Dispatches > News
U.S. Marshalls Service/AP

Lone wolf myth

Random terror may signal a new plan

Issue: "Gulf toil," June 5, 2010

An unexploded SUV parked in Times Square has exploded questions about the threat of homegrown terrorists.
Authorities quickly established that Faisal Shahzad, who is accused of planting the car bomb in New York's Times Square on May 3, had contact with key figures in the Taliban and a web of jihadist contacts that included U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki, now believed to be in Yemen, is reported also to have had influence over Nadal Hasan, the U.S. army major who went on a shooting rampage last November at Fort Hood, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.
Less obvious is what the connections mean. Why did an apparently successful naturalized American turn radical? And once he did, traveling to Pakistan for apparently high-level training, why did he return to take up residence in the United States?
One emerging explanation is that so-called lone-wolf attackers are anything but, according to terror analyst Ron Sandee of the NEFA Foundation. They receive instructions and training face-to-face but return to the United States to carry out attacks untethered from a larger terror cell-thus avoiding a trail via wiretapping and other data collection so useful to U.S. counterterrorism units since 9/11. Sandee and others have a growing fear that lone-wolf attacks are meant as diversions. Tracking individuals for suspicious activity, overseas travel to anywhere from Pakistan to northern Africa, and contacts with jihadist clerics all suck intel resources-and may lead to missing something bigger, more coordinated. In this scenario it's OK with terror groups if attackers like Shahzad or Abdulmutallab fail; giving U.S. intelligence a new scent to follow is what counts. If true, we can expect more seemingly random attacks, and the big question is whether U.S. officials will have the resources to track them and not miss the big one.
-with reporting by Lynn Vincent

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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