Brussels and the Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist
At around 3:30 in the afternoon on May 24, 2014, a man wearing a baseball cap and armed with a Kalashnikov rifle and handgun stormed the Jewish Museum in Brussels and opened fire. The attack lasted less than 90 seconds, but it ended the lives of Emanuel and Miriam Riva (an Israeli couple on holiday from Tel Aviv), and a French woman named Dominique Sabrier. A young Belgian man who worked at the museum, Alexandre Strens, was critically wounded and taken to a hospital, where he died on June 6.
The suspect, Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national of Algerian origin, was arrested six days later in Marseille, after a continent-wide manhunt. French Deputy Prosecutor Ine Van Wymersch said at the time that the perpetrator “probably acted alone, was armed and well prepared.”
Her assessment was rapidly shared across international media outlets, and Nemmouche was classified as a so-called “lone wolf” — an individual that acts alone, and performs an act of terror separate from any named group.
However, the killer was anything but a “lone wolf.” In an interconnected world, so-called “lone wolf” jihadists are almost always part of a lethal pack. And they will continue prowling for prey, undeterred, until we recognize them as such.
Nemmouche had previously spent a year in Syria, where he fought with the Islamic State and was known as a notorious torturer of prisoners. He had a history of criminal activity, although not related to terrorism, and previously served five years in prison for armed robbery, during which he was likely exposed to radical Islamic teachings. Just three weeks after his release in September 2012, Nemmouche traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State, and eventually returned to Belgium in 2013.
When Nemmouche was arrested, French police found in his possession an Islamic State flag and a 40-second tape recording claiming responsibility for the massacre at the Jewish Museum. It was later revealed that Nemmouche’s path intersected with another “lone wolf,” Mohammad Merah — the man responsible for three gun attacks committed in March 2012, targeting French soldiers and children and teachers at a Jewish school. A telephone recording also proved that he was in contact with Abdelhamid Abbaaoud, the ringleader of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris that took place on November 13, 2015.
Nemmouche’s case mirrors the journey of many jihadists that are often wrongly characterized by politicians, journalists, and the general public as “lone wolves.”
The nature of terrorism has changed significantly over the last decade. In the period after 9/11, authorities poured hundreds of millions of dollars into programs to detect cells of men handpicked by terrorist organizations to commit atrocities in our countries. Today, coordinated attacks have become less frequent and have been overtaken by attacks carried out by individuals.
The shifting nature of terrorism has prompted a debate over how to accurately describe individuals that act independently of a terrorist organization’s chain of command. Some call them “micro terrorists.” Others “freelancers.” But the most established description for such individuals are “lone wolves” — a concept that is deeply flawed, because it obscures both the complexities of political violence and minimizes the magnitude of the threat that we face.
Take for example the wave of terrorist attacks that has swept across Europe in recent years. There was the brutal beheading of Lee Rigby, an off-duty soldier hacked to death on the streets of Woolwich by two individuals. Terrorists rammed vehicles into pedestrians in Nice, Stockholm, Berlin, and London. An Afghan refugee assaulted passengers with an ax on a train in the German city of Würzburg, and a week later, a Syrian refugee blew himself up outside of a music festival in Ansbach. All of these acts of barbarism where classified as “lone wolf” attacks.
But they were nothing of the sort. The killers of Lee Rigby — Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo — both attended al-Muhajiroun events organized by Anjem Choudary, a notorious British hate preacher and Islamic State recruiter at the center of an international network of Islamic extremists that included Abdelhamid Abbaaoud and the perpetrators behind the London Bridge and Borough Market terror attacks. Choudary and his circle are thought to have radicalized more than 100 individuals that went to Syria and Iraq to fight with jihadist groups.
Riaz Khan Ahmadzai and Mohammad Daleel, the Syrian refugees that carried out attacks in Germany, even received direct instructions from Islamic State operatives via social media applications in the immediate lead up to the attacks. The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published transcripts of the conversations, which reveal how closely the Islamic State monitored their operations.
“I will carry out an attack with an ax in Germany today,” Riaz Ahmadzai told his handler. The handler replied: “If you’re going to commit the attack, Allah willing, Islamic State will claim responsibility for it.” Minutes later, Ahmadzai typed: “I am starting now,” to which the Islamic State’s man replied: “Now you go to paradise.” The other terrorist, Mohammad Daleel, sent a photo of the music venue to his handler with the comment, “This area will be full of people.” His instructor wrote back, saying, “Kill them all in a wide open space so they will lie on the ground.”
These examples show that even if an individual acts alone during an attack — in the sense that no other terrorist is physically present — they are certainly not “lone wolves” in any meaningful sense.
It is important to understand the character of an insurgency. It is a movement that does not necessarily require a centrally-planned or coordinated effort. But it cannot exist without a common denominator that creates a sense of belonging by ideologically connecting individuals from the Syrian desert to the Palestinian territories to remote islands in the South-China Sea. Radical Islamist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda frequently evoke images of the ummah — the commonwealth of Muslim believers — to pull individuals towards them under the banner of defending Muslims against the unbelievers.
We are facing a full-blown global Islamist insurgency that has declared war on our way of life, and will likely take generations to confront and defeat. Its foot soldiers are not loners.
Julie Lenarz is a Senior Fellow at The Israel Project and the Executive Director of the London-based Human Security Centre. She tweets @MsJulieLenarz.