'Lone wolves' spotlighted in the fight against violent extremism

At a White House summit this week, officials from the US and abroad will study ways to counter violent extremism of the kind that happened in recent days in the United States and Europe. ‘Lone wolf’ attackers are a special concern.

Fabian Bimmer/REUTERS
Women light a candle at a memorial for the victims of terrorist attacks in Copenhagen Sunday. Danish police shot and killed a man they believe was responsible for two deadly attacks at an event promoting freedom of speech and at a synagogue.

The White House this week hosts a summit on countering violent extremism, coincidentally just days after murderous attacks with multiple victims in the United States and Europe.

The meeting, featuring speakers and participants from the US and abroad, has been in the works for months, part of a program the Obama administration began in 2011. But it comes just as a new report warns of a rise in violence by “lone wolves” or “leaderless resistance” groups composed of no more than two people.

Although the White House program has a broad mandate, recent events at first glance are connected to Islam: The shooting deaths last week of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., by a suspect who may have been motivated by religious hatred as well as other issues, and the shooting attacks on a free speech event and a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, over the weekend, believed to have been inspired by Islamic radicalism. Two people were killed and five police officers wounded in those attacks.

Under the Obama administration’s program, Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have taken the lead “in building pilot frameworks integrating a range of social service providers, including education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders, with law enforcement agencies to address violent extremism as part of the broader mandate of community safety and crime prevention,” the White House said in its statement last month announcing the summit.

Overcoming distrust has been a challenge for federal officials. Some critics say the apprehension of young men – such as Christopher Lee Cornell, recently charged with plotting an attack on the US Capitol – amounts to legally questionable entrapment.

The Los Angeles program has drawn criticism from civil rights groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Haroon Manjlai, a spokesman for the council’s Los Angeles chapter, said the group is worried that the program will infringe on Muslims’ freedom of speech and religion, and might hurt their public image.

The council’s national office issued a statement ahead of the summit questioning the effectiveness of programs closely tied to a government that many Muslims don’t trust. “Credible community voices who are not viewed as 'being in the government’s pocket’ are necessary,” it said.

The radicalization of Muslim youth has been a major concern in Minnesota, where more than 22 Somali men have gone to Somalia to fight for the radical group al-Shabab. Several others have gone or tried to go to Syria to fight for the Islamic State group.

Following the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington has taken what it calls “a proactive approach to identifying and intervening individuals who may be susceptible to violent extremism.”

Authorities are still studying whether the killing of the three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, allegedly by Craig Hicks, was a hate crime.

On his Facebook page, he had written: “I hate Islam just as much as christianity, but they have the right to worship in this country just as much as any others do.”

In Hicks’ condo, police found four handguns, two shotguns and six rifles – one a military-style AR-15 carbine – and a large cache of ammunition. Although he apparently acted alone (possibly set off by a dispute with the victims over parking spaces), it’s unclear whether he can be thought of as a violent extremist “lone wolf” in the usual sense – even though the specifics of the attack bear that out.

In a report last week – “Age of the Wolf: A Study of the Rise of Lone Wolf and Leaderless Resistance Terrorism” – the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) examined more than 60 domestic terror incidents. Almost three-quarters of these were carried out or planned by a lone wolf, a single person acting without accomplices. Ninety percent of the incidents were the work of no more than two persons, according to the report.

The study, which included violence from both the radical right and homegrown jihadists from April 1, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2015, also found that a domestic terrorist attack or foiled attack occurred, on average, every 34 days.

“It’s important to recognize the trend away from organized groups committing acts of domestic terror,” said Mark Potok, SPLC senior fellow and editor of the report. “As Timothy McVeigh demonstrated with the Oklahoma City bombing, lone wolves and small cells of domestic terrorists can create massive carnage.”

“The lone wolf’s chief asset is that no one else knows of his violent plans, which makes them exceedingly difficult to disrupt,” Mr. Potok said. “It is imperative that authorities, including those gathering at the White House next week, take this threat seriously. Anything less would be an invitation to disaster.”

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