European Eye on Radicalization
The Islamic State (ISIS) attacked a police checkpoint in the city of Ismailia, Egypt, on 30 December, killing four people, three of them policemen, and injuring twelve people. The attack was claimed the next day via ISIS’s Amaq News Agency. This is a reminder that, despite the loss of its “caliphate” in 2019, ISIS remains dangerous across the world and raises again the issue of “lone wolves”.
This is not the first time recently that ISIS has attacked Ismailia—there was another attack a month before this last one—and, over the past year, ISIS has been escalating its operations in the Sinai and other areas of Egypt, part of a broader trend of increased ISIS activity in Africa. ISIS officially arrived in Egypt in November 2014, when the Al-Qaeda group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), defected to ISIS, five months after the declaration of the “caliphate” covering areas of Iraq and Syria. ABM was thereafter known as Wilayat Sinai.
Al-Qaeda had begun forming “affiliates” in the early 2000s. The first one was ISIS, ironically, known at the time as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Since then, affiliates have been formed in West Africa, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); in Yemen, known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); and in Somalia, called Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM).
After ISIS was expelled from Al-Qaeda in February 2014, it began creating wilayats (provinces), often by annexing former Al-Qaeda groups, as was the case with ABM, though not always: in Libya, ISIS imported the wilayat wholesale, bringing in thousands of fighters from outside and creating in effect a colony on the North African coast. What happened in Libya is key to understanding ISIS’s conception of its wilayats. The difference is that where Al-Qaeda’s structure was designed to provide resources and common strategic guidance from Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) to the affiliates, while giving them broad autonomy to pursue their jihadist aims in a local context, ISIS’s wilayat model was the reverse: it was designed to bring the local jihadists into a highly centralised structure. And it succeeded.
ISIS “Central” dispatched very senior operatives to the wilayats to carry out a step-by-step process, beginning with the local groups’ media infrastructure, that brought them under centralized control. The end result was, as a recent report for EER documented, that ISIS spread out across the world, while remaining “a monolithic, entirely centralized, supranational organization; it does not have franchises, affiliates, or allies, only provinces of a supranational Empire, and its leadership controls all personnel, funding, and decision-making in every province”.
Given this knowledge built up over the last decade, it is bizarre that it took so long for analysts to accept that when the “Allied Democratic Forces” (ADF) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo declared allegiance to ISIS, it really became an ISIS province; this was not just a branding exercise. The model of ISIS refashioning a local group into a wilayat under centralised administration followed the exact model of the earlier ones, beginning with “ADF” media coming under the control of ISIS “Central”. There was also other publicly available evidence from sanctions notifications of financial streams from ISIS “Central” to “ADF”—and the same was true of Mozambique, where analysts similarly showed a strange reluctance for a time to accept that ISIS had arrived.
The analytical hesitancy in recognising the reality of ISIS in the Congo and Mozambique is part of a continuum with how the analytical community has handled the question of ISIS “lone wolves”. Especially during the height of ISIS’s global attacks campaign from 2014-17, a lot of media coverage was given to “lone wolf” attacks, or, as they were often called, “ISIS-inspired” attacks. The latter designation—“inspired”—was, in itself, an indicator that these operatives were not truly “lone” actors. The reality was that ISIS had evolved a sophisticated system for directing lone actors in Western countries through the foreign branch of its intelligence system, known as Amn al-Kharji. Only a small minority of ISIS’s attacks could be categorized as “lone wolf” attacks, and even that number is probably inflated: we simply lack information about how a number of these attacks were actually conducted; if we had the full facts, many would likely be shown to have a connections to ISIS.
As Schuurman et al. explained a half-decade ago, this is not just the case with ISIS: almost all lone-actor terrorism results from broader networks and ecosystems that cultivate and assist in such attacks. The individual who carries out the terrorist attack is the tip of the iceberg—the smallest and in many ways most insignificant part of the threat picture. “Arguably, truly lone attackers are so uncommon as to be anomalies, rather than the basis for a distinct typology of terrorism”, the authors contend.
Nonetheless, ISIS has tried to capitalize on “lone wolves” as a low-cost, high-reward part of their strategy. The group has made a booklet simply entitled “Lone Wolves” that contains instructions for its followers worldwide to individually carry out terrorist attacks without getting in contact with the group. The instructions include things such as “shave your beard, wear Western clothes, use general and regular perfumes, and encrypt your phones.” The booklet encourages that “any (lone wolf) must try to assimilate and integrate into the local community”, and “try to always be like any ordinary tourist or traditional traveler”. The instructions even extend to the dress sense of would-be ISIS terrorists: “try to match the colors of the clothes, so wearing a red or yellow shirt with black pants makes you suspicious, and there is no need for you to wear new clothes because that it may raise suspicions”.
True “lone wolves” pose the most difficult task for police and security agencies, since they are almost impossible to detect and dismantle, despite human and technical surveillance measures, because such methods rely on “leakage” of details before an attack and a genuine “lone wolf” will not have been in contact with anybody else. With modern communications, ISIS and other terrorists are able to spread their message easily across the world: intellectually, the number of individuals converted to these ideologies is growing and flourishing day after day, within our societies, and they are difficult to control with the tools of conventional war.
It is believed that ISIS targets individuals with psychological and social disorders and criminal records to serve as lone wolves. There are elements that, again, are not affiliated with other people, which makes monitoring them and preventing their actions almost impossible. It is difficult for the regular armies to confront extremists set on carrying out terrorism, when the only early warning is in the individual’s head.
In conclusion, the threat of “terrorist lone wolves”, whose actions result from purely internal motives, who have no interaction terrorist groups or others with the same extremist beliefs, raises a very serious question about how best to keep our societies safe. The threat is growing from these individuals, and there are no easy answers.