Security services and governments around the world remain vigilant to the threat of lone-actor terrorists in our cities.
But when there’s often no indication of an explicit intention or ideology, questions about mental health and with groups like Islamic State willing to encourage and claim responsibility for almost any attack, how do we define lone-actor terrorism?
In this comic explainer, Raffaello Pantucci, Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Director of International Security Studies at RUSI, explains the theory behind lone-actor terrorism and what we know about lone actors’ effectiveness, motives and behaviours that could help us to better understand and disrupt future attacks.
The full Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism Series is available at the Royal United Services Institute’s website.
Illustrations by Wes Mountain for The Conversation.
Kenya has suffered the far-reaching effects of repeated attacks by Somalia-based Al-Shabaab terrorist group for years. Tourism has declined. Jobs have been lost and foreign direct investment has withered. The greater Horn of Africa region bordering Somalia has also suffered, but statistics indicate that Kenya experiences an inordinate number of attacks by the terror group.
This trend cannot be explained by geography alone. Granted, Kenya’s porous and ill-guarded borders does make it easier for terrorists to infiltrate the country. But Ethiopia has a much longer border with Somalia than Kenya does.
Between 2006 and 2007 Al-Shabaab conducted few attacks outside of Somalia. There was only one terrorist attack in Ethiopia; there were none in Kenya. In contrast, between 2008 and 2015, the group executed a total of 272 attacks in Kenya and only five in Ethiopia.
Some scholars have focused on Al-Shabaab’s retaliation for Nairobi’s armed intervention in Somalia, beginning in late 2011, as the reason for Kenya’s woes. Yet Ethiopian forces have been in Somalia for more than a decade and both Burundi and Uganda contribute heavily to the African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM).
It is also worth remembering that the incursion by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) was itself a reaction to Al-Shabaab attacks within Kenya that date back to 2008.
So what explains Al-Shabaab’s focus on Kenya? Our research indicates that Al-Shabaab attacks critical Kenyan targets for both logical and opportunistic reasons. They are based on geographical proximity to Al-Shabaab’s bases in southern Somalia and reinforced by other variables that play into terrorist groups’ general modus operandi.
For example, attacks such as those perpetrated by Al-Shabaab in Kenya exploit existing opportunity spaces and can be referred to as “propaganda by deed”. In this, they seek to raise attention to the group’s existence and viability, thereby enticing recruits to its ranks and spreading fear. In essence, the larger and more brutal the attack, the more the group is perceived as potentially more relevant and powerful than it possibly is.
Indeed, Al-Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya have been characterised by their gruesome effect and have attracted critical news coverage internationally. This gives Al-Shabaab a level of publicity, notoriety and international relevance that often belies its increasing isolation in Somalia.
Why Al-Shabaab targets Kenya
Al-Shabaab’s current – though shrunken – stronghold is in southern Somalia. The geographic proximity of southern Somalia to targets in Kenya makes it easier to plan and launch terrorist attacks. The terror group has attacked not only Nairobi, but Mandera and Garissa in the north-east, as well as Kenya’s tourist-filled coastline. In contrast, potential targets such as Addis Ababa, Djibouti or Kampala are geographically distant and logistically difficult to reach.
Kenya is also one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most important states and East Africa’s hub. Its international visibility and status lead Al-Shabaab to make conscious decisions and efforts to attack it. Attacking targets in Kenya, particularly in Nairobi or on the coast, guarantees Al-Shabaab a level of international coverage that a similar attack in Ethiopia, for example, would not.
Most international media operate freely in Kenya. Many outlets, such as Xinhua, CNN and Al-Jazeera base their Africa operations in Nairobi. The media coverage given to horrific attacks here presents presents Al-Shabaab the “oxygen” it needs to survive and, potentially, thrive.
Kenya’s highly-developed tourism sector is another target. The cumulative result of attacks and terrorism related travel advisories has been a marked decline in the number of tourists visiting the country since 2013. This has also led to hotel closures and job losses along the entire tourism supply chain.
This appears to bleed into arguments that posit Al-Shabaab attacks Kenya to bring it to its knees economically, influence foreign policy and force it to withdraw from Somalia. We argue that while this is partially true, it is not the only reason Al-Shabaab attacks Kenya’s tourist spots. Rather, it attacks Kenya because it’s a tourist hub and offers ample, opportune targets for terror.
Finally, Kenya’s security services are reportedly riddled with inefficiency and corruption. Al-Shabaab has exploited this fact. There have been strong allegations as well as hard evidence that Kenya’s police and military have occasionally colluded with Al-Shabaab.
What Kenya can do
Kenya needs to squarely face this reality and take appropriate measures to counter a persistent and therefore predictable threat.
This does not imply that the Kenyan government should anticipate the location or timing of attacks. But it should be aware of and take appropriate measures to counter this threat.
Research has demonstrated that the most promising way to reduce terrorism is to reduce the terrorists’ confidence in their ability to carry out attacks. Kenya needs to proactively address border security and revamp national security apparatuses.
But before shelling out money for the recruitment and training of more security and military personnel, Kenya must firmly deal with the omnipresent bugbear of corruption. Research on the proposed Kenya-Somalia border wall, for example, demonstrated it will have little positive effect if the design and construction are simply vehicles for corruption.
Walls may stop some determined terrorists but they are largely useless if guards are susceptible to bribes and let attackers through. In 2014 two Al-Shabaab affiliated border guards bribed Kenyan border guards to escort them from Somalia to Mombasa. The two were later captured in the city driving a vehicle stuffed with automatic weapons, rounds of ammunition and almost 50 kilograms of explosives.
The overall lack of training and professionalism in the security sector must also be addressed. Close attention should be paid to the well-being and quality of security personnel and equipment at installations ranging from shopping malls to private homes, government buildings and borders.
Third, the Kenyan government has been unable or unwilling to effectively counter negative news stories and Al-Shabaab propaganda that paint the country as a “hotbed of terror”. The fact remains that some states, including Kenya, appear to suffer more from the public perception of instability and danger from terrorism than others. These perceptions often correspond little to reality or statistics.
Terrorism is a region wide problem. It makes sense for Kenya to work with Somalia and Ethiopia on shared borders, refugees and the like.
Yet Kenya must also understand that it is the primary Al-Shabaab target outside of Somalia. No amount of regional cooperation will entirely alter that. As such, it must attempt to positively and consistently address the reasons why it is the target of attack largely on its own.
Dominic Ruto Pkalya contributed to this article and the research it cites.
The recent attack on a bike path in lower Manhattan once again compels us to ask: Why do people pledge allegiance to the Islamic State?
Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the attack, isn’t a devout Muslim. He cursed and came late to prayers, according to acquaintances who talked to The New York Times. So why would he want to be a martyr?
As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, I have spent the majority of my professional life studying the region, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about IS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have long looked at how radicalization occurs, some new ideas are emerging.
Of lone wolves, flaming bananas and machismo
Like this recent attack in New York, many IS attacks around the globe are carried out by individuals the media have dubbed “lone wolves” – that is, freelancers who act without the direct knowledge of the IS leadership. To avoid glamorizing them, the RAND Corporation prefers the term “flaming bananas.”
There are two theories as to why these individuals pledge allegiance to the group. The first is that they get “radicalized.”
Radicalization refers to a step-by-step process whereby individuals become increasingly susceptible to jihadi ideas. First, they cut themselves off from social networks such as family, which provide them with support and a conventional value system. They then immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture. They might do this on their own, or a jihadi recruiter might bring them into the fold. Either way, the result is the same.
Some observers claim IS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Rather than presenting a religious rationale for the group’s actions, IS propaganda tends to focus on the violence the group perpetrates. IS has even released a video game based on Grand Theft Auto 5 in which, rather than stealing cars and battling the police, the player destroys advancing personnel carriers and shoots enemy soldiers.
Perhaps, then, the radicalization model is wrong or not universally applicable. Perhaps there’s something other than religious zealotry at play.
Consider the widely reported story of two would-be jihadists who, before they left Birmingham, U.K., for Syria, ordered “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” to fill the gaps in their knowledge.
Newspaper stories time and again puzzle over the problem of how it happens that individuals who go on to join IS were found in bars, even gay bars, or had Western girlfriends and smoked and drank almost up to the time they committed some act of violence for the group. The most common explanation is that their dissolute lifestyle was a cover.
After the driver of a truck ran down and killed 84 people in Nice, France, for example, the French interior minister was at a loss to explain how someone who drank during Ramadan – which had ended a week and a half before – could have radicalized so quickly.
A number of experts have argued that the radicalization model should be replaced by, or supplemented with, a different model.
Rather than joining a radically different religious counterculture, individuals are attracted to IS, these experts argue, because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalized, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.”
Could it be that IS volunteers are drawn to a value system that asserts an aggressive machismo, disparages steady work and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification? Could it be that they are attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal values, thrill-seeking to the point of martyrdom and the diminution of women to objects of pleasure?
In this reading, IS more closely resembles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Westernized enlistees are familiar than its more austere competitor, al-Qaida.
After a man barreled down a New York City bike path on Oct. 31, killing eight, President Donald Trump reacted by calling for an end to the “green card lottery” program that allowed the attacker to enter the country.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, as it is officially known, has been in the sights of the president for a while. In August, Trump publicly backed a GOP bill that would end the program and replace it with a merit-based system.
As someone who researches the impact of immigration on workers, I believe their plans to change who can enter the country legally is a big mistake. We would be giving up a program that benefits American workers with very little chance of a gain in safety.
While Trump’s tweets about the lottery program are based on security concerns, the usual argument supporting curbs on immigration is that new arrivals hurt native-born American workers and the economy at large.
I’ll leave analyzing the security concerns to other experts; suffice it to say that the risk, according to experts, is very small. Green card holders have killed just 16 people – including yesterday – in terror attacks on U.S. soil since 1975.
As for the economic impact on U.S.-born workers, the key thing to bear in mind is that the more homogeneous and similar immigrants are to natives, the greater the odds they’ll in fact have a negative effect.
In contrast, immigrants who come from diverse backgrounds with a range of skills – such as the lottery winners and the so-called “Dreamers” – tend to produce greater economic benefits. That may be one reason at least some Republicans and most Americans are in favor of keeping the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program that protects the Dreamers from deportation, which Trump recently ended.
A new approach
Currently, the U.S. receives a lot of immigrants without a college degree or with imperfect English. About half of immigrants fit either description.
Legislation proposed earlier this summer – the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act – would exclude most such workers and reduce the total number of green cards awarding permanent legal U.S. residence to just over 500,000 from more than one million today.
Importantly, it would also change who gets a leg up when applying for a green card. Currently, family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, including siblings and adult children, are able to apply. The new system would limit that to minor children and spouses.
Instead, the bill would create a point-based system like those used in countries such as the U.K. and Australia that use factors such as English ability, education and job offers to rank applicants. However, it would be stricter than point systems used in those countries, which admit immigrants through other programs as well.
In essence, the plan would make the pool of immigrants more homogeneous and dramatically smaller in number, mirroring the misguided origin-based restrictions from the 1920s.
What economists say
Those who wish to restrict immigration often cite what they naïvely call “supply-and-demand economics” to essentially argue that the economy is a fixed pie that gets divided among a country’s residents. Fewer immigrants means “more pie” for the U.S.-born, as the story goes.
I am an economist, and this is not what my colleagues and I say. The commonplace argument that more immigrants, by themselves, lower wages and take jobs from Americans – an argument which Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to defend ending the “Dreamers” program – has neither empirical nor theoretical support in economics. It is just a myth.
Instead, both theory and empirical research show that immigration, including people with few skills and little English, grows the pie and strengthens the American workforce.
Value in diversity
While all the recently proposed changes to our immigration system will make U.S. workers worse off, the English requirement is likely to be particularly harmful to U.S. workers, especially low-skilled ones.
Indeed, I have found the relative fluency of U.S.-born workers is what keeps them from being harmed from labor market competition from immigrants.
The reason for this is the following. Essentially, immigrants with imperfect English skills tend to specialize in jobs that are less “communication-intensive,” such as manual labor. Americans fluent in the language, on the other hand, tend to take on higher-paying, communication-intensive jobs that are out of reach of those without a strong grasp of English. In other words, these groups aren’t likely to compete for the same jobs, making them more complementary than adversarial.
In contrast, when new immigrants are more fluent in English, something the Trump-backed proposal would encourage, the types of occupations they are qualified for are almost identical to those of American workers. Thus, insisting on strong English skills as a condition of coming to America is likely to increase labor market competition and suppress wages.
Immigration that helps
Immigration that emphasizes diversity, rather than merely merit, tends to attract more people who specialize in occupations uncommon among U.S.-born workers. And, in fact, this is the key source of the well-known economic benefits of immigration.
Studies by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber, for example, show this tendency toward job specialization is a key reason the large volume of low-skill immigration does not drive down incomes of Americans. Other research by Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano shows that simply encouraging immigration from diverse origins lifts wages.
Put differently, there is direct evidence that the sort of diversity that the green card lottery encourages makes all Americans better off. It would be a shame to give all of that up because of a tiny risk of terrorism.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 15, 2017.
Given the persistent and serious threat of terrorism, national discussions about the direction of Australia’s counter-terrorism strategy should be encouraged.
However, such discussions require robust follow-up – not merely announcements about “getting tough” on terrorism – if they are to improve responses to terrorism in practice.
As might be expected, the key messages from Thursday’s special Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting were about co-operation and a nationally consistent approach to counter-terrorism. The COAG discussion also focused on facial recognition software, pre-charge detention, and new criminal offences for terrorism.
Interoperability means different government agencies should co-operate effectively, and be willing to share information openly and efficiently. It’s a political buzzword that’s difficult to say and even harder to achieve in practice.
In the case of a terrorist attack, this means police and security agencies need to share intelligence, evidence and administrative data in real time, as events unfold. The coronial inquest into the Sydney siege revealed the operational problems created when police and security agencies fail to share information on an offender quickly and openly.
The benefits of improving information-sharing may be obvious, but the success of any changes to law or policy will depend heavily on buy-in from the agencies.
Complex privacy law requirements can make agencies reluctant to share personal information about an offender. This is exacerbated if they remain culturally resistant to sharing their information.
COAG revealed there will be greater sharing of biometric data and facial recognition technology across state boundaries.
Agencies in all jurisdictions will have access to facial recognition software that can match CCTV footage with passports and other identity documents.
The full capability of this technology is not yet clear. However, it is already raising concerns about increased scrutiny of Australian travellers and the possibility of criminals hacking biometric databases.
Pre-charge detention is the amount of time police can detain a person following their arrest and before they must be charged and brought before a court. During that time, the arrested person may be questioned and the police may collect additional evidence.
Currently, the maximum limit of pre-charge detention for terrorism offences differs across Australia. Under federal law, the maximum is eight days (including so-called “dead time”, which can be excluded for administrative purposes). In New South Wales, it’s 14 days, while in other states it’s seven days or less.
The federal government is proposing to raise the limit in all jurisdictions to 14 days.
Consistency in pre-charge detention for terrorism is welcome. There is no reason why NSW Police should be able to detain a terrorist offender for more than twice as long as police in other states. However, the government has not made a strong case to justify why the longest period of pre-charge detention should be applied across the board.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull offered the recent Sydney terror raids as an example of why the changes are needed. That case involved a more rushed police investigation following a tip-off from an overseas intelligence service, as well as complex physical evidence including explosives and chemicals.
Even in that complex case, it seems that nothing close to a 14-day limit was required. One man was released without charge after three days; two more were charged with terrorism offences within five days, and the fourth man was charged with a non-terrorism offence after eight days.
The appropriate upper limit on pre-charge detention is unclear, but the risks of lengthy pre-charge detention are evident. In 2007, Mohamed Haneef was detained for 12 days for an alleged connection to an attempted attack on Glasgow International Airport. He was released without charge and later received an undisclosed sum as compensation for the bungled investigation.
In response to the Haneef affair, the Rudd government placed a seven-day limit on the amount of dead time that could be claimed by police. This was done to prevent these kinds of mishaps from happening again.
Two new criminal offences have also been proposed: one for possessing terrorist instructional materials, and another to strengthen offences for “hoax” attacks.
It is not clear why an offence for possessing instructional materials is needed, as multiple similar offences have existed since 2002. Under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, it is a serious offence to collect or make documents likely to facilitate terrorism, to possess any “thing” connected with preparation for terrorism, or to train with a terrorist organisation.
Following the post-9/11 anthrax scares in the US, offences for “hoax” terror attacks were also introduced in Australia. These laws make it an offence to phone in a fake bomb threat or post a substance through the mail, where doing so would induce a false belief of terrorism.
And, by virtue of Australia’s broad statutory definition of terrorism, all terrorism offences apply to the “threat” of an attack.
These proposed changes have more to do with “getting tough” on terrorism than with filling gaps in the criminal law. After seeing Turnbull flanked by special forces soldiers and now tactical response police, one wonders whom he will pose with next.