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'Lone Wolf,' or 'Known Wolf'? The Ongoing Counter-Terrorism Failure

Katie Gorka of the Council on Global Security has released an important report, “The Flawed Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” and events of this week show that it couldn’t be more timely. The separate terror attacks in Canada and a long string of terror attacks here in the U.S. show that the counter-terrorism policies of Western governments are fundamentally broken, and are directly responsible for getting their citizens killed. Even as I write this there are breaking reports of yet another attack.


The primary targets of Gorka’s new report are the various fictitious narratives and bogus social science models that drive Western counter-terrorism efforts. Chief among these is the “countering violent extremism (CVE)” narrative that has been the centerpiece for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement.

CVE has been a colossal disaster because it has no roots in reality. It was always intended as a convenient fiction for politicians, bureaucrats, media and academics to avoid talking about the problem of the ideology that supports Islamic terrorism.

There has never once been a recorded case of anyone on the planet swearing their allegiance to the ideology of “violent extremism” and their willingness to kill others and die in the cause of “violent extremism.” It is a null set. There is nothing to counter, which is the whole point. And yet there are academics and institutions who are the beneficiaries of mountains of taxpayer cash to pursue the elusive CVE unicorn.

CVE has been used to smuggle all kinds of crackpot theories into not just our counter-terrorism policy, but also our foreign policy.

One crackpot theory has been that there are good Islamists that we can use against the bad Islamists. This was the keystone of the Obama administration’s Arab Spring policies. And this theory put into practice in Egypt, Libya, Syria and other places has left the Middle East in even worse shape than Obama found it.

As Gorka observes, the administration’s head cheerleader for this “good Islamist/bad Islamist” approach has been Quintan Wiktorowicz, who served as senior director of the National Security Council under Obama. But the disaster of the Arab Spring has prompted Wiktorowicz and his CVE pals to double-down on this approach. Now we have entirely new categories of actors, such as “vetted moderates,” and even “good bad Islamists,” who presumably are any jihadists not currently wearing a suicide belt.

This rampant idiocy has become so bad that we have the supposed best and brightest in the Washington, D.C. foreign policy elite now calling for engagement with “moderate al-Qaeda” (no, I’m not kidding).

Another theory championed by the CVE crowd is the “lone wolf” syndrome, reportedly where unknown individuals unconnected to any other actor strike without warning. But numerous examples show that terrorist actors are almost always part of a network who were involved in recruiting and tasking terrorist activity. As Max Abrahms at Northeastern University has observed:

Since the advent of international terrorism in 1970, none of the 40 most lethal terrorist attacks has been committed by a person unaffiliated with some terrorist group, according to publicly available data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security and stored at the University of Maryland. In fact, lone wolves have carried out just two of the 1,900 most deadly terrorist incidents over the last four decades.


So why “lone wolf”? Simply, it was a mechanism promulgated by the CVE industry, with willing cooperation from law enforcement and intelligence officials, to exonerate themselves when a terrorist attack happened. At its core is terror agnosticism: “There is possibly no way to predict who will turn to terrorism, so therefore we can’t be held responsible when it happens. Oh, and give us more money so we can better improve how we won’t be able to predict terror attacks.”

The two terror attacks in Canada this week, which are already being described by CVE industry practitioners as “lone wolf” attacks, were by individuals already known to Canadian counter-terrorism officials. Reportedly both Martin “Ahmad” Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had their passports taken away by Canadian authorities because they were considered “high risk” to travel overseas to join the Islamic State. We also have reports that Zehaf-Bibeau had contacts with known jihadist sympathizers and at least one individual who had fought in Syria.

Looking at the long string of domestic terror incidents here in the U.S. shows that the so-called “lone wolves,” in virtually every case, were in fact “known wolves.”

In fairness, this “known wolf” phenomenon goes back more than 20 years.

The cell responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was well known to law enforcement. An FBI informant, Emad Salem, was operating inside their cell and had been repeatedly warning the FBI about the group’s intentions. As far back as 1989, the FBI had been watching these cell members conduct weapons training.

When one of the cell members, El Sayyid Nosair, killed Rabbi Meir Kahane in a New York City hotel in November 1990, law enforcement recovered hordes of information about the cell’s activities and intentions — but, as has been pointed out, it was never translated. My friend and colleague Andy McCarthy, who prosecuted some of the cell members after the 1993 WTC bombing, wrote a whole book about the affair, Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad.

I’ve seen this “known wolf” problem work first-hand.

When the problem of terror recruitment amongst the U.S. Somali community by al-Shabaab became an issue in 2008 and 2009, there were reports in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, which has the second largest Somali population in the country, that al-Shabaab operative Dahir Gurey was fundraising and recruiting for the terrorist group in the area. He later showed up in Minneapolis.

When we told the FBI about it, the response was that our information couldn’t be accurate, because if it were true they would have heard about it from their local Muslim outreach partners.


Fast forward 18 months: Dahir Gurey was killed in a firefight in Mogadishu operating as a senior al-Shabaab commander. As I reported at the time, local FBI officials had publicly said that there was no known terrorist recruitment in the Columbus area just a week before Gurey’s death. He was featured last year in a recent al-Shabaab recruitment video targeting American recruits. But it’s doubtful our FBI office subsequently asked their Muslim outreach “partners” about it.

A review of domestic terror attacks and terror operatives in the U.S. demonstrates our counter-terrorism “known wolf” problem:

Ali Muhammad Brown: Arrested this past August, Brown is charged with the murder of three individuals in Seattle and another in Newark, New Jersey, in a terrorist crime spree in the name of jihad that Brown himself said was vengeance for U.S. actions in the Middle East — one of many jihadist attacks no one wants to talk about. Brown was known by the FBI to be part of a Seattle terror cell for more than a decade.

Ruben Luis Shumpert: The Seattle terror cell that Ali Muhammad Brown was part of was headed by Shumpert. The pair was arrested by the FBI in 2004, and Shumpert was charged and convicted of gun and counterfeiting crimes. Just days before he was to be sentenced, the FBI received a taunting call from Shumpert telling them he was in Somalia and threatening that he and his associates “would destroy everything the United States stood for.” Not only had the FBI not prosecuted him on more serious terrorism charges, they failed to seize his passport as ordered by the federal judge in the case. Shumpert was killed fighting with al-Shabaab in 2008.

Boston Bombing: The bombing of the Boston Marathon by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in April 2013 killed three people and injured 264 others. And yet in the years preceding the attack, law enforcement officials missed repeated signs of Tamerlan’s escalating radicalization. In September 2011, three of his friends were found with their throats slashed and nearly decapitated, a scene which one investigator described as “an Al-Qaeda training video.” And yet Tamerlan was never questioned in the Waltham triple homicide, though reports indicate that immediately after the bombing the FBI was able to tie him to the murders “within hours.”

Additionally, the FBI had been tipped off, twice, by Russian intelligence warning that Tamerlan was “a follower of radical Islam.” Initially, the FBI denied ever meeting with Tamerlan, but they later claimed that they followed up on the lead, couldn’t find anything in their databases linking him to terrorism, and quickly closed the case. After the second Russian warning, Tamerlan’s file was flagged by federal authorities demanding “mandatory” detention if he attempted to leave or re-enter the U.S. — but his name was misspelled when it was entered.

When he was interviewed by the FBI, they apparently never asked him about his stated intent to change his name to honor a Russian jihadist, or the fact that he attended a radical mosque in the Boston area that had already spawned two previous terrorists and was founded by an imprisoned al-Qaeda financier. The mosque — an outreach partner of the FBI — claimed after the bombing that he had been thrown out of the mosque for disrupting services, a claim they later retracted, and yet no one at the mosque bothered to inform the FBI. An internal report of the handling of the Tsarnaev’s case unsurprisingly exonerated the FBI, and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller grew testy when he was asked about the failure to canvass the mosque in the days after the bombing when asked about it by Congressman Louie Gohmert in a House Judiciary hearing.

Major Nidal Hasan: Within days of Major Hasan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood, killing 13, news reports indicated that the FBI was aware of his email correspondence with al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki nearly a year before he launched his terror attack.

The FBI was quick to issue a press release absolving themselves of responsibility, claiming that the email exchange was innocuous and consistent with Major Hasan’s religious research. But after the emails intercepted by the FBI were made public in 2012, there were clear indications of Major Hasan’s terrorist intent. In a May 31, 2009 email to Awlaki, Hasan defended suicide bombings at length and raised the issue of killing “enemy soldiers” to “save his fellow people.” Hasan had also repeatedly given powerpoint briefings that proved to be highly controversial to his fellow Army colleagues that threatened insider attacks by Muslims if they weren’t released as “conscientious objectors.”

Carlos Bledsoe (aka Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad): When Bledsoe gunned down two U.S. Army soldiers in front of a Little Rock recruiting center in June 2009, killing Pvt. William Long, it was not his first contact with the FBI. Bureau agents had interviewed Bledsoe in Yemen and after his return to the U.S. in 2008, but had failed to follow up. After the Little Rock shooting, FBI officials said that he was motivated by “political and religious motives,” but refused to identify the incident as a terrorist attack.

The FBI’s bungling of Bledsoe’s case is one cited reason why he was charged and prosecuted in state, not federal court. Despite claims by Bledsoe that he had been trained in Yemen by al-Qaeda, and reports that he had attended a Columbus, Ohio mosque that had been home to the largest known al-Qaeda cell since 9/11, experts still label the Little Rock shooting a “lone wolf” attack.

Najibullah Zazi: New York City narrowly averted a terror attack on its subway system similar to the backpack bombs in September 2009, but the incident was a textbook case of FBI incompetence. Zazi had received training from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2008 and orders to conduct a domestic terror attack. British intelligence subsequently intercepted an email between a senior al-Qaeda leader and Zazi inquiring about when he was going to conduct the attack and alerted American officials. The FBI then began conducting surveillance on Zazi, and followed him as he drove from Colorado to New York, during which time he lost the FBI tail (requiring FBI agents to fly to St. Louis to catch up with him), was stopped twice by police along the way, and then had his car searched on the George Washington Bridge by New York and New Jersey Port Authority police at the request of the FBI.

The explosive device in the trunk was not discovered in the trunk because the trunk was never searched, most likely because the FBI had failed to obtain a search warrant.

As Mitch Silber noted in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, the FBI allowed Zazi to drive into New York City with the bomb. Spooked by the stops and the search, and then by a tip from an imam who told Zazi that authorities were asking about him, Zazi disposed of the bomb materials and flew back to Colorado, where he was arrested several days later. Despite the FBI’s repeated bungling of the case, the bureau tried to pin the blame on the NYPD.

Underwear Bomber: When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 with 289 other passengers wearing a bomb intended to bring down the plane, he was already well-known to U.S. intelligence officials. The month before the attempted bombing, Abdulmutallab’s father had gone to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and met with two CIA officers telling them he was concerned about his son’s extremism. His name was added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, but not the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database or the no-fly list.

He purchased his $2,381 round trip ticket at the airport in Nigeria with cash, and went through screening in Amsterdam. Following the incident, U.S. officials said there was nothing unusual about the lack of follow-up after the father’s contacts with the CIA, and when asked about the near-takedown of the flight and the missteps, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano remarkably told CNN that “the system worked.”

Faisal Shahzad: Following the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010, officials were swift to invoke the “lone wolf” scenario, though reports quickly emerged that Shahzad had received bomb-making training from the Pakistani Taliban, and officials later confirmed that it was likely that the group was behind the attack. When the focus of the FBI turned to Shahzad, he was able to slip FBI surveillance, go to the airport, purchase an airplane ticket seven hours after his name had been added to the no-fly list, and actually board the plane to Pakistan. It was only the quick action by two Customs and Border Patrol agents that stopped the plane from pulling away from the gate and prevented his escape.

That near-escape notwithstanding, DHS Secretary Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder congratulated themselves on a job well done.

David Headley: A long-time DEA informant who pled guilty to helping scout locations for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks for a Pakistani terror group had long been on the FBI’s radar. Acting on tips, the FBI questioned Headley about his statements supporting the 9/11 attacks and saying that he wanted to join a jihadist group in Pakistan. He told the agents that his rhetoric was a ruse and that he was actually working for them — a story they apparently bought without question.

He was back on their radar several years later after a tip from British intelligence but was still allowed to travel despite the warnings. In fact, he was in Pakistan planning another operation at the time of the Mumbai attack. He was given a 35-year prison sentence. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper later provided the government of India with a report regarding the botched U.S. handling of the case, but defended not passing Headley’s name on to Indian intelligence.


I’ve written previously about the laughable attempts by the FBI to engage in community outreach and the disastrous effect of the U.S. government’s Muslim outreach efforts in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.

There are other cases, such as the FBI’s strange dance with al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, that could be mentioned. Suffice it to say, the U.S. government’s performance in each of these cases has yet to foster any types of reform. What we can see is that the reckless government policies operating in each of these cases has not led to any degree of self-reflection by the system itself or its well-fed CVE enablers.

The first step to recovery is a recognition that what many Western governments are doing with respect to counter-terrorism isn’t working, which is what makes Katie Gorka’s recent analysis critical reading for policymakers. The next step would be to amputate the gangrenous limbs of entrenched interests that encourage these systemic failures, but it isn’t clear that there’s anyone in the White House or on Capitol Hill willing to do what’s necessary.

So as we see jihadist attacks escalate and threats around the world proliferate, we should expect that more Americans will die because of the false narratives and social science hucksters holding their CVE monopoly over our nation’s counter-terrorism system. And no one should be surprised when more of our “lone wolves” turn out to be “known wolves” to our law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

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