Sydney Siege Shows How Lone Wolves Add to Terrorism Threat

The 16-hour siege in Sydney’s central business district that ended with the death of a gunman and two hostages is the latest in a recent series of lone-wolf incidents that are posing new challenges for security agencies.

Individuals acting alone, though inspired or encouraged by radical Islamist groups and ideology, have gone on murderous assaults in the U.S., Belgium, Canada and elsewhere. Counterterrorism officials cite a self-reinforcing phenomenon they refer to as homegrown violent extremists, or HVEs, who are difficult for security agencies to thwart.

“Lone actors or insular groups who act autonomously pose the most serious HVE threat,” Matthew Olsen, then-director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate three months ago. “We assess HVEs will likely continue gravitating to simpler plots that do not require advanced skills, outside training, or communications with others.”

Before the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney was stormed this week by police, the gunman, Man Haron Monis, 50, forced hostages to display a black Islamic flag known as the “Shahada” in the window.

Islamic State has urged Muslims worldwide to retaliate for allied attacks on the Sunni extremist group in Iraq and Syria. Australia has taken part in the U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State. The Australian government raised its terrorism alert to the highest level in a decade in September as the extremists called on Muslims to kill non-believers with guns and knives.

Lack of Communications

The prospect that individuals are responding to that call is making it harder for counterterrorism agencies to act.

“Terrorist operations had been foiled because terrorists talk to each other, and their communications are intercepted,” said Nick O’Brien, head of the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and a former U.K. antiterrorism officer. “If you have an individual acting on their own, that avenue is gone.”

Monis, killed in the police assault, was an Iranian migrant with a record of violent crime who had expressed fury over Australia’s role in the war in Afghanistan.

He was facing a string of charges, including being an accessory with his girlfriend to the murder of his ex-wife, who was stabbed and then set afire in Sydney. He’d also been charged this year with sexual offenses dating back a decade, when he had operated as a self-proclaimed “spiritual healer” and expert in black magic, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

‘Loon Wolf’

“I’ve coined the term ‘loon wolf’ terrorist to describe a mentally unstable or deranged terrorist acting independently of a terrorist group,” Max Abrahms, an analyst, said in a tweet. Being mentally unstable doesn’t absolve someone from being a terrorist if acting on a political motive, said Abrahms, a political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

The Sydney case illustrates how difficult it is for authorities to detect and handle disturbed people who believe they will reap the rewards of dying a martyr for Islam.

“This guy must have gone into this situation knowing how it was going to end. He must have intended to die,” said O’Brien, the former antiterrorism officer. “That makes the job of a negotiator almost impossible.”

‘Self-Radicalized Actors’

A September speech by Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani entitled “Indeed Your Lord is Ever Watchful” has “served not only to rally IS fighters in Iraq and Syria against the U.S.-led coalition, but to mobilize jihadists in Western countries,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“Already the dominant threat in the Western countries is lone wolves,” Gunaratna said. “The norm in the Western nations, or Muslim-minority countries, is for self-radicalized actors to stage attacks.”

Islamic State, exploiting social media, has built on the earlier instigation by al-Qaeda and particularly its Yemen affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“The perceived success of previous lone-offender attacks - - combined with al-Qaeda’s and AQAP’s propaganda promoting individual acts of terrorism —- is raising the profile of this tactic,” Olsen, the former U.S. official, said in September.

Jewish Museum

In May, Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, a French-Algerian national who French authorities said was a veteran of fighting with Islamic State in Syria, opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing two Israeli tourists, a French woman and a Belgian museum employee.

In October, Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25 ran down two Canadian soldiers in Quebec in his car, killing one of them before being shot dead by police. Two days later, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, also a convert to Islam, attacked the Canadian Parliament, killing a soldier on ceremonial guard at the nearby National War Memorial and riddling the Parliament building with bullets before he, too, was shot dead.

Such attacks also occurred before the Islamic State appeal. In May 2013, Lee Rigby, a British Army officer, was stabbed to death on a London street by two converts to Islam who said the attack was to avenge the killing of Muslims by British forces. A month earlier, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly bombed the Boston Marathon with a pressure-cooker bomb previously described in AQAP’s magazine, Inspire.

Identifying Threats

Identifying individuals who may be potential threats often falls on other members of their community, and those efforts are complicated by the difficulty in determining when devotion becomes something dangerous.

“A Catholic would think that someone going to church more regularly is a good thing,” said O’Brien. “If someone is going to the mosque more often, that isn’t seen as suspicious.”

Authorities also need to be mindful of the risk of sparking a backlash that leads otherwise moderate Muslims to extremism, said Joseph Franco, a specialist in Islamic radicalization and counterterrorism at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Lone-wolf attacks with no proven terrorist links should be treated as “criminal offenses rather than terrorist offenses because otherwise you might get a community backlash that makes the situation worse,” Franco said.

In Australia, parliament passed counterterrorism laws on Dec. 2 to assist agencies in disrupting domestic terrorist threats and to support the U.S.-led coalition to undermine Islamic State in the Middle East.

The Sydney attack came less than three months after an 18-year-old man was shot and killed in Melbourne on Sept. 23 after wounding two counterterrorism officers with a knife. He stabbed the officers in an unprovoked attack outside a police station, where he was due to be interviewed by police after waving an Islamic State flag inside a shopping center.

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