In the days since the Orlando attack, the FBI has investigated whether Omar Mateen worked alone, whether his wife had foreknowledge of the attack, and whether or not Mateen was acting independently—a so-called “lone wolf”– or whether he was part of a broader Islamic State plot.
The categorization of a lone wolf versus a member of a larger terror plot may have outlived its usefulness, however. The New York Post has suggested the foreknowledge or buy-in of family members makes many lone wolves anything but. That may be true, but the problem goes beyond that. The notion of hierarchical controlin terrorism is really a legacy of the Cold War when Soviet-sponsored terror groups (or Soviet sponsors period) issued orders for henchmen to carry out.
Lone gunmen might have existed, but they were few and far between. Their relative rarity was a testament to any lone wolf’s basic ignorance about tactics, weaponry, and logistics.
In the new era, however, terror groups may be less interested about calling the shots than in creating a petri dish upon which individual terrorists can rise up, self-train, and self-equip in order to contribute to the collective mission.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula publishes Inspire Magazine, a glossy, well-produced periodical celebrating violent jihad and instructing would-be proponents on how to create bombs or best conduct assassinations. The Tsarnaev brothers, who detonated pressure-cooker bombs to kill and maim at the Boston Marathon, learned how to do it from Inspire. That a U.S. drone strike in Yemen had killed Samir Khan, its Pakistani-American editor, simply underscored how Inspire was, for terrorists or potential terrorists, the gift that kept on giving.
The Islamic State has learned the lesson. It has launched Dabiq, a similar online magazine, which is distributed far and wide via the Internet. That Mateen traveled to Saudi Arabia would probably be less important than whether or not he had been reading the Islamic State’s magazine, which not only promotes ideology but also has a more practical, how-to element.
The point is that the idea of the “lone wolf” is really a pre-internet, pre-globalization concept. With terror groups adept at influence operations, publishing, and propaganda, the lone wolf is no longer so lone, so isolated, or so unsupported. Unfortunately, it seems, the Department of Homeland Security seems more intent on semantic battles than security ones, and the U.S. strategy more broadly seems better suited for the challenge as it appeared decades ago rather than the challenge that America now faces.