‘Lone wolf’ gunmen are security puzzle for West

The possibility that a killing rampage by a French gunman was a solo campaign will inject fresh urgency into Western efforts to detect “self-starter” or “lone wolf” terrorists before they strike.

The tactic Al Qaeda calls “individual jihad”—low-tech attacks by untrained sympathizers acting largely or completely on their own—may seem a sign of weakness in an organization that mounted the team-based raids of Sept 11, 2001.

But the approach makes up in stealth for what it can lack in lethality, because the lack of outside support reduces the risks of detection, and such attacks can still have a huge impact.

So for Western counter-terrorism agencies the loner, often radicalized unseen and online, is an increasing cause of concern, and security specialists are worried the low-level gun rampage in France may now inspire copy-cat attacks.

“‘Lone wolves’ who plot to carry out small-scale attacks on soft targets, like those in which seven people have been killed in France, could be the future of terrorism,” said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation counter-terrorism research group.

“This has sent out the message that followers of al Qaeda can carry out successful attacks, can precipitate terror, on their own. This is exactly what happened in France: people were scared to go out, schools were under guard, there was a real sense of insecurity – that is true terrorism.”

Mohamed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, died from gunshot wounds on Thursday at the end of a 30-hour standoff with police at his apartment in southern France. He confessed to killing three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi.


He told negotiators he was trained by al Qaeda in Pakistan and killed three soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan.

His death deprives police of the opportunity to obtain the information they needed most of all – a first-hand account of whether he was acting alone or in concert with others.

Britain, host to the 2012 Olympics and, like France, often cited by al Qaeda as a priority target, will be paying close attention to any lessons that are learned from the Merah case.

London police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said in February the prospect of a lone wolf attack had been on their minds since the killing of 77 people last July by anti-Islam militant Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik.

“After we saw the attack in Norway by a single individual – that has been part of our planning over the last year,” he said.

“It has been about identifying an individual in this country or abroad and if there is a possibility of someone like that attacking the Olympic event. We think that is very unlikely but obviously it has formed part of our planning this year as we lead up to the Olympics.”

President Barack Obama said on Aug. 16 a “lone wolf terrorist” like Breivik now presents a bigger risk to the United States than a large-scale operation.


“When you’ve got one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage, and it’s a lot harder to trace those lone wolf operators,” he told CNN.

Equally troubling, from a counter-terrorism perspective, is that the attributes of loner militants vary hugely, representing a phenomenon that is poorly understood by security specialists with expertise in hunting transnational networks of cells.

The more untrained or unintelligent the militant is, the more likely he or she is to be detected. Incautious Internet activity or sloppy pre-attack surveillance of a target are two ways Western security can be alerted.

Risk of detection rises also in the event that al Qaeda sympathizers try to build a bomb: police in many countries monitor purchases of potential components.

But the challenge remains considerable.

Merah had been under intelligence surveillance and the MEMRI Middle East think tank said he appeared to belong to a French al Qaeda branch called Fursan Al-Izza, ideologically aligned with a movement to Islamise Western states by implementing sharia law.

But he had done nothing especially to arouse suspicion that he was planning an act of violence.

Anna Boyd, a terrorism expert at Exclusive Analysis, said that the location of self-starter attacks was “very often somewhere you would not expect, just because it’s where the person happens to live. It’s ‘just up the road’ from them.”

Gohel said if a cell was only one or two people “it’s a lot harder to monitor their activities, to trace their networks, and so on. In previous cases, the ability of the authorities to disrupt the planning stage has been low, because you don’t get the leakage of information that you get with a larger cell”.


Will Hartley, a terrorism expert at IHS Jane’s, said it was possible for an individual to generate a huge amount of media attention merely with a gun attack.

Counter-terrorism experts will be examining every aspect of Merah’s life and recent activities to try to discern if his alleged killings were part of a joint effort.

But some experts said that even if al Qaeda had nothing to do with the attacks, it is likely to voice approval of them, if not claim credit for them outright.

“We’ve definitely seen them encourage it more since the Fort Hood shooting,” said Boyd, referring to the killing of 13 people at a U.S. army base by an army major who prosecutors have said was inspired by an al Qaeda preacher online.

“And though they never commented on the Breivik shooting they were probably watching that with great interest, and seeing how effective that managed to be.”

Even before Breivik, al Qaeda was examining the loner tactic. Under pressure from a relentless U.S. missile campaign in its Afghan-Pakistan border hideouts, the group appeared to have concluded that lone wolf attacks were better than nothing.

The group, which had long favored complex, team-based plots like the Sept. 11 attacks, gave its most explicit endorsement of the tactic after Osama bin Laden’s May 2011 killing.

On June 2, 2011, Islamist online forums carried an appeal by al Qaeda core leaders for individuals in the West to carry on bin Laden’s work with “do-it-yourself” strikes.

“Muslims in the West have to remember that they are perfectly placed to play an important and decisive part in the jihad against the Zionists and Crusaders,” al Qaeda official Adam Gadahn says in the video, entitled “You Are Responsible Only For Yourself”.

“Take America as an example. America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms … What are you waiting for?”

Reporting by William Maclean; Editing by Robert Woodward


Besieged gunman boasted he brought France to its knees

A besieged gunman suspected of shooting dead seven people in the name of al Qaeda boasted to police on Wednesday he had brought France to its knees and said his only regret was not having been able to carry out his plans for more killings.

In an unfolding drama that has riveted France, about 300 police, some in body armor, cordoned off a five-story building in a suburb of Toulouse where the 24-year-old Muslim shooter, identified as Mohamed Merah, is holed up.

Authorities said the gunman, a French citizen of Algerian origin, had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he claimed to have received training from al Qaeda.

Merah told police negotiators he had killed three French soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan.

“He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees,” Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins, part of the anti-terrorist unit leading the investigation, told a news conference.

The gunman, who filmed his killings with a small camera, had already identified another soldier and two police officers he wished to kill, Molins said. The gunman had repeated promises to surrender this evening to members of the elite RAID unit surrounding the house, which had been evacuated of its other residents.

“He has explained that he is not suicidal, that he does not have the soul of a martyr and that he prefers to kill but to stay alive himself,” Molins said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for re-election in five weeks time, paid tribute at a ceremony in an army barracks in Montauban, near Toulouse, to the three soldiers of North African origin killed last week. A fourth soldier of Caribbean origin is in a coma.

“Our soldiers have not died in the way for which they had prepared themselves. This was not a death on the battlefield but a terrorist execution,” Sarkozy said, standing before three coffins draped in the French flag after paying his respects to bereaved relatives.

“We must remain united. We should in no way yield to discrimination or vengeance,” he said in his eulogy. “France can only be great in unity. We owe it to the memory of these men, we owe it to the three murdered children, to all the victims.”

Sarkozy’s appeal for national unity came after far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a rival presidential candidate, said France should wage war on Islamic fundamentalism.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah was a member of an ideological Islamic group in France but this organization was not involved in plotting any violence.

He said Merah had thrown a Colt 45 pistol of the kind used in all the shootings out of a window of the block of flats, where he has been living, in exchange for a mobile phone, but was still armed.

Two police officers were injured in a firefight with the gunman after police swooped at 3 a.m. local time.

Police sources said they had conducted a controlled explosion of the suspect’s car at around 9:00 a.m. GMT after discovering it was loaded with weapons. Officials said police had also arrested Merah’s girlfriend and his brother, who is also known to authorities as a radical Islamist.


Gueant said Merah had contacted the first soldier he attacked on the pretext of wanting to buy his motorcycle.

Investigators identified the IP address he used – that of his mother – because he was already under surveillance for radical Islamist beliefs.

“We knew, and that is why he was under surveillance, that he had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the minister said.

Merah’s telephone was tapped from Monday and with the help of other information the police decided to raid his house. Merah has a criminal record in France, Gueant said, but nothing indicating such an attack was possible.

A police source told Reuters that investigators had also received a tip-off from a scooter repair shop in Toulouse where the gunman asked to change the color of the Yamaha scooter used to flee the shootings and to remove a GPS tracker device.

A group of young men from Merah’s neighbourhood described him as a polite man of slight build who liked football and motorbikes and did not seem particularly religious.

“He isn’t the big bearded guy that you can imagine, you know the cliche,” said Kamal, who declined to give his family name. “When you know a person well you just can’t believe they could have done something like this.”

Sarkozy had been informed of the standoff early in the morning, officials said. The president’s handling of the crisis could be a decisive factor in determining how the French people vote in the two-round presidential elections in April and May.

The Jewish victims from the Ozar Hatorah school were buried in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Parliament speaker Reuben Rivlin said in his eulogy at the hill-top cemetery that the attack was inspired by “wild animals with hatred in their hearts”.

Authorities said on Tuesday that the gunman had apparently filmed his rampage through the school with a camera strapped to his body. He wounded Rabbi Jonathan Sandler as he entered the building, then shot an 8-year-old girl in the head, before returning to kill Sandler and his two children, who had rushed to his side, at point blank range.

Immigrants and Islam have been major themes of the campaign after Sarkozy tried to win over the voters of Le Pen, who accused the government on Wednesday of underestimating the threat from fundamentalism.

“We must now wage this war against these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children, that are killing our Christian children, our Christian young men, young Muslim men and Jewish children,” she told the i-Tele news channel, questioning the decision to deploy in Afghanistan.

But leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities said the gunman was a lone extremist.

France’s military presence in Afghanistan has divided the two main candidates in the election. Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande has said he will pull them out by the end of this year while Sarkozy aims for the end of 2013.

Additional reporting by Brian Love, Daniel Flynn and Geert de Clercq in Paris; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Giles Elgood

Israel kills al-Qaida-linked chief in Gaza strike

Israel killed the leader of an al Qaeda-inspired faction in the Gaza Strip on Friday, accusing him of involvement in firing rockets and a planned attack on the Jewish state from the neighboring Egyptian Sinai.

The deadly air strike was Israel’s second against a Salafi Islamist militant this week. Militants identified him as Momen Abu Daf, chief of the Army of Islam, among a loose network of Palestinian groups which profess allegiance to al Qaeda and have been reinforced by volunteers who slip in from the Sinai.

Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers, who have sometimes reined in more radical groups, are seeking an accommodation with secular Palestinian rivals and with an Egypt struggling for order after the fall of U.S.-allied President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Abu Daf died when a missile hit Gaza City’s Zeitoun district, the Hamas administration’s Health Ministry said. Five other Palestinians were wounded and one of them needed hospital treatment.

The Israeli military said its aircraft “targeted a terrorist squad that was identified moments before firing rockets at Israel from the northern Gaza Strip.”

Abu Daf, a military statement said, had “orchestrated and executed numerous and varied terror attacks” and “was actively involved in the preparations of the attempted terror attack on the Israel-Egypt border that was thwarted this week.”


That appeared to refer to Israel’s killing on Tuesday of another Salafi fighter, Abdallah Telbani, who the military said had been plotting strikes in which gunmen would circumvent the fortified Gaza border by attacking south Israel from the Sinai.

Israel has been on high alert for such raids since losing eight of its citizens to armed infiltrators on Egypt’s porous frontier in August. Israeli troops repelling those gunmen killed five Egyptian border guards, fraying strategic ties with Cairo.

“We shoot when we’re being shot at,” one Israeli security official said after Friday’s air strike in Gaza. “It’s clear that Hamas does not have an interest in fanning the flames at this time, but it’s not dousing them either.”

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, responded: “Our people have the right to defend themselves, and the problem is the (Israeli) occupation which targets the Palestinian resistance.”

Though Hamas echoes Salafi calls for Israel’s ultimate destruction, its ambitions are framed within Palestinian nationalism, not al Qaeda-style global jihad, and include a possible ceasefire with the militarily superior Jewish state which, with Egyptian help, has tried to isolate Gaza.

Hamas took over the coastal strip in a 2007 civil war against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, which holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and Abbas held rapprochement talks in Cairo last week against a backdrop of political upheaval across the Arab world, including Syria, where Meshaal retains a headquarters that diplomats say Hamas has scaled back.

One official said Meshaal told Abbas he was “in favor of peaceful resistance and a truce in Gaza and the West Bank at this stage,” though Hamas would not meet Israel’s core demand for recognition.

Two short-range rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel on Thursday and five on Wednesday, the Israeli military said. There were no casualties. The Popular Resistance Committees, an armed Palestinian faction, claimed responsibility.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

‘Obama’s grandmother receives death threats from al-Qaida’ [VIDEO]

U.S. President Barack Obama’s grandmother has received death threats from the African branch of al-Qaida, prompting stepped up security around her home in Kenya, ABC News reported on Thursday.

Sarah Obama, the U.S. president’s step-grandmother, informed the Kenyan police that she had received a personal threat from al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based branch of al-Qaida, ABC reported.

Security personnel were sent to guard the elder Obama’s home the day after her grandson announced the killing of al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden, but the personal threat has prompted increased security and round-the-clock surveillance of her Africa home, the report said.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Video courtesy of ABC News.

Report: Bin Laden’s journal urged al-Qaida to hit Los Angeles, not just New York [VIDEO]

Files taken from Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal intent to plan another 9/11-scale attack on cities like Los Angeles, the Associated Press reports.

He was well aware of U.S. counterterrorist defenses and schooled his followers how to work around them, the messages to his followers show. Don’t limit attacks to New York City, he said in his writings. Consider other areas such as Los Angeles or smaller cities. Spread out the targets.

In one particularly macabre bit of mathematics, bin Laden’s writings show him musing over just how many Americans he must kill to force the U.S. to withdraw from the Arab world. He concludes that the smaller, scattered attacks since the 9/11 attacks had not been enough. He tells his disciples that only a body count of thousands, something on the scale of 9/11, would shift U.S. policy.

He also schemed about ways to sow political dissent in Washington and play political figures against one another, officials said.

The communications were in missives sent via plug-in computer storage devices called flash drives. The devices were ferried to bin Laden’s compound by couriers, a process that is slow but exceptionally difficult to track.

Read more at ap.org.

Video courtesy of AP.

Al-Qaida confirms death of Osama bin Laden

Al-Qaida has issued its first confirmation of Osama bin Laden’s death in an Internet statement posted on militant websites, dispelling doubts and conspiracy theories that the Islamist leader did not actually die.

Friday’s statement by the terror network says “holy warrior” bin Laden’s blood “will not be wasted” and it will continue attacking Americans and their allies.

Al-Qaida said in the online statement that bin Laden’s blood is “is more precious to us and to every Muslim than to be wasted in vain”.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Netanyahu: Israel won’t negotiate with Palestinian version of al-Qaida

Israel will not negotiate with a “Palestinian version of Al-Qaida”, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday.

The Israeli premier plans to impart the same message to French President Nicolas Sarkozy during their meeting on Thursday, in the wake of the Islamist Hamas movement’s reconciliation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction.

“Declaring statehood in September is a dictate—and you don’t achieve peace through dictates. It’s a very bad idea,” Netanyahu told Cameron during their talks in London.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

U.S. believes it can now destroy al-Qaida after killing bin Laden

The United States will aim to destroy al-Qaida’s central organization now that its leader Osama bin Laden has been killed and its capabilities degraded by U.S. operations, a top White House adviser said on Tuesday.

Since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, al-Qaida has spawned affiliated groups in the Middle East and North Africa and inspired attacks by so-called home-grown militants in Europe and the United States.

But White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said bin Laden’s death was the latest in a series of U.S. operations that have delivered “severe body blows” to al-Qaida’s central network in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past year.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Wikileaks: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed says he beheaded Daniel Pearl despite warnings

From LATimes.com:

A senior Al Qaeda military commander strongly warned Khalid Shaikh Mohammed not to kill Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, cautioning him “it would not be wise to murder Pearl” and that he should “be returned back to one of the previous groups who held him, or freed.”

But Mohammed told his U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay that he cut off Pearl’s head anyway, according to U.S. military documents posted on the Internet on Monday by WikiLeaks.

Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, also told his captors of the aborted attempt by Richard Reid to light a shoe bomb aboard a flight from London to the U.S. in late 2001. He “stated that he had instructed Reid to shave his beard prior to boarding the airplane and to detonate the bomb inside the airplane bathroom.”

Read more at LATimes.com.

Israeli Web site Debka.com at center of New York ‘dirty bomb’ tip

An Israeli couple who blog about terrorism have achieved international fame — and a bit of notoriety — by setting off a “dirty bomb” scare in New York City.

The brouhaha began last week with a report on ” target=”_blank”>MEMRI: The Middle East Media Research Institute, a group that translates media reports from the Arab and Muslim worlds into various languages — maintain longstanding relations with law enforcement agencies and have proven to be valuable sources of information.

JTA editor Lisa Hostein and managing editor Ami Eden in New York contributed to this report.