Terrorism is one of the worst and major challenges encountered by humanity and no modern society has achieved outright victory over it. The face of terrorism has evolved over the years with the emergence of several terror groups across continents, numerous ideologies, changing strategies and tactics etc. The Global Terrorism Index 2019 from the Institute for Economics and Peace claims that even though the intensity of terrorism has declined, still the economic and social impact remains widespread.[i] The Report also notes an increase in the self-radicalised ‘lone wolf’ terrorists. Lone wolf terrorism is not a recent phenomenon and existed since the nineteenth century in the form of the anarchists who originated in 1880s Russia; the anti-colonial terrorists that followed the First World War; the new left which emerged in the 1960s; and the religious wave which dominates the current threat landscape.[ii] Ranging from threatening and intimidating people to indiscriminate shootings, vehicle ramming, stabbing and suicide bombings, lone wolf terror attacks have become a grave threat. Until now India has remained relatively immune from this form of terrorism, but it still requires due attention of the security and law enforcement agencies.
Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism
There exists no universally accepted definition of lone wolf terrorism but definitions by scholars like Edwin Baker and R. Spaaji indicate certain common features. These attacks are carried out by individuals or small groups, not belonging to any organised terrorist group or network but may sympathise with their ideologies. They receive no direct support in the planning, preparation and execution of the attack and their decision to act are not directed by any group or other individuals.[iii] These lone wolf attacks are different in nature from the organised or networked terror attacks like the 9/11 attack in US or the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. While the latter entails several years of planning, communications, money transfers; the former is usually a small-scale attack, easy to be carried out by individuals with no assistance.[iv]
Even though they are not members of any terrorist organisations in the traditional way, still the lone wolves showcase a degree of ideological attachment and affiliation to these. This is a direct result of the process of self-radicalisation they undergo before finally turning to terrorist activities. Internet plays a key role in this process of self-radicalisation as it is used by individuals as a platform to interact with like-minded people and a global community of extremists. A prolonged grievance, a deemed injustice or lack of social and economic obligations among other things provide an enabling environment for this process. Internet exposes them to extremist literature and propaganda of terrorist groups, helping them in justifying their beliefs and actions. Terrorist organisations like the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda leverage this by tracking the vulnerable minds, by studying their online activities and targeting them though online video games like ‘Clang of Swords’ by IS or the Al-Qaeda’s ‘Quest for Bush’. It has been noted that apart from the violent content offered, these games provide visuals of attacking the streets of major cities of the United States (US) or Europe, helping the ‘lone wolves’ plan their attacks.[v]
The severity of the role of internet can be observed in the statement made by Garry Reid, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defence for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism during a hearing to the Senate Committee for Armed Forces. He says, “Enabled by 21st century technology, extremists have optimised the use of internet chat rooms, web sites and email chains to spread their virulent messages and reach a global audience of potential recruits. What was once a lengthy process of establishing contact, exchange ideas, arranging meetings, providing training and developing attack plans can now be condensed into a much shorter timeline, across multiple international boundaries and beyond the reach of any single law enforcement agency or military task force.”[vi]
A Challenge to India
While addressing the National Security Guards in 2018, India’s former Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh asserted that with the widespread use of social media, the ‘do it yourself (DIY)’ and ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks are a major challenge for the Indian security forces.[vii] Time and again, warnings of possible ‘lone wolf’ attacks have been issued by various security and law enforcement agencies. Though India has been free of lone wolf terrorism till now, still it is important that it takes proactive measures to counter this peril.
The year 2019 witnessed a weakening position of the IS in their bastions of Iraq and Syria. With its territorial defeat, there are fewer chances of a traditional regrouping of the terrorist organisation. Hence, the group prefers ‘lone wolf’ attacks by their members, sympathisers, would-be militants and foreign fighters in different countries. This shift from well-planned, sophisticated attacks to direct attacks by ‘lone wolves’ can already be noticed in Europe and the US. In India, the IS by exploiting the perceived religious grievances is trying to provoke individuals to carry out terror attacks. In the recent edition of its magazine, Sawt-ul-Hind, the IS has made attempts to call on the Indian Muslims to turn against the country and join the path of jihadist violence. This is of great concern as it shows the interest of IS in India and its attempts to brainwash the young minds in India to perpetrate terror in the country.[viii]
Again, India must acknowledge the danger posed by the threat especially keeping in mind the possibility of Pakistan using it as a tool to advance its state-sponsored terrorism against India. Terrorists like Masood Azhar, based out of Pakistan, have already issued a clarion call to the youngsters to carry out lone wolf attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370.[ix] By sponsoring a widespread circulation of extremist literature and propaganda across India, both online and offline, Pakistan may resort to influencing the ‘lone wolves’ to carry out terror attacks in India. In fact, such attacks are becoming logistically simple. On observing certain lone wolf terror attacks in Europe and the US, many of these essentially involve stabbing innocent people on the streets or ramming a vehicle into a crowded area. In a hugely and densely populated country like India, such modus operandi can be a major challenge for the security forces.
Lone wolf terror attacks also pose a major challenge to the intelligence structures. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies have formulated robust schemas to counter the traditional well-networked terror outfits and to disrupt their sophisticated plots. Traditionally, intelligence services seek information about possible terror activities from informers or by intercepting the communications between the attackers and the plotters. In case of lone-wolf terrorists, it is difficult to the gain information about their activities. The motive or impact of these attacks also differ. A well-organised terror attack seeks to cause a large-scale casualty through the attack while today the lone wolf attacks are always mostly conducted to spread a psychological fear or terror amongst the public regarding their safety.
Nevertheless, despite the attempts made by IS or other terrorist organisations to encourage lone wolf terror attacks in India, the same has not received traction due to multiple factors. First, gaining access to explosives, light weapons and other ammunitions in India is immensely difficult due to the strict laws in the country. This is an obvious countermeasure against ‘lone wolves.’ Second, India has the third largest Muslim population in the world, only a minuscule fragment of the population has expressed interest in joining or sympathises with the IS. Hence, the aversion of the Indian Muslims to the extremist ideology of IS can be attributed to the cultural pluralism and democratic values prevailing in the country. Third, the strong security apparatus in the country along with the reforms in the counter-terrorism structure in the aftermath of 2008 Mumbai terror attacks is a major deterrent to the ‘lone wolves.’ In fact, due to the proactive measures by the authorities, spread of domestic terrorism like operations of the Indian Mujahideen or the SIMI, in the country has been successfully curbed.
It is true that today lone wolf terrorism is not an imminent threat to India but considering factors such as the downfall of terror groups like IS and Al-Qaeda, India must remain prepared for this threat. Given the easy access to materials that can be used for making explosives in the form of DIY kits and videos, a threat prevails in the form of the radicalised loners attempting terrorist attacks using these viable devices of varying yields. Proactive measures such as de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation strategies, training and equipping the local police, contingency plans by the intelligence and counter-terrorism structures, and most importantly a robust national counter-terrorism doctrine addressing the different nuances of terrorism is strategically important to subdue any attempts of lone wolf terrorism in the country.
[ii] David C Rapoport, ‘The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism’, in Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M Ludes (eds), Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004), pp. 46–73.
[iii] Edwin Baker and Beatrice de Graff, “Lone Wolves: How to Prevent this Phenomenon?”, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague 1, no. 2 (2010). Available at https://icct.nl/publication/lone-wolves-how-to-prevent-this-phenomenon/
[iv] Zack Beauchamp, “The London attack is the new face of terrorism — and it’s very hard to stop”, Vox, 5 June 2017. Available at https://www.vox.com/world/2017/6/5/15739168/london-attack-terrorism-counterterrorism
[vi] Georgetown University, Report: Lone Wolf Terrorism (Washington DC, June 2015). Available at chrome-extension://oemmndcbldboiebfnladdacbdfmadadm/https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/NCITF-Final-Paper.pdf
[vii] PTI, “DIY, ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks a major challenge for India: Rajnath Singh”, 16 October 2018. Available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/diy-lone-wolf-terror-attacks-a-major-challenge-for-india-rajnath-singh/articleshow/66235255.cms
[viii] Praveen Swami, “Kashmir’s Islamic State seeks to cash in on Delhi communal violence through new online call to arms”, Firstpost, 25 February 2020. Available at https://www.firstpost.com/india/kashmirs-islamic-state-seeks-to-cash-in-on-delhi-communal-violence-through-new-online-call-for-violence-8083021.html
[ix] Abhinandan Mishra, “ISI again using Masood Azhar to stoke Kashmir fire”, Sunday Guardian Live, 14 September 2019. Available at https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/isi-using-masood-azhar-stoke-kashmir-fire