A confidential government report says terrorist groups such as the Islamic State have all but abandoned trying to put together huge plots such as the Sept. 11 attacks and warns counterterrorism agencies of a “new landscape” where lone killers strike and massacre quickly thanks to the digital age.
The report by the National Counterterrorism Center marks a historical shift that requires the FBI, CIA and other agencies to try to locate the mobile and digital-savvy loner, and not necessarily detect a complex plot.
“The steady rise in the number of lone actor operations is a trend which coincides with the deepening and broadening of the digital revolution as well as the encouragement of such operations by terrorist groups because intensified [counterterrorism] operations have disrupted their ability to launch larger plots,” the NCTC says in a report obtained by The Washington Times. “Lone actors now have greater capability to create and broadcast material than a decade ago, while violent extremists can contact and interact with potential recruits with greater ease.”
The report was circulated Dec. 28 to counterterrorism agencies across the country.
The analysis says the new faces of extremist violence are “small autonomous cells” and “individual terrorism.”
“Recent rapid technological change, which allows terrorists to reach a large audience quickly and directly, has enabled them to achieve their messaging goals without launching large-scale attacks which demand significant physical infrastructure,” says the NCTC, which operates under Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.
“Increasingly, thanks in part to the digital revolution, they can rely on what Syrian terrorist Abu Musab al-Suri called ‘individual terrorism.’ With ISIL losing territory and the al-Qa’ida network increasingly decentralized, individuals and small autonomous cells may increasingly take the initiative in both the murderous and messaging dimensions of violent extremism,” the report states.
The Islamic State, which holds territory in Iraq and Syria, has created armies in over a dozen countries and is known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
In a speech last month to troops at U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, President Obama touted his counterterrorism efforts by saying no group has launched a complex plot from abroad against the United States during his presidency.
Critics say that may be true but that Islamic terrorist attacks are increasing globally.
The massacres in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, and last summer in Orlando, Florida, are just two examples of this type of terrorism.
Other examples: An Islamic State agent gunned down 39 New Year’s revelers at a packed nightclub in Istanbul. Also this holiday season, Anis Amri, a lone terrorist devoted to the Islamic State, drove a truck through a Berlin outdoor Christmas market, killing 12.
The NCTC calls this “The new landscape … with few formal boundaries or solid structures, where groups can form wherever resources permit and circumstances are favorable. It is also one in which technology may permit active militants in the future to become individual terror broadcasting units, cataloging their path to terror and teaching others their tradecraft.”
The center identifies the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as the “turning point,” when terrorists realized that the internet and social media could provide platforms to reach and organize radicals by the thousands.
It points to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda in Iraq leader in May 2004, who videotaped his beheading of American Nick Berg and disseminated the gruesome image on the internet.
“The exact number of downloads is unknown, but its wide dissemination on extremist websites, and the ‘buzz’ it created on extremist online forums, suggested this footage reached a much greater audience than any comparable material,” the report says.
What followed was Syrian terrorist Abu Khalid al-Suri’s analysis of technology and publication of a training guide titled “A Call to Global Islamic Resistance.”
“He provided one of the most articulate and elaborate definitions of this strategy and the first one which explicitly stressed the internet as a means of relaying advice and orientation. This new doctrine allowed violent extremist groups to become more resilient in the face of intense international [counterterrorism] efforts,” the NCTC report states.
One terrorist who bought into al-Suri’s analysis was American al Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki. He posted 1,910 videos on YouTube, one of which has been viewed 164,420 times. Al-Awlaki, who urged attacks on the U.S. as a member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
The report highlights the Islamic State, which rose from a defeated al Qaeda spinoff in Iraq to amass a huge army of terrorists based in Syria, and invaded Iraq in 2014.
“ISIL has consciously choreographed violence in the areas it controls to meet the demands of its key audiences, and it has carefully exploited the capabilities of contemporary media technology to deliver that content, often via social media but also via other means,” it says.
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer who is out with a new book, “Future War,” said the NCTC report captures the “modern terrorist.”
“The modern terrorist acts more often than not without detailed operational guidance from a central authority like al Qaeda in Pakistan or ISIS central in Raqqa, Syria,” Mr. Maginnis said. “They take general encouragement from public pronouncements of their ideological leaders such as ISIS’ glossy magazine Dabiq and then operationalize their radical intentions either individually or by small autonomous cells of close and trusted associates.”
The migrant Tunisian Amri is a prime example.
“The modern terrorist is hard to detect, much like the truck terrorist at the Berlin Christmas market weeks ago,” Mr. Maginnis said. “He hid within his closed community, used personal resources, struck in an unexpected way and then disappeared into the fabric of the society of his new country.”