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?

Danny Johnston/AP
Police stand at the scene of a fatal shooting outside a military recruitment office in a Little Rock, Ark., shopping center Monday, June 1.

The American-born Muslim convert who allegedly shot and killed Army Pvt. William Long and wounded another soldier outside a Little Rock, Ark., mall on June 1 said Tuesday the act was retaliation for the US war on terror, "done for the sake of Allah, the lord of all the world."

Authorities have pegged the Memphis, Tenn., native Abdulhakid Mujahid Mohammed, born Carlos "Corey" Bledsoe, as a "lone wolf" terrorist – going to war alone against his own country, without operational guidance or handlers.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has thwarted half a dozen home-grown terror cells since 9/11. Authorities say this includes the "Bronx Bombers," who were arrested last month. But lone wolves like Mr. Mohammed have proved more difficult to stop.

While the FBI has been warning about lone jihadists for years, the Little Rock shooting, experts say, is likely to hasten debate over the danger they pose and what effect Washington's shift in tone toward the Muslim world will have on public attitudes and law enforcement. Ultimately, there's also the looming question of whether a broader "force" is directing these lone actors.

"We're dealing with something much more sophisticated than just finding ... a 'conspirator,' " says Walid Phares, director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative policy institute in Washington. "Lone jihadists may really be alone as persons, but they are part of a production of jihadists with the same ideology, outlook, and engagement logic."

The Little Rock shooting touches on a number of security debates going on nationally.

This week in Los Angeles, FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the use of government informants in mosques to root out domestic terrorists, an important point since there are questions about whether Mohammed became "radicalized" in the United States or during visits to Yemen, including a stint in a Yemeni jail. On Tuesday, Mohammed told the Associated Press in a collect phone call from jail that he was not radicalized in Yemen.

Mohammed also carried a fake Somali passport at one point; US security officials are increasingly concerned about Al Qaeda's presence in the leaderless African state. Dozens of young Somali-Americans have disappeared from American cities in recent months.

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.

"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."

To be sure, potential lone wolves pose a major quandary for law enforcement. In this case, the FBI had launched a preliminary investigation into Mohammed and had even interviewed him in a Yemeni jail. But until a subject of inquiry makes connections with a broader cell or exhibits behavior that makes a violent act seem possible, the FBI is constrained by civil liberties laws from taking action.

An ongoing FBI inquiry will not just look at whether Mohammed became indoctrinated, but also whether the agency missed any important clues, including a reported gun violation in 2004. Reports also suggest that Mohammed had scoped potential targets – including a Jewish organization and a Baptist church in Atlanta.

"The lone-wolf attack theory has been around for a while, not just with Islamic terrorists, but right-wing terrorists," says Steven Emerson, author of "Jihad Inc." "But I think in this case the radicalization doesn't occur in a vacuum."

"In the jihadist realm, we're always going to have lone wolves," says Scott Stewart, an analyst at STRATFOR, a global intelligence company in Austin, Texas. "But the key in defeating jihadism is not killing operators, but to take out ideology, because ideology is far harder to counteract than individuals, and that's where the real war needs to be waged."

But the White House's shift in communication with the Muslim world could put the president at odds with the FBI's work domestically. While President Obama has been reaching out to Muslims, the FBI last year broke off relations with all local chapters of the controversial Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

"Obama was signaling [in his recent speech in Cairo] that he was going to oppose violent jihad, but not Islamists who were not pursuing violence," says Mr. Spencer at "Jihad Watch."

Yet to many American Muslims, the Obama administration needs to go even further in making peace with Muslims – and shouldn't be alienating them with brusque FBI tactics.

"People appreciate the president's speech in Cairo, but there is a major concern that there hasn't been any in-reach with the American Muslim community," says Dawud Wallid, director of CAIR's Michigan chapter. "There are people of various ethnicities and religions who have grievances against the government, and we would hope that the FBI would place proper focus on potential threats ... instead of giving the appearance that the Muslim community is public enemy No. 1."

But if the Mohammed case indicates anything, experts say, it's that the US still has a long way to go in thwarting the indoctrination of terrorists and their move to act out violent fantasies against American targets.

Mr. Phares at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies says the indoctrination force behind domestic terror cells and lone wolves "is not touched so far."

"Our debate in Washington is still way below the level of understanding the jihadist strategies," he says.

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