Pack of troubles

The following editorial appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 23:

Remember when we were fighting them over there so we wouldn’t have to here? Increasing domestic terrorism by so-called lone wolves has blown that strategy out of the water and weakened the rationale for further U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

A domestic terrorist attack occurred or was foiled every 34 days in the United States on average between April 2009 and February 2015, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks violent groups. Three-quarters of the more than 60 incidents during that period were planned or carried out by a lone wolf.

In the latest, five servicemen were fatally shot last week by a lone gunman in Chattanooga, Tenn. That attack, coincidently, occurred on the same day as the conviction of the sole shooter in the 2012 slayings of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo.

The Colorado lone wolf’s crime was just as terrifying, though he wasn’t prosecuted as a terrorist. James Holmes, 27, used an assault rifle, shotgun, and Glock pistol to wreak havoc at a movie theater in a Denver suburb. There was little difference between his behavior and that of Mohammod Abdulazeez, 24, who shot and killed four Marines and a sailor at a reserve training center shortly after firing at a strip mall recruiting center a few miles away. Abdulazeez was ultimately killed by police.

In both cases, the shooter’s mental health is in question. A jury didn’t find Holmes legally insane, but a psychiatrist testified that he had severe mental illness. Abdulazeez’s family says he had long suffered from depression. While most mentally ill people aren’t dangerous, authorities are investigating whether Abdulazeez’s mental state made him vulnerable to the preaching of radical Islamists.

A friend said Abdulazeez wasn’t the same after a seven-month visit with relatives in Jordan last year. Investigators who examined his computer said they found evidence that he had viewed online material connected to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born jihadist leader who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

So was it ideology or pathology that led Abdulazeez to kill? Some counterterrorism experts say the two are not mutually exclusive — that terrorism attracts mentally unstable people. Knowing that, however, doesn’t necessarily make it easier to stop lone wolves. Because they are not involved with an organized group, they’re typically off the radar screen until they act.

When U.S. authorities are warned about a lone wolf, undercover agents often try to gain the person’s confidence by encouraging his plot and providing fake weapons to accumulate the evidence needed to arrest him. That contrasts greatly with Denmark’s policy of reaching out to lone wolves before they act and sending them to reprogramming camps.

In either case, preventing violence hinges on the public’s willingness to alert authorities when they think someone they know may be plotting a terrorist act. And the plot might not have anything to do with jihadists. In fact, half the lone-wolf attacks in the law center’s study were related to the antigovernment Patriot movement. There are also lone wolves, like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who fight for causes that exist only in their minds. But the bodies they leave behind are real.


(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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