Why There Are No ISIS 'Lone Wolves'

An ISIS call-to-arms posted online nearly two weeks ago mocked the term that the West uses for the terror group's members abroad -- a big picture of a lone, grey wolf accompanied the text.

"Jihad is going through various stages to reach the state of empowerment and the rule of the land, as it does our brothers in the land of the caliphate," said the call for jihadists in Egypt to activate.

"Wolves," the message said, are "one of the first jihad work stages" and simply indicates "individual small cells" who have a greater chance of taking the enemy by surprise or taking down his compatriots. They don't need "strength or muscle, huge experience in jihad work" and "each wolf chooses what suits him and what fits his goal and location of the implementation of the action."

"Small firewood is what ignites huge and large flames... wolves will increase their expertise and will move with the time and expertise to the largest operations and to expand and diversify the weapon used."

A "lone wolf" would be a jihadist taking it upon himself with no direct outside involvement -- be it direction or support -- to commit an attack. But recent attacks have shown government's desire to rush to "lone wolf" judgment, be it to placate a nervous public, cover intelligence about wider plots or networks, or just save face for counter-terrorism efforts that let one slip through the cracks.

Government officials use the less alarming terminology that the U.S. suffered an attack from disaffected loners rather than the U.S. suffered an ISIS attack.

"There are a lot of challenges associated with trying to root out and prevent essentially lone wolf attacks," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. "And again, based on what we know now, and there's still a lot more that we have to learn, this is consistent with what has previously been described as a -- a lone wolf attack, that essentially you have two individuals that don't appear to be part of a broader conspiracy, and identifying those individuals and keeping tabs on them is difficult work."

"Lone wolf" also disassociates the assailant from the broader ideological movement, painting the attacker as a disaffected, impressionable individual who is lured to a life of crime by a magazine, video or tweets.

"We continue to be keenly aware and vigilant about the threat that is posed by a so-called lone wolf, where you have an individual who is disaffected and is vulnerable to some of the kind of recruitment efforts that we see ISIL employ through social media," Earnest said Tuesday.

Not only had Garland, Texas, shooter Elton Simpson been on the FBI's radar for years after lying about plans to go join jihad in Somalia, but he distributed ISIS propaganda via social media. Simpson announced the Texas attack less than half an hour before shots were fired outside of the Muhammad cartoon contest, and jihadists who quickly tweeted about the attack expressed no surprise. The other shooter, Nadir Soofi, was Simpson's roommate in Phoenix -- so at what point do roommates who plan and conduct attacks graduate from "lone wolves" to a cell?

Both men were in their 30s and born in the United States. They had jobs and attended the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. Soofi left behind a young son.

ISIS included the attack in its daily report of operations distributed to its fighters. "Two soldiers of the Khilafah carried out an assault on a convention in Garland, Texas... We say to the America, the defender of the cross, what's coming will be even worse."

ISIS wants to populate the caliphate, no question about it. They've put out the call for Muslims to contribute in ways that don't involve fighting but are necessary for civic infrastructure, from teachers to tech specialists. A recent video about the Islamic State Health Service featured an Australian doctor -- a white man with a barely-there beard -- treating babies and talking about his decision to come to the Islamic State.

A 50-page handbook released earlier this year detailed tips for jihadists wanting to come to the Islamic State, from what to pack to contacts who would try to smuggle them across the Turkish border. But it acknowledged that things are getting tougher for those who want to immigrate: "Lately things have got harder at the Turkish border, so Islamic State members often meet new people in Turkey hotels and smuggle them across the border,” though the safehouses are “usually males only” and can only be accessed with “a paper signed by an existing member to show he is trustworthy.”

A month ago, an ISIS cyber unit threatened Turkey with hacking attacks if it didn't stop impeding the flow of foreign fighters into the Islamic State. Turkey has been under intense international pressure to crack down on the flow of goods and people across the 500-mile border.

So while ISIS encourages its followers to make hijrah to the caliphate, it also encourages its followers to be part of the caliphate wherever they may be. This isn't just because of the physical difficulties of getting to the Islamic State -- ISIS regularly distributes "if I did it, so can you" stories from other jihadists who made the trip -- but because of ISIS's overall strategy.

Consider it like crowd-funding for jihadists: encouraging followers to be part of the cause however they can, whatever they can contribute, wherever they can.

They plan on building their "army" not in one centralized location straddling Iraq and Syria, but in grass-roots pockets around the globe to grow and converge upon major targets. The ISIS e-book detailing how the terror group plans to sack Rome describes drawing not just from Muslim communities across Europe but from anti-Israel activists, anarchists and ethnic minority military defections.

These cells won't need complicated support from an ISIS HQ to plan and coordinate attacks, the book stresses, because of the open-source support for terrorists out there today. “All the Islamic groups use Google Earth today to plan their attacks…. Usually only powerful countries had power to satellite technology, now everyone can use it for free.”

Another e-book this year, The Islamic State, claims self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not micromanage his commanders, which gives them “a lot of flexibility and makes the Islamic State harder to defeat” unlike “conventional national armies who have a long chain of command and a common pattern in style of war.”

Their media structure is so diffuse — from “professionally edited videos” and scores of social media accounts (including coordinated hashtags) to e-books and magazines — because “by not having a website, no one can hack it and claim an online victory.”

“Each province has its own responsibility in creating its own videos and social media accounts to share its successes. By decentralising everything from the core leadership, even if a province fails online or offline, the leadership and overall Khilafah (Caliphate) leadership project is still safe and can grow elsewhere.”

The book notes that social media is its own kind of jihad. “What the Islamic State has done for Islam online: Just do a quick search for the word: ‘Islam’ on youtube: What we see is that even though Muslims have been trying to tell people about Islam for the past 20yrs, there have been more searches for ‘Islamic State’ on youtube in the past 3yrs than there have been for ‘Islam’ since youtube has ever existed.”

ISIS has turned skirting around Twitter suspensions into an art form; one jihadist on the social media site announced this week his 32nd comeback under a different Twitter handle, and jihadists whose accounts are still active spread the word about the new account of a booted member.

And if lone wolves are branded so because they haven't received formal training in terrorist camps, consider that ISIS encourages self-training even for members located in the Middle East. A recent e-book on how the terrorists plan to seize Israel gives Krav Maga tips and suggests using “open-source technology” such as 3-D printers and reverse engineering to mass produce replicas of captured Israeli weapons. Like other ISIS materials, the book stresses that cyber jihadists are valuable recruits who can operate anywhere.

A guide for jihadists in the West issued in late March gives instructions on using secure browsers, watching Bourne films, bomb-making, physical training at home, practicing with Nerf or paintball guns, and moving up to “primitive weapons” such as crossbows. “Playing games like Call of Duty gives you knowledge of techniques used in warfare on different terrains.”

And ISIS jihadists in the West shouldn’t call themselves lone wolves, but an ISIS “special services secret agent.”

They’re encouraged to take advantage of symbolic dates for attacks, to target places like synagogues and gas pipelines, and embrace one- or two-man operations like in France. If they need to flee the West, they're told to escape to "the Islamic State in Libya, or Khorasan (Waziristan in Pakistan), or in Nigeria (under Boko Haram territory)" if they can't get to Iraq and Syria.

The ISIS strategy is to have jihadis of varying skills nestled in every corner of the globe, some with no more contact with fellow ISIS fighters than tweets.

In the wake of the Garland attack, a message online claiming to be from a Western member of ISIS noted that their cells abroad conduct another type of training you can't do in a camp: learning from the successes and mistakes of other cells, soaking in every bit of media coverage. "We have been watching closely who was present at this event and the shooter of our brothers," the message said, and have "71 trained soldiers in 15 different states ready at our word to attack any target we desire.”