As the United States commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, terrorism experts stepped up warnings that authorities must look beyond the usual sources of terror, to the lone wolves stirring with anger and seeking out big-impact weapons.
Isolated and underestimated, lone wolves might go unnoticed even as they try to get chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons – collectively known as CBRN – that can spread terror and spark psychological chaos.
Anders Breivik is the latest of the lone wolves and a point of concern among terrorism experts. His devastating attack in Norway in July spurred researchers to mine his 1,500-page treatise in search of evidence that unconventional, free-agent terrorists may now have greater potential to inflict damage and ignite panic.
Breivik’s manifesto was more than just the ramblings of a lone nut.
“Dismissing Breivik’s “[weapons of mass destruction] idea” as unrealistic is dangerous and overlooks important nuances that give his warnings about greater weapons added validity. Moreover, his writings might spur other extremists, according to a little-noticed report from the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of American Scientists.
Acknowledging the threat
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in an interview on ABC News last week, said one of the biggest challenges she had seen as DHS secretary, “is movement toward the home-grown violent extremist. The person who, for whatever reason, decides to attack his fellow citizens,
She warned citizens to be vigilant of “the lone actor that we may not know about, who may already be in the United States and so it requires us to be vigilant and the public be vigilant.”
Adding to that official urgency is a sense among terrorism experts that the path to destructive weapons is easier.
“It is not that difficult to acquire radiological materials. There are different ways people would disseminate them. The most likely way is to mixing them into conventional explosive devices to cause further damage,” said Dr. Jeffrey M. Bale, of the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS).
Bale, who directs the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, said attacks with unconventional weapons are not likely to cause massive causalities. Instead they’re supposed to deliver disproportionate psychological impact.
“An attack with chemical agents that kill only twenty people will probably have as much or more psychological impact as a conventional explosive which kills two hundred people because the lay public does not know much about their capabilities and qualities,” he said.
Charles Blair, director of the Terrorism Analysis Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said that, for example, the public often confuses a radiological device, a so-called “dirty bomb,” with a nuclear explosive. Extremist groups and individuals are significantly less able to acquire the latter.
“Of all CBRN attacks, a low-level radiological is the most likely,” Blair said., “These are weapons of mass disruption which cause great panic, psychological impact and economic impasse …
“The threat that comes from the within is the scariest. The insider threat is a topic that nobody still wants to talk about,” added Blair, cautioning that he believes there has yet to be a candid, public discussion in the national security community about domestic terrorist threats.
In a January 2011 story on iWatchnews.org, House Speaker John Boehner pushed the Department of Homeland Security to back away from a report that noted a rise in right-wing violence which could motivate "lone wolves."
And the White House, to avoid offending the Muslim community, has opted for the general term “violent extremism” to describe the threat of Islamic radicalization.
“The administration is understandably apprehensive about identifying Islamist extremism as the primary extremist threat to the United States for fear that the broader Muslim community will take offense,” said terrorism expert Jonathan Kennedy.
New sources of terror
The dimensions of internal threats have diversified in the recent times.
Peter Boogaard, the deputy press secretary at the Office of Public Affairs of the US Department of Homeland Security, said that a decade after 9/11, America is “stronger and more resilient … ” but that threats persist:
Homegrown Islamist terrorism remains a threat.
And in the past few years, al Qaida and its affiliates have become more effective at recruiting and radicalizing would-be terrorists.
So far the United States’ growing counterterrorism capacity has led to arrests and a thwarting of planned attacks, like the failed car-bomb incident in New York this summer.
But Jeffery Bale of the Monterey Institute warned that “Terrorists have to succeed only once but we have to succeed 100% of the time. There will be future terrorist attacks inside the United States. But the question is how successful and frequent these attacks will be.”
New tools for terror
The Internet has become a powerful recruiting, fundraising and planning tool for terrorists -- and a monitoring and investigative measure for law enforcement and governments.
“I think many people would be surprised to learn about the range and diversity of terrorist and extremist groups operating in the United States,” Kenney said. Terrorism experts propose “major focus of efforts” to track down unusual suspects.
"Perpetrators of terrorist violence increasingly rely on the internet for recruitment and planning purposes. As the internet and related technologies evolve, the instrumental power of the internet – for fundraising, recruitment, financial transactions, and so on – expands and diversifies,” Kennedy added.
Two areas of concern for terrorism experts are the lack of public awareness and what they say is “mediocre” research on the subject.
“In the United States, public awareness of terrorism is mostly limited to Islamist terrorism,” said Kennedy, who consults with government agencies on terrorism. “I don’t think the average person in the United States would know that Colombia is a country with one of the highest rates of terrorism in the world.”
Charles Blair of FAS recalled that months before 9/11, a television show called the Lone Gunman featured a plane crashing into New York’s World Trade Center. Similarly, the teens behind the Columbine Massacre in 1999 had included in their planning a plane crashing into the twin towers.
“People tend to ignore terrorism warnings. They frantically scream saying they were not expecting an attack when it has already struck,” Blair said.