A wave of attacks against civilians in Europe over the past month has rekindled fears of self-radicalized, “lone wolf” perpetrators inspired by and acting in the name of Islamic State, but without having direct contact with the group.
The attacks began on July 14 in Nice, France, when a Tunisian man drove a 19-ton refrigerated truck into a large crowd watching Bastille Day fireworks, killing 84 people and injuring hundreds. It took 36 hours for Islamic State to claim responsibility for the atrocity, issuing a statement that called the attacker “a soldier of the Islamic State” who had responded to its leaders’ call “to target states participating in the Crusader coalition that fights the caliphate.” But despite the claim, French investigators have so far found no evidence that the driver had been in contact with any Islamic State operatives.
Four days after the Nice attack, a 17-year-old boy, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, went on a rampage on a train near the German city of Wuerzburg, wounding five people with an ax before being killed by police.
On July 24, a Syrian man who had been denied asylum in Germany blew himself up outside a wine bar in the city of Ansbach, wounding 15 people. Before the attack, the man had recorded a cell phone video in which he pledged allegiance to Islamic State and declared that Germans “won’t be able to sleep peacefully anymore.”
And on two assailants linked to Islamic State attacked a church in northern France, killing an elderly priest by slitting his throat and seriously wounding a hostage. French police shot the perpetrators as they left the church.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for all four attacks, and it now seems that the group will be quick to adopt nearly every attack on civilians in the West. These claims of responsibility tend to be somewhat generic – they don’t show Islamic State’s involvement in the planning or execution of attacks – but they do help the group in its propaganda efforts.
These “lone wolf” attacks are not an accident. They are the result of an organized, decade-old movement within Islamic jihadism to decentralize attacks and make them more diffuse. This trend predated the emergence of Islamic State – it can be traced back to al Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks. While al Qaeda was a hierarchical organization, its leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy and eventual successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, realized that maintaining training camps and central control was not going to work after the group was forced out of its base in Afghanistan under U.S. bombing. Before the September 11 attacks, bin Laden had relied on recruits trained at Afghan camps, and many had personally pledged allegiance to him.
But even while in hiding, bin Laden and Zawahiri frequently addressed their supporters through dozens of videos, audiotapes and internet statements. They encouraged new recruits to act autonomously under al Qaeda’s banner, and they helped inspire hundreds of young men to carry out suicide or conventional bombings in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Spain, Britain and elsewhere.
After a large number of al Qaeda’s leaders were killed, captured or forced to flee, one of bin Laden’s former bodyguard in Afghanistan described the group’s revamped operations to an Arabic newspaper. “Every element of al Qaeda is self-activated,” he said. “Whoever finds a chance to attack simply goes ahead. The decision is theirs alone.”
Today, Islamic State has expanded and perfected this concept of the “leaderless jihad.” And it is now wreaking havoc and spreading fear, both in the West and in the Middle East.
The latest wave of attacks in France and Germany fits into a series of appeals by Islamic State leaders for their supporters to carry out lone wolf assaults that use any means necessary to kill civilians, especially in the West. As the group continues to face a U.S.-led bombing campaign against its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, it is losing the territory and fighters that make up the backbone of its self-declared caliphate. As a result, Islamic State is turning toward both centrally organized plots and individual attacks carried out by sympathizers to reassert its claim as the world’s leading jihadist movement.
One of the major inspirations for this strategy is Abu Musab al-Suri, a veteran jihadist ideologue and an al Qaeda leader who worked with bin Laden and Zawahiri in the 1990s. After he became disillusioned with al Qaeda’s leaders and direction following the September 11 attacks, Suri published a 1,600-page manifesto titled, “A Call to a Global Islamic Resistance,” on the internet in 2005. In the document, which is still widely shared in jihadist circles, Suri calls for a wave of “individual jihad” in which independent operatives – sometimes self-radicalized and other times assisted by recruiters on the web – would target Western civilians in an effort to sow chaos and terror. Suri described his jihadist philosophy as “no organizations, just principles.”
With a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, Suri was captured by Pakistan’s security services in late 2005. He was reportedly turned over to the CIA, and was then renditioned to his native Syria, where he was wanted by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. After the Syrian war began in 2011, there were reports that Suri was among hundreds of al Qaeda and other militant operatives freed by the Assad regime. Many of those militants went on to become leaders of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. But other reports, including statements by al Qaeda leaders, say that Suri is still being held by Assad’s regime.
Regardless of his status, Suri’s conception of the individual, or leaderless, jihad continues to resonate. In relying on lone wolf attacks by individuals who are self-radicalized and have only a tangential understanding of jihadist ideology – and, in some cases, are mentally disturbed – Islamic State is able to project a greater reach than it actually has.
In September 2014, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, an Islamic State spokesman, issued an audiotaped appeal that reflected Suri’s tactics. Adnani urged the group’s sympathizers to use whatever means at their disposal to attack American and French citizens, and virtually any other Western civilians. “If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies,” he said. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”
With the spate of attacks over the past month, a few individuals are heeding Islamic State’s call – and causing a far greater fear to sweep Europe.
(Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He tweets )