BY JOHN WINGERT
In the wake of bombings in New York and New Jersey and startling new events in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the United States has turned back to re-examine its perennial issue of fighting lone wolf attacks.
Lone wolf acts of terrorism perpetrated by one, self-radicalized person without a large organizational backing or paper trail are described as nearly impossible to prevent.
How does one stop individuals that are acting erratically from killing their fellow citizens? Can anything ultimately be done?
These individuals are impossible to reach on their own. Often, these predominantly male attackers will keep their views hidden to themselves.
Although there have been allegations that others were aware of the San Bernadino attackers’ plan, no such concrete evidence has materialized.
FBI Director James Comey has said that they were “homegrown violent extremists.”
He also said, “We can see from our investigation that in late 2013, before there is a physical meeting of these two people resulting in their engagement and then journey to the United States, they are communicating online, showing signs in that communication of their joint commitment to jihadism and to martyrdom. Those communications are direct, private messages.”
It is the direct, private nature of these messages that makes them difficult to track down. Terrorists who are connected in a broader web of international terror organizations or to other individuals can be traced by following their connections to other groups.
Director Comey hints at the primary method for trying to find lone wolves: vast internet surveillance.
Of course the NSA has been engaged in varying levels of surveillance on transnational communications for years under the auspices of the PATRIOT Act.
This surveillance has allowed them to monitor the metadata (times, dates, lengths, destinations) of many forms of communication and, if Edward Snowden is to be believed, the contents at times as well.
Why then have these online surveillance mechanisms been helpful in tracking down self-radicalizing lone wolves?
Many in the intelligence community would place the blame squarely on encryption services that allow online communications or web traffic to be hidden behind layers and layers of obfuscation.
Some in Congress have even called for back doors to be available for many password-protected or encrypted electronic services.
The problem of civil liberties then arises. If the NSA snooping on the dog-walking habits and domestic complaints of an ever-expanding net of transnational communication has earned ire from the public, how then could even greater surveillance measures ever be justified.
The NSA claims that such surveillance has led to over 50 intercessions against terrorist activity, but after the leaks from Edward Snowden, only four have been substantiated.
Privacy may be the price worth paying to thwarting these attacks. Regardless, the NSA seems incapable to catch attackers who are more and more isolated with only small shreds of internet activity that might suggest malicious intentions.
Perhaps, then, the only viable way to ensure that these lone wolf attacks are prevented is the promotion of an ideological counterattack.
Given the ability of ISIS’ narratives to take hold on the disaffected in the United States and around the world, some well-organized and centrally orchestrated counter-narrative to undermine ISIS’ own self-aggrandizement and promote the virtues of peaceful coexistence, tolerance and liberties that the United States strives to uphold.
If these values and a persistent anti-ISIS messaging campaign backed by substantial financial resources are implemented, then some of the will and animus behind lone wolf attacks an be undermined.
It is either commitment to this sort of propaganda engagement, lose individual privacies or accept that erratic individuals are the price paid by members of a free society.