Lone-wolf attacks on the rise in era of asymmetric war

by Nicole Gaouette


Six needle-nosed CF-18 fighter jets took off from the Canadian Forces base in Cold Lake, Alberta, on Tuesday to join the coalition fighting the Islamic State group. The next day, a convert to Islam attacked symbols of the Canadian state, killing a soldier and riddling the parliament building with bullets.

As the U.S., Canada and their allies armed with supersonic fighters, laser-guided bombs and unmanned aircraft strike the extremist group in Iraq and Syria, the terrorists are urging individual Muslims worldwide to kill nonbelievers with guns and knives.

While no clear links between the attacker in Ottawa and Islamic State have been established, the carnage follows the group’s September call for retaliation against Western targets, an exercise of what’s known as asymmetric warfare against opponents with greater military, political and economic power.

More attacks by “lone wolves” or small groups on Western soil are likely, said Jeffrey Simon, a specialist in political risk assessment and a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“There have always been lone-wolf attacks throughout history, but the numbers are increasing, and it’s getting more difficult to track these individuals in terms of when, where, or who these lone wolves may be,” Simon said. “The game changer is the Internet. What the Internet does is allow groups like Islamic State to put out a call around the globe.”

Exploiting discontent

France, the U.K., Australia and the Netherlands are among the nations that have joined the U.S. and its Mideast allies in airstrikes against Islamic State, according to the U.S. Central Command.

“The primary hypothesis at this point should be that” the Ottawa attacker “was influenced by the Islamic State and its call to action,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of a terrorism center at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington policy group. “This is an asymmetric style of attack, the timing is quite meaningful, the targets are highly symbolic — Canadian power and the Canadian military.”

Unlike al-Qaida and earlier Palestinian groups, which concentrated on carefully planned operations such as the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Islamic State is trying to exploit economic, social and political discontent to recruit younger Muslims in the West, said two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence.

Shooter’s background

Initial reports depict the shooter, Michael Zahef-Bibeau, as a troubled 32-year-old convert to Islam with a criminal record for drug-related offenses, robbery, assault and possession of a weapon.

According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Zahef-Bibeau came to Ottawa seeking a passport and may have wanted to travel to Syria. He didn’t appear on a list of about 90 high-risk people known to police and wasn’t under investigation, authorities said.

Information suggests “an association with some individuals who shared his radical views,” Police Commissioner Bob Paulson said at a press conference in Ottawa.

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported that Zahef-Bibeau’s father may have fought in Libya in 2011. Police on Thursday said Zahef-Bibeau may have had dual citizenship with Libya.

Marc Tyrrell, a senior research fellow at Carlton University’s Canadian Center of Intelligence and Security Studies in Ottawa, said Zahef-Bibeau seemed to fit one profile for radicalization, as a petty criminal.

“The message coming out of ISIS and other groups provides justification for taking larger actions they want to take anyway. It makes them feel they’re part of the group,” Tyrrell said, using an acronym for Islamic State’s former name.

Magnifying threats

At the same time, the U.S. officials said, the Sunni extremist group is capitalizing on the power of social media to encourage small and even spontaneous attacks by individuals and then spread fear that one of the officials called disproportionate to the danger.

The shooting in Ottawa, and the running down of two other soldiers elsewhere in Canada earlier in the week, as well as a stabbing attack in Australia, this official said, show how today’s media magnify the importance of such single acts far beyond the real threat they pose.

They cited the latest edition of Islamic State’s glossy magazine “Dabiq,” named for a city in northern Syria where some Muslims believe a final battle between Muslims and Christians will take place. One article says: “Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader and kill him,” arguing that smaller attacks are more likely to remain secret beforehand and then succeed.

‘Out of the blue’

Canadian politicians have warned for some time that the country’s immunity to organized attacks wouldn’t last forever. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a member of the Conservative Party that has contributed troops to interventions in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, said in 2011 that violence could arrive “out of the blue,” both from Islamic extremists and lone murderers such as Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred 77 people on a shooting spree last year in Norway.

On Thursday, Harper told the House of Commons that “even as the brave men and women of our Armed Forces are taking this fight to the terrorists on their own territory, we are equally resolved to fight it here.”

This month, Michel Coulombe, who heads Canada’s main spy agency, said authorities were aware of more than 100 Canadians who had traveled abroad to support terrorist groups, and an additional 80 who had done so and returned home. Coulombe told lawmakers the agency was aware of their locations, and had no information about imminent attacks within Canada.

Surveillance woes

Lone wolves can fly under the radar. “In this case, this individual was on a watch list in Canada, but he was still able to perpetrate the attack because he wasn’t being watched 24-7,” said Simon, author of “Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat.”

Islamic State’s ability to act not only asymmetrically but also as a conventional military while adopting characteristics of a state makes the group unique, Gartenstein-Ross said.

“They’re not just a terrorist actor,” he said, citing the conventional military style of its attack on the Kurdish town of Kobani and the way the group collects taxes, sells oil, and attempts to govern territory. “It actually takes on a lot of state characteristics,” he said.

Islamic State’s ability to shift tactics — encouraging lone-wolf attacks in and outside the Middle East and adapting to allied airstrikes on its self-proclaimed caliphate — require the U.S. and its allies to adapt in turn, said a U.S. military official active in planning American strategy.

The lone-wolf attacks require better and faster coordination among intelligence, military and law enforcement officials — not always a strong suit of the U.S. national and local governments — said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Coronavirus banner