Tracking lone wolf terrorists in cyber spaceNew research shows how the terrorist working alone nonetheless finds "virtual wolf packs"
By Doug Page
"Lone wolf" terrorists — like the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bomber, the Norway attacker, and the Fort Hood and Aurora gunmen — are a major public safety concern, because they are nearly impossible to detect by usual intelligence and tracking means. New Israeli research is trying to change that.
Communications professor Gabriel Weimann, of the University of Haifa, has been monitoring terrorism on the Internet for more than a decade. He reports in a paper to appear in the September issue of the Journal of Terrorism Research that, like wolves in nature, most lone terrorists do not hunt alone, but find what he calls "virtual wolf packs" to belong to among social media and radical websites.
Weimann says we may be able to get better at preventing lone-wolf terrorist attacks by following the radicalization of opinions being expressed online and by tracking the enlistment and training processes that are happening in that sphere.
Weimann says in the paper that terrorist groups have learned how to appeal to potential lone wolves, how to attract and seduce them, how to train and teach them, and finally how to launch them on their attacks, all by using such online resources as forums, chatrooms, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Therefore, if the process of recruiting, supporting and training lone wolves occurs on online platforms, these same sites can be monitored and studied.
Weimann says the key benefit to law enforcement outreach into radical, extremist, Jihadist and other terrorist communities is in providing early threat warnings. "Such warning signs include ties individuals may have developed with known radicals or online interaction through radical websites," he says in the paper.
As a counter-terrorism measure to track potential lone-wolf attackers, Weimann also recommends the use of online informants and undercover agents, such as the Cyber Intelligence Unit formed by the New York Police Department. In this NYPD unit, undercover cyber agents track the online activities of suspected violent extremists, such as Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, then interact with them online to determine the threat level they pose.
(Described by the New York Daily News as a "wannabe jihadi," former Staten Island resident Shehadeh, then 21, was arrested in October 2010 for lying to federal law enforcement officers. He had earlier denied flying to Pakistan in 2008 with the intention of joining the Taliban.)
The Weimann paper concludes that the potential utility of these online counter-terrorism measures can be found in the number of lone wolves who have been found to be in possession of terrorism material acquired by accessing online sources, including:
• Antonio Martinez, a Maryland man arrested for attempting to detonate a car bomb at a U.S. Army recruiting center in Maryland in December 2010;
• Naser Jason Abdo, the soldier charged in a bomb plot targeting personnel at Fort Hood, Texas, in July 2011;
• Barry Walter Bujol Jr., a Texas resident convicted last November of attempting to deliver money and GPS equipment to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; and
• Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was arrested in November 2010 for attempting to blow up a Christmas tree–lighting ceremony with a car bomb in Portland, Ore.