Every time a terrorist or crazy person shoots people at a public event or lobs a bomb into a crowd, we immediately see a slew of retired generals and intelligence officers insisting that the most recent attack was “well planned” and “well coordinated” and, of course, “very sophisticated.” But are these terrorist attacks actually sophisticated in any way?
Omar Mateen killed nearly 50 people at the Pulse night club in Florida. His tactics were effective, but he was simply shooting unarmed people at close range. Micah Xavier Johnson did the same in Dallas, but the media dubbed him a sniper, as if he was making long-range precision shots. Video footage shows he was walking right up to police officers and shooting them without using the optics on his rifle.
The Boston bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, constructed explosive devices out of pressure cookers. The talking heads on television news were certain that they received training outside of America from sinister terrorist organizations in Chechnya. It seems they simply learned how to build the bombs from reading online jihadi websites. Building rudimentary bombs, concealing them in backpacks, and dropping them into a crowd hardly seems sophisticated.
Then we have the Charlie Hebdo gunmen and the shooters who attacked the Bataclan nightclub. Again, they simply had free reign with relatively easily procured AK-47 rifles, and shot unarmed civilians at point-blank range. None of this indicates that these terrorists were highly trained or put a significant amount of time into the planning process.
As we attempt to analyze the recent attack in Nice, France, in which Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a rented refrigerator truck into a crowd on Bastille Day, killing 84 and wounding about 200, we should take a step back from our assumptions about terrorism and look at it for what it really is. After careful analysis, we will see that these attacks are not at all sophisticated or well planned, and this is a lot scarier than the idea that ISIS or al-Qaeda has some underground command bunker where they plot overseas attacks like a James Bond villain.
Authorities have also had a difficult time attaching many of these plots to overseas terrorist organizations. In many cases, they appear to been nutcases who, at best, threw the veneer of jihad over their massacres to make themselves appear to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Crazies like the Batman movie theater shooter, James Holmes; or the German pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who crashed a civilian airliner into the Alps; are treated as one-offs of no foreign-policy consequence. Even right-wing crazies like Anders Brevik, who murdered 77 people in Norway, or Dylann Roof of South Carolina, who killed nine people in a South Carolina church, are treated as outliers.
But Muslims, Arabs, and other foreigners or immigrants are folded into an ongoing narrative of international terrorism. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Omar Mateen, the Tsarnaev brothers, and Micah Johnson were terrorists, but part of a cabal of international terrorist cells they were not. Folding these deranged individuals into international terrorism is convenient for a lot of people from the media to policymakers.
Talking heads on television often know very little about the subjects they claim expertise in. Many so-called counterterrorism experts have absolutely no experience in the field, nor have they studied the subject in academic settings. However, when you are a paid on-air personality, you have to keep yourself relevant, and this is done via hyperbole and exaggeration.
For policymakers, the impression that all of these individual attacks are somehow linked to al-Qaeda (or more likely today, ISIS, as they are the flavor of the month) provides the impetus to push along legislation and policy that lawmakers are already chomping at the bit for. Elected representatives also want to make it appear that they are “doing something” prior to their reelection campaigns.
The reality of modern terrorism is actually much more frightening. These attacks are not in any way sophisticated; nearly any able-bodied individual is capable of pulling them off without being detected by authorities until after the fact. This is another reason why we are socially conditioned to accept terrorism as inherently sophisticated. If the attacks were so simple that a caveman could do them, then what does that say about our military or law enforcement and the billions upon billions of dollars we have funneled into counterterrorism? What does it say about our wars against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere? Admitting that any idiot can kill Americans at any time implies that we have gotten very little return on our investment.
The 9/11 attacks did indeed have a certain level of sophistication. A clandestine cell of terrorists was funded and trained overseas, infiltrated into the United States, received more training at civilian flight schools, and then executed a relatively complex attack against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The terrorist attacks we have been seeing lately bear little resemblance to the al-Qaeda cell that launched the 9/11 attacks.
Today’s terrorists are lone wolves, self-radicalized, and are often losers who haven’t amounted to anything in life. In their deranged image of reality, they come to the conclusion that they are justified in murdering innocent people. Many appear to be crazy people who, if they had not launched onto jihad, would use another ideology to support their twisted views, be that black liberation or white supremacy. Indeed, Omar Mateen comes across as a self-loathing homosexual who shot up a gay nightclub out of anger and frustration that should have been directed at himself. Others appear to have no links to jihad at all.
This type of “remote terrorism,” without state sponsors, is much harder to counter. Without creating a security state here at home that resembles North Korea, we may simply have to absorb a certain level of terrorism. Of course, there is not a single elected politician who would ever tell us this.
To begin to deal with the problem of lone-wolf remote terrorism, we first have to clearly identify what we are looking at, and it isn’t sophisticated, well-orchestrated attacks. At best, they are inspired by ISIS, but not directed by them. With the proliferation of social media and messaging apps (some of them encrypted), these individuals will surely be inspired by other groups, jihadi or otherwise, long after ISIS is dead and gone.