American counterterrorism officials have long worried about the possibility of a “lone wolf” jihadist committing a terrorist attack. Such individuals, inspired by ideology alone, can come out of nowhere. And if they are truly unconnected to the international terrorist network then they can be undetectable, setting off no warning bells before their day of terror.
Anders Behring Breivik, the man arrested in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Oslo, is no jihadist. Instead, he is a right-wing terrorist who held extreme and bizarre views regarding Marxism, multiculturalism, and Muslims. But while more has been learned about his ideology, an important question remains unanswered: Was he truly a “lone wolf”?
The New York Times cites Roger Andresen, a Norwegian police official, as saying: “We are not sure whether he was alone or had help. What we know is that he is right wing and a Christian fundamentalist.” The next line of the Times article summarizes a manifesto Breivik reportedly penned (emphasis added):
In the 1,500-page manifesto, posted on the Web hours before the attacks, Mr. Breivik recorded a day-by-day diary of months of planning for the attacks, and claimed to be part of a small group that intend to “seize political and military control of Western European countries and implement a cultural conservative political agenda.”
In other words, while Breivik has told police that he acted alone, the authorities are not sure whether Breivik is a true “lone wolf” or not. The terrorist attacks he carried out required a great deal of planning and coordination – it is not easy to set off a car bomb outside government buildings one moment and execute a shooting spree on an island hosting a youth camp the next. But without knowing more, all we can do is speculate. And there is no evidence thus far that he had any accomplices.
If the Oslo attacks were truly the work of a “lone wolf’ terrorist attack, then Breivik has succeeded where jihadists have largely (but not entirely) failed.
Jihadists have long sought to carry out similar attacks in Norway and elsewhere. The most successful “lone wolf” terrorist attack in the U.S. is the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. In that case, Major Nidal Malik Hasan did not travel abroad for formal training. But he was in touch with top al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cleric Anwar al Awlaki repeatedly in the months before his shooting spree. Awlaki clearly supplied the spiritual justifications for Hasan’s terrorism and encouraged such acts in public postings on his web site. The most lethal “lone wolf” jihadist to strike the U.S., then, was not alone at least in terms of moral support.
AQAP has invested a great deal of its propaganda in attempting to encourage other “lone wolf” jihadists in the West. AQAP’s online English publication, Inspire, usually carries articles dedicated to this very topic. One article, for example, encouraged willing recruits to turn a large truck into the “ultimate mowing machine” capable of killing many infidels.
AQAP has achieved little success, to date, in its effort to recruit “lone wolf” jihadists. Anders Behring Breivik, however, may have just proven the power of this concept. If he truly acted alone – and, again, we do not know for sure that is the case – then he is the most deadly “lone wolf” terrorist in recent memory.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.