By George H. Wittman
November 24, 2017
Terrorism exists in many forms and with many motivations. However, terrorism as a weapon of the instruments of radical Islam is the best organized and directed of all such deadly groups in the modern era.
Less than a year ago, the focus of counter-Islamic terrorism was based on the fact that very few terrorists acted as “lone wolves” or, as they are known in intelligence jargon, “singletons.” That perception has changed dramatically. It’s now realized that a wholly new tactic requiring little training and organization presents an even more dangerous threat than the earlier operational approach of carefully organized, vetted and trained small “professional” groups.
Mowing down scores of bicyclists and onlookers by simply driving a pickup truck down a crowded pathway in New York City showed how a low-tech attack by a committed Islamic terrorist could affect the same result as the more intricate schemes of the past. It was a lesson well thought out by terrorist mentors seeking to project the deadly ambitions of radical Islam. This is not a new methodology. It hearkens back to the days of the British Raj when “true believers” would sacrifice themselves in bloody attacks on the ruling foreigners and their institutions.
In today’s world the process is not that different, though augmented by modern communication and destructive devices. By utilizing the various outlets presented by the World Wide Web, religiously and politically motivated believers can be instructed in the relatively simple methods and devices of effective terrorist action. Thus, online radicalization and training is made possible at little or no operational cost. Support groups are not necessary, detailed and lengthy training is avoided. Most importantly, the various aspects of establishing and maintaining security are substantially reduced.
The one thing that is needed is a deep belief in the righteousness of the cause. Radical Islam provides that belief, and thus the motivation. A successful attack on unbelievers will result in eternal salvation, joy, happiness and all the pleasures conceivable in the afterlife. It is a strong incentive to carefully plan and execute terrorist goals. To counter such threats requires a unique disregard of respect for individual religious rights that are the foundation of Western democratic ideals and practice. This is what makes counteraction so difficult. And the directors of Islamic radicalism know this fact very well.
Simply put, effective counteraction must include gaining the support of Islamic religious leaders who, if their cooperation was discovered, would possibly result in their torture and death. Nonetheless, such cooperative efforts already have been tried. Various mosques have been targeted that are suspected of housing individuals of radical bent. However, even when some courageous Islamic leaders have been “spotted and recruited,” the operations were terminated. These sophisticated and highly sensitive activities were undercut when they became known to local political forces fearful of being charged with religious discrimination. The deadly Manhattan truck attack was perpetrated by a man who had been a member of a mosque that previously had been on a surveillance list. Unfortunately, that penetration had been shut down by local political authorities wanting to avoid the appearance of encouraging anti-Islamic action.
In truth, an individual who is vulnerable to the message of Islamic radical fervor does not need the support and encouragement of his co-religionists. Self-radicalization now is the device on which organized terror instruments are counting. Nonetheless, it is not impossible to run counterterrorism penetrations within the Islamic community — if local and national police cadre are allowed to operate appropriately. Therein lies the problem. Accomplishing such penetration only can be effected with the aid of cooperating Islamic believers. Such an activity not only takes a long time to develop, but it also requires the creation of a deep bond between the potential agent and the counterterrorism case officer (handler). This demands a carefully constructed cover relationship. It is far from easy, and it can be quite deadly for all parties if the operation is “blown.”
There are no short cuts, though the cooperation of friendly Islamic clerics and patriotic parishioners can be of significant assistance in spotting the more susceptible of potentially radicalized targets. While a good theoretical starting point, to “turn” a cleric on one of his own flock is a daunting task. It is not much different with a simple member of the mosque. Financial inducements are a valuable tool, but such a materialistic device often can be counterproductive!
In the end, the uncovering and impeding of an Islamic terrorist operation requires a continuing surveillance of the community and the ability to discern the truly dangerous from those who are just trying to gain peer acceptance and realistically pose no direct threat. Of course, this is all understood by the leaders of the radical community abroad, but it really doesn’t inhibit them. They have effectively protected themselves and their deadly projects by remaining in the dark. They count on their self-driven disciples to do the dirty work.
• George H. Wittman is a veteran of 45 years in international security operations and analysis.