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Shooting of two soldiers in Little Rock puts focus on 'lone wolf' Islamic extremists

Did alleged attacker Abdulhakid Mujahid Mohammed act on his own, or was he a trained jihadist?

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Related issues abound: The clamor in Washington over detention policies, the possibility of Guantánamo prisoners transferring to the US mainland, the definition of torture, and congressional bickering over security leaks all provide a backdrop for a country that's wrestling with how best to stop disaffected Americans and others from carrying out violent political fantasies on US soil.

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"We could lay these people out on a continuum of alienation and mobilization and integration with wider conspiracies, and that's the most troubling part of this: How many Americans are sufficiently alienated from their society to consider acts of political violence?" says Peter Sederberg, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta who studies domestic terrorism.

Operationally, the attack that Mohammed is accused of seems to run counter to the traditional Al Qaeda modus operandi: It seemed impulsive, not carefully planned. Indeed, Mohammed's lawyer said last week he may have been acting out of personal anger over the military's treatment of Muslims and a visa situation that forced him to leave his wife behind in Yemen.

But in his interview with the AP, Mohammed, who pleaded not guilty to the shooting, warned of a broader movement. "I feel that other attacks, not by me or people I know, but definitely Muslims in this country and others, are going to [happen]," he said.

Experts say that the amateurish nature of the Little Rock attack would seem to preclude an Al Qaeda connection, though not its intent.

"This is in line with Al Qaeda's goals," says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of "My Year Inside Radical Islam." "But in the US there has not been a great deal of true Al Qaeda operatives, so I would personally be shocked if they'd waste an operative on something like this."

Still, global terror groups often promote the idea of lone jihadis in their instructional material.

"Al Qaeda [says] that jihadis should not associate with other Muslims ... but should appear to be a secular American," says Robert Spencer, director of the controversial "Jihad Watch" website. "That kind of a strike will appear to be that of a lone wolf, but it's actually someone keyed in, not organizationally, but ideologically."

Authorities point to nearly a dozen "lone jihadist" attacks in the US since 2005. They've included the Muslim convert whose bomb went off prematurely outside a crowded Oklahoma stadium in October 2005; the University of North Carolina student who drove a rented SUV into a crowded campus in May 2006; and the shooting of six women, one fatally, at the Jewish Federation Center in Seattle in July 2006 by an angry Pakistani-American.

Taken together, they form a troubling tableau, some experts say. "The perception in the US is [lone wolves are] not serious terrorists and that real terrorists are coming from overseas," says Michael Jacobson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Some of the cases that have happened domestically are overly discounted."