Lone-wolf or leaderless attacks date back to Al-Qaeda days

ISIS may claim responsibility, but the London attacks stem from an older ideology and group

On Saturday, three men unleashed terror in the heart of London, killing at least seven people and wounding dozens, in the third major terrorist attack to strike Britain in three months.

The assailants sped across London Bridge in a white van, ramming into pedestrians. They later emerged from the van with hunting knives and began stabbing people in Borough Market, a nearby nightspot. The attackers were quickly chased down and killed by British police.

On May 22, a suicide bomber attacked a concert arena in the city of Manchester, killing 22 people and injuring dozens. Two months earlier, a driver mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London, and tried to break into Parliament before being shot and killed by security forces.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ( ISIS) terrorist group claimed responsibility for all three attacks, and it now seems that the group will be quick to adopt nearly every attack on civilians in the West. These claims of responsibility tend to be somewhat generic - they don't show ISIS' involvement in the planning or execution of attacks - but they do help the group in its propaganda efforts.

These self-directed and "lone wolf" attacks are not an accident. They are the result of an organised, decade-old movement within Islamic jihadism to decentralise attacks and make them more diffuse. This trend predated the emergence of ISIS - it can be traced back to Al-Qaeda after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

While Al-Qaeda was a hierarchical organisation, its leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy and eventual successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, realised that maintaining training camps and central control was not going to work after the group was forced out of its base in Afghanistan under US bombing. Before the Sept 11 attacks, bin Laden had relied on recruits trained at Afghan camps, and many had personally pledged allegiance to him.

But even while in hiding, bin Laden and Zawahiri frequently addressed their supporters through dozens of videos, audiotapes and Internet statements. They encouraged new recruits to act autonomously under Al-Qaeda's banner, and they helped inspire hundreds of young men to carry out suicide or conventional bombings, including in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Spain and Britain.

Flowers being left at Monument Station near London Bridge in London yesterday, following the terrorist attack on Saturday which left seven people dead. It was the third major attack on Britain in three months.
Flowers being left at Monument Station near London Bridge in London yesterday, following the terrorist attack on Saturday which left seven people dead. It was the third major attack on Britain in three months. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

After a large number of Al-Qaeda's leaders were killed, captured or forced to flee, one of bin Laden's former bodyguards in Afghanistan described the group's revamped operations to an Arabic newspaper. "Every element of Al-Qaeda is self-activated," he said. "Whoever finds a chance to attack simply goes ahead. The decision is theirs alone."

Today, ISIS has expanded and perfected this concept of the "leaderless jihad". And it is now wreaking havoc and spreading fear, both in the West and in the Middle East. The latest wave of attacks fits into a series of appeals by ISIS leaders for their supporters to carry out self-directed assaults that use any means necessary to kill civilians, especially in the West.

As the group continues to face a US-led bombing campaign against its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, it is losing the territory and fighters that make up the backbone of its self-declared caliphate. As a result, ISIS is turning towards both centrally organised plots and individual attacks carried out by sympathisers to reassert its claim as the world's leading militant movement.

One of the major inspirations for this strategy is Abu Musab al-Suri, an Al-Qaeda leader who worked with bin Laden and Zawahiri in the 1990s. After he became disillusioned with Al-Qaeda's leaders and direction following the Sept 11 attacks, Suri published a 1,600-page manifesto titled, "A Call to a Global Islamic Resistance", on the Internet in 2005.

In the document, he calls for a wave of "individual jihad" in which independent operatives - sometimes self-radicalised and other times assisted by recruiters on the Web - would target Western civilians in an effort to sow chaos and terror. Suri described his philosophy as "no organisation, just principles".

With a $5-million US bounty on his head, Suri was captured by Pakistan's security services in late 2005. He was reportedly turned over to the CIA, and was then renditioned to his native Syria, where he was wanted by President Bashar al-Assad's regime. After the Syrian war began in 2011, there were reports that he was among hundreds of Al-Qaeda and other militant operatives freed by the Assad regime. Many of those operatives went on to become leaders of ISIS and the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. But other reports say that Suri is still being held by the Assad regime.

Regardless of his status, Suri's conception of the individual, or leaderless, jihad continues to resonate. In relying on lone-wolf attacks by individuals who are self-radicalised and have only a tangential understanding of jihadist ideology - and, in some cases, are mentally disturbed - ISIS is able to project a greater reach than it actually has.

In September 2014, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, the leading ISIS spokesman, issued an audiotaped appeal that reflected Suri's tactics. Adnani (who was killed two years later in a US air strike in Syria) urged the group's sympathisers to use whatever means at their disposal to attack American and French citizens, and virtually any other Western civilians. "If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies," he said. "Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him."

With the spate of attacks over recent months, a few individuals are heeding ISIS' call - and causing a far greater fear to sweep Europe.

• Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2017, with the headline 'Lone-wolf or leaderless attacks date back to Al-Qaeda days'. Print Edition | Subscribe