Very few of the people that are commonly described as “lone wolves” are really isolated loners
Earlier today, President Obama drew attention to the threat from so-called “self-radicalizers” who embrace terrorism without having strong links into terrorist networks or structures.
Ideas like “self-radicalization” and “lone wolves” have become increasingly popular as a number of cases have emerged in recent years where wannabe terrorists had no face to face contact with al Qaeda recruiters. The Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston bombings, may be the latest example.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they were entirely on their own. As last year’s BPC Homeland Security Project report – Countering Online Radicalization in America – showed, the Internet now provides plenty of opportunities for people to become part of virtual jihadist communities.
Through online forums and social media, extremists can reach out to others and establish strong social links – exactly the kind of links and networks that previously required lengthy face to face interaction.
In the age of social media, people on the Internet may be physically on their own but they are far from lonely. The degree of social interaction and connectivity they experience in extremist online forums may, in fact, be higher than with some of the people they are closest to physically: their friends, colleagues, and family.
The idea of self-radicalization is therefore misleading. Very few of the people that are commonly described as “lone wolves” are really isolated loners. Instead, they have become part of vibrant – albeit virtual – countercultures that glorify terrorism and celebrate attacks against innocent civilians.
President Obama is right, therefore, in asking his director of national intelligence to review lessons and best practices in community engagement, and see how they can be applied to social media and the online world.
A great starting point would be our December 2012 report in which we laid out a practical strategy for dealing with online radicalization.
Upon its release, Homeland Security Project co-chairs Gov. Tom Kean (R-NJ) and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) and I published an op-ed in POLITICO, which urged policymakers to deal with this emerging and highly complex threat.
We made it clear that “censoring” the Internet was not the solution, not only because doing so would be wrong and unconstitutional, but – quite simply – because it wouldn’t work.
Instead, we called on government to be more energetic in empowering community groups and large Internet companies to spread awareness and craft effective counter-messages.
We also showed that there’s more that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can do to gather intelligence about terrorists’ intention, their networks, plots and operations, and to secure evidence that can be used in prosecutions. This, we argued, may be the most effective short-term approach for dealing with online extremism.
To be clear: neither the Internet nor the threat from “lone wolves” are likely to go away. Our report offers a blueprint for what can be done – within the context of America’s laws and constitutional freedoms – to minimize and counter the risk they pose to the American people.
Peter R. Neumann is a visiting fellow for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project. He serves as professor of security studies at King’s College London and authored Countering Online Radicalization in America.