TSG IntelBrief: Recalibrating the Concept of ‘Lone Wolves’
January 18, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On January 16, the suspect in the New Year’s attack on an Istanbul nightclub was taken into custody by Turkish authorities.
• Abdulgadir Masharipov, an Uzbek national, was arrested with $197,000 in cash along with weapons and ammunition; he had reportedly trained in Afghanistan and received support in carrying out the Istanbul attack.
• On the same day, the wife of the Orlando nightclub shooter was charged with aiding and abetting by providing material support in connection with the June 2016 massacre.
• Both cases provide examples of how so-called ‘lone wolves’ often have a greater degree of assistance than assumed, though the nature of planning or coordination is still far enough below the radar as to make detection difficult.
Recent terror attacks across the world have reinforced several common misconceptions regarding the nature of the current threat environment. The first is that lone attackers—or so-called ‘lone wolves’—act in a vacuum, hiding in plain sight with no one aware of their plans or trajectory towards violence. Indeed, this is rarely the case; often, a close family member or friend of the attacker may have some level of prior indication, or the attacker has some level of online encouragement, incitement, or communication regarding the attack. The second misconception stems from the realization that a lone attacker actually had some degree of support, and as such, authorities should have been able to detect or prevent the attack. This notion is also mistaken, as plots involving just a few people—often family members or other tight-knit groups—are exceedingly difficult to disrupt. Though connections between an attacker and others may come to light in the aftermath of an attack, such communication is often only obvious in hindsight.
On January 16, Turkish authorities announced the arrest of Abdulgadir Masharipov, the suspect in the early morning January 1 mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people. Masharipov was arrested along with four others in an Istanbul apartment; police reportedly also seized a firearm, ammunition, two drones, and $197,000 from the apartment. According to reports, Masharipov, an Uzbek national, received an unspecified level of training in Afghanistan. Though the extent of Masharipov’s ties to extremist groups remains unclear, there is no shortage of Central Asian terror networks with operations in Turkey; Turkey offers visa-free travel for citizens of many Central Asian countries, facilitating easy travel for Central Asian extremists with Turkic ties.
Also on January 16, the FBI announced charges against Noor Salman—the wife of the gunman in the June 2016 Orlando mass shooting at Pulse nightclub—in connection to the attack. Salman was charged with obstruction of justice, as well as aiding and abetting by providing material support to what was deemed a terror attack. While more details will come out concerning the level of Salman’s support—and whether it was pre- or post-attack—the charges further demonstrate the nuances and complexities of cases labeled ‘lone wolf’ attacks. Still, the fact that the Orlando or Istanbul attackers may not have acted entirely alone does not mean either attack was preventable. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S. and abroad cannot realistically penetrate a terror cell consisting of just two or three people, especially one involving a husband and wife. Attacks involving a small cluster of well-acquainted individuals—such as the December 2015 San Bernardino attack—are often just as difficult to detect and disrupt as a true lone wolf attack.
Indeed, the uncomfortable reality is that few terror attacks happen in total isolation. Still, the level of support or size of the plot often leaves such a contained footprint that it is only obvious in hindsight. There are certainly exceptions; a number of the recent attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany involved attackers who were well-known to authorities, thus generating legitimate concerns as to why the attacks were not disrupted. So while security officials across the world can reasonably be expected to increase their capacity to disrupt plots involving known terror suspects or somewhat larger networks, plots involving small groups of tight-knit individuals will continue to pose serious counterterrorism challenges for the foreseeable future.
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