I have just finished reading my Belfer Center colleague Rolf Mowatt-Larssen’s post on terrorist attacks staged by lone wolves that share fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam. In that post, which the author wrote in response to the string of terrorist attacks in France, he posits that such attacks by loners are difficult to interdict and calls on Arab states to do more to root out “Sunni-inspired terrorism.”
I agree with the author’s assessment of attacks by lone wolves are difficult to prevent.
I would actually draw some parallel between the Paris attack and Boston bombing – albeit the footprint left by the Paris gunmen ahead of the attack much more visible, raising Qs about whether the French secret services had paid sufficient attention to the two Kouachi brothers behind it. (I also wonder whether some of the subsquent actions by French law-enforcers had been thoroughly thought through and executed, given the casaulties among hostages as well as elimination of the three suspects. The French agents could have tried to take at least one of the brothers alive to glean information from him. They could, for instance, tried to pump some sleeping gas into the building where the brothers had holed up).
And I agree with the author that the Arab nations need to do more to fight terrorist networks based in these countries. But, on the other hand, there is a limit to what these states can do to dismantle Islamist militant networks operating on their territory.
For instance, what can governments of Yemen do or Algiers to say less of Ira? Not much more as these are weak states. The same goes for such non-Arab nations, as Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have also seen Western citizens come to get radicalized and trained before heading back. I’d also note that homebred (meaning citizens of Western countries) lone wolves don’t even have to go anywhere to get radicalized or acquire basic training anymore – they can do both on Internet, which raises the question of whether it would be sufficient even if the Western democracies were to curtail the freedom of speech as the author proposes. What about freedom of access to information? Wouldn’t it have to be curtailed too?
And was it only exposure to Islamic extremism that drove the Kouachi brothers in Paris and the Tsarnaev brothers before them?
Would the Kouachis become radicalized if they didn’t have such an unfortunate childhood (growing up in orphanage) and then restricted to low-paying jobs with no prospects of social growth? Would Tamerlan Tsarnaev have become a terrorist if he had not been told there was no chance he would ever box for the U.S. national team or if he had won a scholarship to go to a good college? My answer to these questions – I cannot know, but I bet if all these good ifs had materialized, chances that these men would have resorted to terrorism would have been smaller.
Clearly, you can’t hope for totality of results no matter what policy option you pick: Arab states cannot fully eradicate Islamist terrorism, Western special services cannot interdict all lone wolves and Western societies cannot give good education and jobs to all those deprived.
But a comprehensive approach would work better than implementation of policy in just one domain. Such an approach should integrate not only CT measures, and restriction of extremists’ abilities to propagate their views in person or via media, but also addressing socio-economic, political and other factors that increase likelihood of terrorism.