Tag Archives: lone-wolf terrorism

The Orlando Shootings – and What They Tell Us About the Evolving Threat from Islamic State

This month saw what the President of the United States described as “the most deadly shooting in American history” with the killing of 49 innocent people at an Orlando nightclub, carried out by a man suspected of having leanings towards radical Islamist ideology.

Although information is still emerging, there are some clear threads and patterns, which link this attack to the increasing activity surrounding so-called Islamic State (IS).

1. Assaults Using an Automatic Rifle Becoming More Common

For somebody committed to terrorizing the population, there appears to be a growing tendency to use automatic weapons. Off-the-shelf military weapons are inherently more reliable than improvised explosive devices. In contrast to the atrocity in Orlando, a 2007 plot against the Tiger Tiger nightclub in London failed because the IED (improvised explosive device) failed to detonate.

2. The Increase in “Lone Wolf” Attacks as a Response to Surveillance

A “lone wolf” attack has been defined as a single individual or a group of two to three people driven to hateful actions based on a particular set of beliefs without a larger group’s knowledge or support. The FBI believes that most U.S. domestic attacks are carried out by lone actors to promote their own grievances and agendas.

Militants involved in such attacks are home-grown “self-starters” that are inspired by the jihadi movement, but may have little or no actual connection to these groups. Instead, many use the internet and social networking tools to find propaganda and research attack methods.

Mass interception of communications (as revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks of National Security Agency files), particularly in North America, has raised the chances of terrorist conspiracies being detected. This has led to a move away from plots involving multiple attackers. There has been a corresponding rise in the United States in the risk of lone-actor attacks, which have a comparatively small chance of being found out and stopped.

3. Attacks Inspired by Islamic State

The Orlando terrorist contacted police via cellphone around the time of the attack to announce his allegiance to IS. There are strong indications that he has been deeply influenced by the group even if he had no contact with it. As IS concedes territory it controls in Iraq and Syria it is looking to organize or inspire atrocities overseas. There are two likely reasons for this. Firstly, striking on foreign soil helps to divert attention from its losses in the Middle East in order to retain credibility and an aura of potency. Second, the jihadi operations overseas are designed to deter further attacks by Western forces in IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

4. Targeting of Venues Which Extremists Claim Symbolize Values They Decry

Bars and nightclubs may feature in the attack plans of terrorist organizations because there are high concentrations of people in a public, accessible venue. Such locations are also targets for such extremists who may view them as representing Western lifestyles of which they disapprove.

5. Increased Attacks over Ramadan

The murders in Orlando happened a week after the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Radical Islamic militants tend to increase their operations during this period.  A recording released online from IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani has claimed any martyrdom operation during the festival of Ramadan will bring more “rewards.” An increase in the tempo of Islamist terrorist activity would thus not be unexpected.

The increasing proliferation of extremism and global attacks is concerning. Our modeling team closely monitors the evolving risk landscape. By examining all attacks to capture greater insight into the workings and thinking of the terrorist groups, including targeting preferences and weapon selection, we can continue to offer terrorism models that enable our clients to deepen their understanding of terrorism risk and strengthen their terrorism risk management.

This post was co-authored by Weimeng Yeo and Gordon Woo. 

Weimeng Yeo

Principal Modeler, Model Development
Weimeng Yeo is a principal modeler on the Model Development team at Risk Management Solutions (RMS), and is a key member of the team responsible for the development of RMS’ terrorism modeling solutions. Prior to his tenure at RMS, Weimeng worked at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Colby College in Maine and a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University in Washington DC at the School of Foreign Service.

Redefining the Global Terrorism Threat Landscape

The last six months have witnessed significant developments within the global terrorism landscape. This includes the persistent threat of the Islamic State (IS, sometimes also called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), the decline in influence of the al Qaida core, the strengthening of affiliated jihadi groups across the globe, and the risk of lone wolf terrorism attacks in the West. What do these developments portend as we approach the second half of the year?


(Source: The U.S. Army Flickr)

The Persistent Threat Of The Islamic State

The Islamic State has emerged as the main vanguard of radical militant Islam due to its significant military successes in Iraq and Syria. Despite suffering several military setbacks earlier this year, the Islamic State still controls territory that covers a third of Iraq and Syria respectively. Moreover, with recent military successes in taking over the Iraqi city of Ramadi and Palmyra, Syria, they are clearly not in a consolidation mode. In order to attract more recruits, the Islamic State will have to show further military successes. Thus, the risk of a terrorist attack to a Sunni dominated state in the Middle East by the Islamic State is likely to increase. The Islamic State has already expanded its geographical footprint by setting up new military fronts in countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Muslim countries that have a security partnership with the United States will be the most vulnerable. The Islamic State will rebuke these nations to demonstrate that an alliance with the United States does not offer peace and security.

Continued Decline of al Qaida Core

The constant pressure by the U.S. on the al Qaida core has weakened its military while its ideological influence has dwindled substantially with the rise of the Islamic State. The very fact that the leaders of the Islamic State had the temerity to defy the orders of al Qaida leader, Ayman Zawahiri, and break away from the group is a strong indication of the organization’s impotency. However, the al Qaida core’s current weakness is not necessarily permanent. In the past, we have witnessed terrorist groups rebound and regain their strength after experiencing substantial losses. For example, terrorist groups such as the FARC in Colombia, ETA in Spain, and Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines were able to resurrect their military operations once they had the time and space to operate. Thus, it is possible that if the al Qaida core leadership were able to find some “operational space,” the group could begin to regain its strength. However, such a revival could be hindered by Zawahiri. As many counter terrorism experts will attest, Zawahiri appears to lack the charisma and larger-than-life presence of his predecessor Osama bin Laden to inspire his followers. In time, a more effective and charismatic leader could emerge in place of Zawahiri. However, this has yet to transpire; with the increasing momentum of Islamic State, it appears that the al Qaida core will continue to flounder.

Affiliated Salafi Jihadi Groups Vying For Recognition

As the al Qaida core contracts, its affiliates have expanded significantly. More than 30 terrorist and extremist groups have expressed support to the al Qaida cause. The most active of the affiliates are Jabhat Nusra (JN), al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaida in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and al Shabab. These groups have contributed to a much higher tempo of terrorist activity, alleviating the level of risk.  As these groups vie for more recognition to get more recruits, they are likely to orchestrate larger scale attacks as a way of raising their own terrorism profile. Attacks at the Westgate shopping center in Kenya in 2013 as well as the more recent Garissa University College attack that killed 147 people by al Shabab are two examples of headline-grabbing attacks meant to rally their followers and garner more recruits.

Lone Wolf Terrorism Attacks In The West

The West will continue to face intermittent small-scale terrorism attacks. The series of armed attacks in Paris, France, Ottawa, Canada, and Sydney, Australia in the last year by local jihadists are clear illustration of this. Neither the Islamic State, the al Qaida core, nor their respective affiliates have demonstrated that they can conduct a major terrorist attack outside their sphere of influence. This lack of ability to extend their reach is evident by the salafi-jihadist movement clamoring for their followers to conduct lone wolf attacks, particularly if they are residing in the West. Lone wolf terrorism operations consist of individuals who work on their own or in very small group thus making it difficult for the authorities to thwart any potential attack. While these plots are much harder to stop, their attacks tend to be much smaller in scope.