Putting Grassroots Terrorism in the Proper Perspective

When it comes to claiming attacks, the Islamic State seems to believe in the old advertising adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity. The group apparently feels that the very mention of its involvement in an attack, successful or otherwise, will serve to fuel public panic — a strategy that has proved effective. No matter how inept an attacker or how ineffective an assault, the Islamic State is quick to take credit, even where credit does not appear due. One such example is a recent attack in Ohio. Just after 10 a.m. on Nov. 28, an 18-year-old student named Abdul Razak Ali Artan drove onto the Ohio State University campus where he was enrolled. Running his vehicle over a curb, Artan struck a group of pedestrians then exited the car and began attacking passersby with a large knife. About a minute into the incident, a responding university police officer shot and killed the assailant, who managed to injure 11 people in the course of the attack — one of them seriously.

Though the attack was amateurish and unsuccessful, and despite Artan's documented affinity for al Qaeda leaders such as the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the Islamic State took to the internet to claim responsibility. The group's Amaq news agency hailed Artan as a "soldier of the caliphate" who had heeded the call to "target nationals" of the countries fighting against the Islamic State, in accordance with the tenets of leaderless resistance. In the wake of the announcement, I noted on Twitter that the fact Amaq claimed such an attack highlights the limited reach of the Islamic State's core group. (Here at Stratfor, I have also discussed the group's struggles in projecting its terrorist capabilities transnationally over the past few years. In fact, I consider its adoption of leaderless resistance an admission of weakness rather than a sign of strength.) But shortly after I posted the tweet, someone responded that I had done a disservice to my audience by characterizing Artan as a grassroots jihadist. The basis of my interlocutor's complaint, as I understood it, was that the label downplays the threat that such attackers pose. Rather than begin a Twitter fight or try to explain myself in 140-character chunks, I decided to devote this week's column to the importance of properly contextualizing terrorist attacks.
The Danger of Downplaying

Of course, there is a danger in underplaying the threat that grassroots jihadists pose. Despite their limited means and abilities, grassroots terrorists aspire to inflict the maximum possible carnage. And sometimes they succeed, choosing the right target for a particular type of attack. Omar Mateen's attack against the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, for example, and the Bastille Day assault in Nice left scores dead, taking more victims than many operations conducted by professional terrorist cadres. It is also important not to discount the toll inflicted on the survivors of even the most half-baked grassroots terrorist strike. Though no one was killed in Artan's attack, his victims could end up suffering medical complications from their injuries, not to mention psychological trauma, for years to come.

For many years now, I have tried to counter the hype surrounding the type of terrorism favored by the leaderless resistance model. I even refer to lone actors as "stray mutts" instead of using the more menacing term "lone wolves." But attacks such as those in Orlando and Nice serve as deadly reminders that even stray mutts can bite. Furthermore, by getting in touch with professional terrorist operatives, grassroots terrorists — like Richard Reid or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — can gain access to the resources and know-how necessary to conduct more sophisticated attacks.

That said, there is as much danger, if not more, in overstating the threat that attackers such as Artan present: Doing so plays into a narrative common to jihadist groups — that they are omnipotent and inexorable. Terrorists have long relied on terror magnifiers to maximize the effect of their attacks. The advent of 24-hour news channels and social media has extended their reach even further, enabling terrorist operatives to inflict harm on millions of vicarious victims. The most effective way to combat the resulting hysteria is to cut through the hype. Recognizing the inherent limitations of simple attacks that employ cars, knives, or the small, crude bombs featured in al Qaeda's Inspire magazine can help keep the threat of grassroots terrorism in perspective.
Combating the Hype

It is remarkably easy to kill people if one so desires — especially if an attacker is willing to die in the process. The world is rife with soft, vulnerable targets, and no matter how vigilant or well-equipped a government may be, it cannot completely eliminate the threat of terrorism. Considering how easy it is to conduct a simple attack against a soft target, it is a wonder that there have not been more such incidents in the West. Doubtless, the number of attacks that have occurred in recent years is far below what al Qaeda and the Islamic State were hoping for when they began promoting leaderless resistance overseas.

Carrying out an attack that will have a strategic effect on the target country is another story. Had al Qaeda been able to replicate the events of 9/11, as many feared in the days that followed the attacks, it could have posed a legitimate strategic threat to the United States. But in the years since, the group's efforts have simply not attained the same level of significance. Incidents such as the 2009 mass shooting at Ft. Hood and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing were tragic and bloody, but they did not represent an existential threat to the United States. Similarly, although the Islamic State's attackers have demonstrated an ability to kill, they have not proved themselves capable of conducting a more serious strategic attack.

Simple attacks can be devastating on a personal level. On a national scale, however, they are little more than an annoyance. Though efforts to prevent grassroots attacks — or to mitigate the effects of those that cannot be stopped — are no less important, they must not divert resources from protecting strategic, hard targets. Differentiating between untrained grassroots terrorist operatives and more proficient professional terrorists helps not only to combat hype but also to ensure that security resources are properly allocated. The challenge in placing an attack such as Artan's into the proper context is to make sure that, like Goldilocks, we are not too cold or too hot, but just right.

This article was originally published in stratfor.com