Stratfor cuts through the hype about grassroots terrorism

Summary:  We have had many episodes of lone wolf terrorism. Each produces a tsunami of stories, but so far no strategic effects. Here Stratfor examines grassroots terrorism, helping us to better know what to expect.Stratfor

Putting Grassroots Terrorism in the Proper Perspective

Lead analyst:  Scott Stewart.
Stratfor, 8 December 2016.

When it comes to claiming attacks, the Islamic State seems to believe in the old advertising adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The group apparently feels that the very mention of its involvement in an attack, successful or otherwise, will serve to fuel public panic — a strategy that has proved effective. No matter how inept an attacker or how ineffective an assault, the Islamic State is quick to take credit, even where credit does not appear due.

One such example is a recent attack in Ohio. Just after 10 a.m. on Nov. 28, an 18-year-old student named Abdul Razak Ali Artan drove onto the Ohio State University campus where he was enrolled. Running his vehicle over a curb, Artan struck a group of pedestrians then exited the car and began attacking passersby with a large knife. About a minute into the incident, a responding university police officer shot and killed the assailant, who managed to injure 11 people in the course of the attack — one of them seriously.

Though the attack was amateurish and unsuccessful, and despite Artan’s documented affinity for al Qaeda leaders such as the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the Islamic State took to the internet to claim responsibility. The group’s Amaq news agency hailed Artan as a “soldier of the caliphate” who had heeded the call to “target nationals” of the countries fighting against the Islamic State, in accordance with the tenets of leaderless resistance. In the wake of the announcement, I noted on Twitter that the fact Amaq claimed such an attack highlights the limited reach of the Islamic State’s core group. (Here at Stratfor, I have also discussed the group’s struggles in projecting its terrorist capabilities transnationally over the past few years. In fact, I consider its adoption of leaderless resistance an admission of weakness rather than a sign of strength.)

But shortly after I posted the tweet, someone responded that I had done a disservice to my audience by characterizing Artan as a grassroots jihadist. The basis of my interlocutor’s complaint, as I understood it, was that the label downplays the threat that such attackers pose. Rather than begin a Twitter fight or try to explain myself in 140-character chunks, I decided to devote this week’s column to the importance of properly contextualizing terrorist attacks.

Age of the Wolf
Report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Danger of Downplaying

Of course, there is a danger in underplaying the threat that grassroots jihadists pose. Despite their limited means and abilities, grassroots terrorists aspire to inflict the maximum possible carnage. And sometimes they succeed, choosing the right target for a particular type of attack. Omar Mateen’s attack against the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, for example, and the Bastille Day assault in Nice left scores dead, taking more victims than many operations conducted by professional terrorist cadres. It is also important not to discount the toll inflicted on the survivors of even the most half-baked grassroots terrorist strike. Though no one was killed in Artan’s attack, his victims could end up suffering medical complications from their injuries, not to mention psychological trauma, for years to come.

For many years now, I have tried to counter the hype surrounding the type of terrorism favored by the leaderless resistance model. I even refer to lone actors as “stray mutts” instead of using the more menacing term “lone wolves.” But attacks such as those in Orlando and Nice serve as deadly reminders that even stray mutts can bite. Furthermore, by getting in touch with professional terrorist operatives, grassroots terrorists — like Richard Reid or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — can gain access to the resources and know-how necessary to conduct more sophisticated attacks.

That said, there is as much danger, if not more, in overstating the threat that attackers such as Artan present: Doing so plays into a narrative common to jihadist groups — that they are omnipotent and inexorable. Terrorists have long relied on terror magnifiers to maximize the effect of their attacks. The advent of 24-hour news channels and social media has extended their reach even further, enabling terrorist operatives to inflict harm on millions of vicarious victims. The most effective way to combat the resulting hysteria is to cut through the hype. Recognizing the inherent limitations of simple attacks that employ cars, knives, or the small, crude bombs featured in al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine can help keep the threat of grassroots terrorism in perspective.

“Guerre terrorisme mort” by iPatou .

Combating the Hype

It is remarkably easy to kill people if one so desires — especially if an attacker is willing to die in the process. The world is rife with soft, vulnerable targets, and no matter how vigilant or well-equipped a government may be, it cannot completely eliminate the threat of terrorism. Considering how easy it is to conduct a simple attack against a soft target, it is a wonder that there have not been more such incidents in the West. Doubtless, the number of attacks that have occurred in recent years is far below what al Qaeda and the Islamic State were hoping for when they began promoting leaderless resistance overseas.

Carrying out an attack that will have a strategic effect on the target country is another story. Had al Qaeda been able to replicate the events of 9/11, as many feared in the days that followed the attacks, it could have posed a legitimate strategic threat to the United States. But in the years since, the group’s efforts have simply not attained the same level of significance. Incidents such as the 2009 mass shooting at Ft. Hood and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing were tragic and bloody, but they did not represent an existential threat to the United States. Similarly, although the Islamic State’s attackers have demonstrated an ability to kill, they have not proved themselves capable of conducting a more serious strategic attack.

Simple attacks can be devastating on a personal level. On a national scale, however, they are little more than an annoyance. Though efforts to prevent grassroots attacks — or to mitigate the effects of those that cannot be stopped — are no less important, they must not divert resources from protecting strategic, hard targets. Differentiating between untrained grassroots terrorist operatives and more proficient professional terrorists helps not only to combat hype but also to ensure that security resources are properly allocated. The challenge in placing an attack such as Artan’s into the proper context is to make sure that, like Goldilocks, we are not too cold or too hot, but just right.

Putting Grassroots Terrorism in the Proper Perspective
is republished with permission of Stratfor.


Scott Stewart of Stratfor

About the author

Scott Stewart is Stratfor’s VP of Tactical Analysis, supervising their analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations. He is regularly featured as a security expert in leading media outlets. See other articles by Scott here.

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About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, we help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about terrorism, and especially these…

  1. Empowered individuals — and super-empowered ones!
  2. Should we panic at the many warnings about domestic terrorism?
  3. Does terrorism work? Richard English gives the answer.
  4. Stratfor: Terrorism doesn’t ‘just happen’. Here’s how it develops.

See Richard English’s book to learn more about terrorism.

Does Terrorism Work?
Available at Amazon..

From the publisher…

“Terrorism is one of the most significant security threats that we face in the twenty-first century. Not surprisingly, there is now a plethora of books on the subject, offering definitions of what terrorism is and proffering advice on what causes it and how states should react to it. But one of the most important questions about terrorism has, until now, been left remarkably under-scrutinized: does it work? Richard English now brings thirty years of professional expertise studying terrorism to the task of answering this complex – and controversial – question.

“Focussing principally on four of the most significant terrorist organizations of the last fifty years (al-Qaida, the Provisional IRA, Hamas, and ETA), and using a wealth of interview material with former terrorists as well as those involved in counter-terrorism, he argues that we need a far more honest understanding of the degree to which terrorism actually works – as well as a more nuanced insight into the precise ways in which it does so.

“Only then can we begin to grapple more effectively with what has become one of the most challenging and eye-catching issues of our time.”

7 thoughts on “Stratfor cuts through the hype about grassroots terrorism”

  1. It’s interesting. I’m sorry that the article is only about Muslim terrorists and plays into the refussl to label certain far right and Christian terrorists as such. How quickly we have forgotten the Oklahoma City Federal Bldg.

    1. Camila,

      Thanks for reminding us about that important point — that domestic terrorism in America, left or right wing, might be more important than that of jihadists. In this cycle, right-wing terrorism seems more prevalent.

      Note that in this article I added the graphic and link to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Age of the Wolf” report about lone-wolf terrorists — which, of course, gives ample attention to right-wing terrorists. And the posts listed in the For More Information section at the end discuss many kinds of terrorism.

  2. “In this cycle, right-wing terrorism seems more prevalent.”
    Sorry, I do not understand what you are referring to.

    1. Neilmdunn,

      “I do not understand what you are referring to.”

      The US has experienced low-level terrorist activity since the late 19th century. While both left-wing and right-wing terrorists are active, as usual, in the past 2 or 3 decades right-wing terrorism has been the most active (contrast with the 1960s-1970s). The evidence — backed by authoritative research by a wide range of institutions — is overwhelming about this. Here is a sample.

      “In the 1990s, right-wing extremism overtook left-wing terrorism as the most dangerous domestic terrorist threat to the country.”
      — “The Terrorist Threat Confronting the United States” by the FBI’s Executive Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence Division before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 6 February 2002.

      Sovereign Citizen Extremist Ideology Will Drive Violence at Home, During Travel, and at Government Facilities” by FBI and Homeland Security, 5 February 2015.

      A summary (with links) to some of the research: “The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat” by CHARLES KURZMAN (U NC) and DAVID SCHANZER (Duke), NYT, 16 JUNE 2015.

      Terror from the Right” by the SPLC, 1 Nov 2015 — “A synopsis of radical-right terrorist plots, conspiracies and racist rampages since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It includes a roster of murdered law enforcement officials.”

  3. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question and to provide some links to help enlighten me. I now have some homework.

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