Op-Ed: The Islamic State's template for a lone wolf attack
- Jasmine Opperman
- 13 Jun 2016 11:44 (South Africa)
It has yet to be confirmed whether the Islamic State was directly involved in the tragic attack in Orlando, Florida. But from the terrorist group’s perspective, it does not matter. Once again, international news has been driven by their agenda. By JASMINE OPPERMAN.
Saturday’s mass shooting at an LGBT club in Orlando, Florida, left 50 people dead and dozens more injured. It was the deadliest such attack in US history.
Subsequent to the attack, the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility. But it did so in an unusual fashion, with its quasi-news outlet Amaq Agency claiming that a “source” had told it that the attack was carried out by an Islamic State fighter. While this sheds some doubt on the veracity of the claim, it achieved its purpose nonetheless: once again, IS is dominating the international news agenda.
This feeds into the group’s propaganda. Central to its projection of strength is the illusion that it can be present anywhere, at any time – and can inflict mass casualties at will. Every time the group is linked with an attack, this narrative becomes more powerful. So whether or not the Orlando shooter was really connected with the Islamic State, there’s no doubt that the group’s leadership – and particularly its sophisticated propaganda bosses – will consider the attack a victory.
Islamic State will also consider the attack a victory for its policy to encourage “lone wolf” attacks. Most recently, an April 2015 manual, distributed online, carefully explains how to execute a do-it-yourself attack. Additionally, propaganda magazines like Dabiq have been calling for attacks where supporters are based since its inception. Like this report of a speech from a top official, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, on 21 May 2016:
“The Shaykh concluded his speech by calling on the supporters of the Khilafah in Europe and America to seek ways to wage jihad and to support the Islamic State in their countries, especially since the kuffar have closed the door of hijrah. He stated that operations done there are more beloved and dear to us than operations we carry out in Iraq, (Syria) and Yemen, and that targeting ‘civilians’ in those countries is more pleasing to us than targeting ‘military personnel’, as it is kind of reciprocity, and it is also more harmful and painful and a deterrent to them.”
Broadly speaking, IS encourages two kinds of lone wolf attacks.
The Groomed Attacker
With the “groomed attacker”, a direct link with a specific Islamist group, whether past or present, is established. This interaction allows for training, interaction with other fighters and even sometimes leaders. Often this interaction also includes participation in “active combat”. The typical “groomed attacker” is the foreign fighter returning to home soil. Recent examples of this type of lone wolf include the Paris attack in January 2015; the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015; the attack on the Tunisian resort town of Sousse in June 2015, and the Brussels attack in March 2016.
Seifeddine Rezgui, who killed 38 tourists in Sousse, Tunisia in June 2015, had previously trained at a camp in Libya. (Photo sourced by TRAC).
The Opportunist usually has little to no direct links with terror groups, beyond exposure to extremist propaganda – usually via social media. This makes them especially hard for counterintelligence agencies to combat.
Omar Mateen, the man responsible for the Orlando attack, falls into this category. Although there was no indication of prior engagement with Islamic State supporters on social media, Mateen did appear to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in an emergency call during the attack.
A similar trend was seen with Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who were responsible for the San Bernardino attack in the US on 3 December 2015. The day after the attack, law enforcement officials reported that Malik had pledged allegiance to IS in a Facebook posting. According to the FBI, Malik uploaded a video of allegiance to Baghdadi. The video has not been released by the Islamic State but an audio message emerged coming from IS media, praising the couple’s actions.
Risk to South Africa
The relevance of all this for South Africa is direct. Because Islamic State propaganda respects no boundaries, opportunist lone wolves can never be ruled out – and are very difficult to defend against. More significant, however, may be an influx of potentially “groomed attackers” as the Islamic State’s struggles in Syria and Iraq force South African fighters to return.
Returnees will claim a change in heart that could be legitimate, but also might not be. Add to this the ease of access to weapons, as well as ineffective security measures around hotels, tourist areas and shopping centres, and it’s clear that South Africa is vulnerable. A lone wolf attack here wouldn’t be the first on South African soil: another example dates from 1988, when Barend Strydom killed seven black people (and wounded 15 more) in a racially-motivated shooting spree in Pretoria. DM
Jasmine Opperman is the Africa Director for the Terrorism Analysis and Research Consortium
Photo: Residents of San Francisco and the Bay Area gather to mourn, honor, and remember the victims of a mass shooting at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, at Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro District neighborhood in San Francisco, California, USA, 12 June 2016. At least 50 people were killed and 53 were injured in a shooting attack at an LGBT club in Orlando, Florida, in the early hours of 12 June. The shooter, Omar Mateen, 29, a US citizen of Afghan descent, was killed in an exchange of fire with the police after taking hostages at the club. EPA/JOHN G. MABANGLO.