By Thana Hussain
Lone-wolf attacks have evolved as the new face of terrorism and bring unique challenges for counter-terrorism studies. Violent terror attacks by extremist individuals acting upon their radicalised beliefs are termed ‘Lone-wolf terrorism’. Their actions are either inspired or influenced by a specific terrorist organisation and ideology or operate within a particular social atmosphere. Lone-wolf terrorists might be ‘loner’ acting individually without a particular ideological influence and therefore without a leader, they’re free to move between groups. But upon arrest, they may associate themselves with specific terrorist organisations. On the other hand, some terrorist organisations may also claim responsibility to gain ‘free glory’ or publicity. Lone-wolf terrorists and their attacks have an element of unpredictability, because of which counter-terrorism agencies, police and intelligence organisations have found it challenging to tackle.
The horrific beheading of Kanhaiya Lal Teli on 28 June 2020, in Udaipur, Rajasthan, by two Islamic extremists has demonstrated that India is no longer immune from the violence perpetrated by lone-wolf terrorists. While security agencies had been examining cases of lone-wolf terror suspects, the Udaipur incident has underlined the need to step up efforts to detect their modus operandi, methods of radicalisation, and funding sources.
Lone-Wolf Terrorists & Their Modus Operandi
The concept of ‘lone wolf’ was popularised in the late 1990s by white supremacists Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, who called upon like-minded individuals to “act alone” to commit violent crimes. For example, in March 2019, a lone-wolf terrorist, targeted two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, while live-streaming his violent act. However, the term is highly contested, and scholars disagree on its exact meaning, but they broadly agree that lone-wolf attackers operate as individuals or small groups without any assistance or formal links to a terrorist organisation. Many times, lone wolves do not have any criminal background, and their activities tend to escape the security agencies’ surveillance, unlike organised terrorist groups.
Radicalisation plays a critical role in the making of a lone-wolf terrorist, which mostly happens online through social media platforms, encrypted chat rooms on the darknet and propaganda on instant messaging apps. These virtual spaces enable the like-minded extremist individuals to consume the propaganda and disinformation which acts as an enabler of violence. In cyberspace, particularly on the dark web, they also get access to training manuals and videos on how to operate weapons and make explosives by maintaining their anonymity. For instance, on 20 July 2011, a right-wing terrorist Anders Brevik targeted a youth camp in Oslo, Norway unleashing a horrendous terror attack, and killed 77 people. This was one of the first prominent lone-wolf terrorist attack in the recent memory. Bervik justified his act to his quest to ‘save European culture’ from Islamisation. His act was later supported on the social media platform by far-right individuals.
The basis of radicalisation emanates from multiple sources. One of them is the sense of injustice the lone-wolf terror suspects encounter, together with a loss of faith in the social fabric and their rage at the system for failing to make amends for the wrongs that have been done. For instance, in May 2013, a British Army soldier, Fusilier Lee Rigby was attacked by two terrorists, influenced by the extremist group Al -Muhajiroun. They justified his killing as revenge for the killing of Muslims by the UK military. Another contributing factor can be a feeling of alienation or animosity toward the political system brought on by perceived injustices encountered by any religious group, compounded by unemployment and a lack of economic possibilities. Subsequently, their radicalisation feeds on their disenfranchisement, allowing theexploitation of their grievances—perceived or real, to inspire them to carry out extreme acts of violence.
India and lone-wolf terrorist attacks
India has been relatively immune to the lone-wolf terrorist phenomena for all these years. However, the Udaipur incident of June 2020 signifies that it is not the case any longer. The increasing number of terror suspects’ arrested with only a symbolic link to the Islamic State (IS) is also a case in point.
According to the United States State Department’s terrorism report for 2021, there were 66 known Indian-origin fighters affiliated with the IS. In comparison to India’s 180 million Muslim population, this number is insignificant and negligible. Yet, these instances of Indian-origin fighters illustrate how technology has made radicalisation a widespread phenomenon and how terrorist organisations have gone ‘glocal’. Additionally, the modus operandi of terrorist groups like IS is to exploit perceived religious grievances to attract people to them. It seeks to capitalise on the narrative that “there’s a perceived sense of alienation and resentment experienced by Indian Muslims due to the events of the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 Gujarat riots.
From the counter-terrorism point of view, combating lone-wolf terrorists is challenging. India’s intelligence and security agencies have stepped up their surveillance of the terror suspects since the government’s ban on IS in February 2015 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). They have also enhanced the scrutiny of potential recruits to prevent them from travelling to the Persian Gulf, which has served as a conduit to Iraq and Syria.
However, the recent arrests of IS suspects show that despite these efforts, much more needs to be done to counter the lone-wolf phenomenon. This would require sufficiently skilled personnels to conduct intelligence gathering and strong technical intelligence capacities like social media and cyberspace monitoring. There is also a need to expand on the community engagement efforts to mount de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation efforts.
It is clear that the ongoing efforts like establishment of the Counterterrorism and Counter-Radicalisation Division and Cyber and Security division in the Ministry of Home affairs in 2017, giving the National Security Council Secretariat a constitutional and legal mandate to develop a new counter-radicalisation programme, and state-supervised counselling initiatives like Kerala’s Operation-Pigeon, the Indian government has taken steps in containing the threat. An intensification of such efforts will go a long way in tackling the lone-wolf terrorist phenomenon.