The attack that killed an off-duty soldier in London this week appears, like the Boston Marathon bombing, to have been the work of home-grown, “lone-wolf” extremists, underlining the very different kind of threat posed by al Qaeda now that its leadership has largely been destroyed and its ideology of global jihad left largely in the hands of individuals and small groups all over the world.
Both attacks “reflect the very different threat environment we now face from al Qaeda and its affiliates” said Juan C. Zarate, a former White House counterterrorism adviser to President George W Bush and now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The new threat, he told The Washington Times was “not large-scale attacks coordinated by their leadership, but individuals inspired by their ideology to commit effectively random acts of violence.”
The trend reflected not just the damage done to al Qaeda’s leadership by more than a decade of relentless pursuit by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, but also broader social and technological trends in the world at large, he said.
“This is the age of the super-empowered individual and unfortunately, that means in terms of terrorism that these [lone wolf] attacks can have a much larger impact,” he explained.
Media reports from London Thursday said the two men who killed Drummer Lee Rigby, of the Royal Fusiliers Regiment, running him down in their car and then hacking him to death with machetes and butcher’s knives, were British-born converts to Islam of Nigerian origin -— and known to the security service, MI5.
British authorities are seeking details of the men’s background and affiliation, the BBC reported Thursday. Homes were raided in Greenwich, south east London, near the scene of the attack at the Woolwich barracks; and outside of the provincial eastern town of Lincoln.
“One of the priorities for those investigating the killing … will be to establish whether it was a ‘lone wolf’ attack, or the result of a wider conspiracy — possibly with links to al Qaeda,” said the BBC’s Security Correspondent Frank Gardner.
Prime Minister David Cameron stressed that, whatever the case, “We will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms.”
Mr. Cameron spoke outside his Downing Street official residence before attending an emergency meeting of the cabinet’s special crisis response committee Thursday.
He cut short a trip to France Wednesday in order to fly back to London and take charge of the response.
After the attack, the two men reportedly encouraged bystanders to take pictures and videos of the gruesome scene, probably in an effort to maximize the public impact of their atrocity, said Mr. Zarate.
“To some extent, the attackers succeed given the nature of the media coverage,” he said. “People are terrorized … The killing of a single person becomes a major national incident and the prime minister has to fly home.”
He added that he was not second-guessing that decision, but said, “We need to be careful not to amplify the effects [of such attacks] by overreacting.”
Security specialists say that preventing lone wolf attacks is very difficult, because, by their very nature, the plots are known only to those taking part. Moreover, the plotters are often not in contact with known extremist organizations or individuals already under surveillance, so their growing determination to carry out an attack is not visible to the authorities, to whom they are simply one of hundreds or thousands of potential extremists they are trying to keep tabs on.