red eyes

Courtesy of Surlan Soosay/Flickr

This article was originally published by openDemocracy on 28 July 2016

Simplistic, sensationalist media coverage of terrorism obscures our understanding of its causes, and hinders our ability to prevent it.

After each atrocity, social media hosts the well-rehearsed rituals of mourning. News of the identification of the perpetrators is frequently followed by condemnation of the double-standard of media coverage – in relation to geography (sometimes misguided), and to language, particularly regarding the word ‘terrorist’. (It’s worth reading the BBC’s guidance about why it prefers not to use the term altogether). In recent months, it has become clear that there is frustration about the application of mental health diagnoses, especially in relation to white male violence, as well as confusion about the relationship between mental illness and terrorism. This is a fraught and difficult subject, rarely discussed sensitively on a platform such as Twitter, which rewards simplification and polarisation.

After the killing of Jo Cox, there was justifiable anger at ‘de-politicisation’ of her murder: many media outlets chose not to highlight Thomas Mair’s links to far-right white supremacist groups. His act certainly fits the definition of terrorism (‘one who uses violence or the threat of violence to further their political aims’) – although this does not discount the possibility that Mair may suffer from mental illness, nor does it negate the importance of a diagnosis. Rather than a reductionist either/or (“Is it ideology, or is it pathology? Chemicals in the brain, or ideas in the mind?”), it’s important to acknowledge that mental illness can be a contributory factor, because violence is often a confluence of personal, social and ideological elements. There’s a public bravura that prevents politicians from acknowledging this nuance (those that dissent are forced to state the obvious: ‘to understand is not to justify’) – all of which serves as an indulgence of ignorance, a dangerous form of self-denial.

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We Need to Speak Honestly about Nuclear Threats

A section from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement, Central Panel. Courtesy Steven Zucker/Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 11 April 2016.

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit meeting, held in Washington DC, has been the catalyst for a flood of op-eds bemoaning either the imminent emergence of sub-state groups as nuclear powers or the relative lack of progress that President Obama has made on reducing the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. Both of these views are shortsighted, ignoring the actual threat in context to contemporary national security issues. Despite decades of global terrorism and the continuing growth of nuclear power and weapons programs, there has not been a successful terrorist radiological or nuclear attack. And while the United States has reduced its military nuclear weapons stockpile by more than 90 percent since its peak in 1968, the dangers posed by nuclear weapon states continue to require a nuclear deterrent. These are inherently linked arguments, given the technology-centered discussions on radiological/nuclear threats. In both cases, actions to advance either agenda — that nuclear terrorism is an imminent threat and that U.S. nuclear stockpiles must be further reduced — need to be informed by risk calculations as well as cost-benefit analyses, rather than by worst-case assumptions.

Most recently, Gary Ackerman and James Halverson warn that recent activities by ISIL and other terrorist groups, combined with potential vulnerabilities of nuclear power facilities and other nuclear storage facilities, represent a serious threat. I don’t question that a few sub-state groups may be interested in obtaining radioactive material or even nuclear fissile material. With the constant drumbeat by U.S. government officials warning of the existential threat posed by terrorist nuclear devices since 2001, any half-awake violent extremist group would have to wonder as to whether this capability represented a useful tool. Joe Cirincione and others have been warning about potential nuclear terrorism for at least the past 15 years. The mantra has been, “it’s not a question of if, but when,” and that terrorists will use a nuclear device or a “dirty bomb” as soon as they can acquire one. And yet it remains a fact that even given motive, opportunity, and time, these sub-state groups have not done so.

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