TSG IntelBrief: An Attack at Ohio State
November 29, 2016
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On November 28, a lone assailant attacked a crowd at Ohio State University, leaving 11 people injured and the attacker killed by police.
• The style of attack—driving a car into pedestrians and then attacking with a large knife—is consistent with previous attacks as well as messaging by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
• Authorities are combing over the background and associations of the alleged attacker to determine his motives and any possible terrorist group affiliations.
• Media reports that the attacker had referenced al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki demonstrate the persistence of the ideology and message of bin Ladinism.
The initial reports regarding the November 28 attack on the campus of the Ohio State University had the makings of a potentially devastating terror attack, combining the styles of several recent attacks throughout the West. Reports of a vehicle being driven into a crowd immediately brought to mind the July 2016 attack in Nice that killed 86 pedestrians. Reports of one or two men attacking with knives echoed many attacks in places such as Israel, as well as the September 2016 knife attack in a Minnesota mall. Reports that an attacker might be using a gun—later determined to have been inaccurate and likely confused with the gunfire from a responding police officer—gave rise to the specter of another San Bernardino, Chattanooga, Orlando, Paris, or the many other locations hit by similar attacks.
The attack left 11 people wounded and the attacker dead. The attacker, Abdul Razak Ali Artan—a student at the university—was reportedly a native of Somalia living in the U.S. as a permanent legal resident. Reports indicated Artan had immigrated to the U.S. in 2014. Despite early reports suggesting two attackers were involved in the incident, police now believe Artan acted alone—though they are still in the early stages of investigation. The style and mode of the attack had many characteristics of recent terror attacks in the U.S. and Europe; supporters of the so-called Islamic State lauded the attack, but the group has made no claim of responsibility. The attack came just days after the release of the Islamic State’s latest video, which called yet again for local attacks by its supporters wherever they live. The group has specifically mentioned using cars and knives as weapons, and its followers have done so in several attacks answering the group’s call to terror.
If Artan’s motivation is determined to be terrorism, investigators will first look for any accomplices. Authorities will then look for evidence of any direct communication Artan may have had with known extremists, or if he was simply motivated and inspired through extremist propaganda. In some cases, attacks that were initially believed to be inspired by the Islamic State were determined to have some level of communication and direction; other attacks have included nothing more than a declaration of support for the group prior to the attack, with no direct communication. Though it is commonly used to describe a lone attacker, the term ‘lone-wolf’ can be misleading; often times lone attackers engage in some level of online communication with other sympathizers or members of a terror group, even if that communication falls short of receiving orders or operational support. Likewise, the term ‘self-radicalized’ is also misleading in that it gives the impression that an individual radicalized in a vacuum. While social media often plays a significant role in the path towards violent extremism, so does peer-to-peer interaction with acquaintances and friends—whether online or in real life. If reports are accurate that Artan referenced in a social media post the late al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki—an American al-Qaeda propagandist whose English-language lectures have inspired a generation of terrorists—this attack will be the latest example of how the ideology of bin Ladinism transcends the ostensibly rival groups of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The Ohio State attack also highlights the element of luck involved in terror attacks of this nature. The attack could have been far worse had an Ohio State campus police officer not already been nearby at the scene of an unrelated emergency, thus allowing him to rapidly engage and neutralize the attacker. In addition, the university’s lock down alert for an ‘active shooter’ effectively isolated what was a chaotic and confusing scene, allowing for a rapid response by police and emergency medical personnel. Unfortunately, there are few venues that are immune to the threat of an attack of this style, though in the U.S., colleges and high schools in particular have suffered some of the country’s worst mass shootings. As prime targets of terrorism, schools and colleges have developed security protocols to mitigate what will remain a credible threat, allowing them to rapidly and effectively respond when an incident does occur.
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