An American citizen, Ali Muhammad Brown, is accused of executing four men—Leroy Henderson, Dwone Anderson-Young, Ahmed Said, and Brian Tevlin—in a shooting rampage across multiple states, intended as revenge against American policy in the Middle East. In response to investigators' questions, he stated: "All these lives are taken every single day by America, by this government. So a life for a life."
Following another question, Brown elaborated that he was "just doing my small part" and had targeted only adult men, whom he identified as being "just kill[s]." Brown's rampage highlights a significant but relatively overlooked danger that the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (AQ), and other jihadi groups pose to the United States: lone wolf attacks.
While much recent attention has focused on the dangers of Americans obtaining battlefield training in Syria and returning to the United States for attacks, jihadi groups also strongly target domestic "lone wolves." Indeed, alongside encouragement to leave the West for jihadi battlefields, a second platform in the jihadi recruitment propaganda intends to empower potential attackers within the country who are able to remain under the radar of law enforcement until they carry out attacks. This is an approach that has yielded successes for AQ-linked groups, as the vast majority of successful domestic attacks in the United States during the previous decade—including the Fort Hood shooting and the Boston Bombings—were the work of homegrown jihadis.
Brown's claims to have acted in order to punish the United States for their foreign policy closely reflect instructions for lone wolves featured in a long chain of strategic directives and advice—not only from the uppermost reaches of AQ and AQ-affiliated groups, but also promoted by individual jihadi supporters on social networks and jihadi forums. These instructions are an important component of jihadi attempts to activate lone wolves for not only large-scale dramatic attacks against Western targets, but also for smaller, less risky and less predictable, individual operations. In keeping with the emphasis on small attacks of opportunity, media targeted at potential American lone wolf fighters places heavy emphasis on the ease and benefits of individual attacks carried out with small firearms.
Such focuses are not new. Most notably, in a video released on June 2, 2011, AQ's American official, Adam Gadahn, alongside other other members of the group's top leadership, incited for lone wolf action in a 100-minute long video, titled "You Are Only Responsible for Yourself." Among the mobilization advice, Gadahn specifically instructed American jihadi sympathizers that firearms represent an easily accessible resource, claiming:
And in the West you've got a lot at your disposal. Let's take America as an example. America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check and most likely, without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?
The Somali-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement also urged pragmatism in selecting a tactic for lone wolf attacks in a video message released on October 15, 2013, titled "Woolwich attack: Its an Eye for an Eye." The video celebrated the May 22, 2013 attack in which two jihadi sympathizers killed a British soldier, Lee Rigby, outside the Woolwich barracks in London. In the video, the Shabaab members promoted the attack alongside previous small-scale lone wolf attacks—the Fort Hood and Toulouse shootings—as example for how Muslims could respond to the foreign policy of the U.S. and its Western allies in Muslim countries.
Turning to tactical advice, the group also urged potential fighters to use whatever means they have handy. Implicitly noting the utility of firearms for such attacks, the narrator encouraged potential fighters:
...do not waste your time trying to reinvent the wheel. If you cannot afford one of these [referring to the rifle he's holding], then certainly a simple knife from your local B&Q will do the job.
Recent material from AQ-affiliated jihadi groups have presented lone wolf operations as a legitimate, and effective, tool to register discontent with American global policies. Among the directives for such action issued in 2014, the "Taliban in Khurasan" urged Muslims living in the West to carry out attacks at home as a "counter-drone strategy" in the fifth issue of "Azan," their English-language jihadi magazine. The cover story, which proposed a "Counter Drone Strategy" of domestic terror, noted:
Brothers who are willing to attack in the West! ...The experience that we have gained in the recent past is that the brothers who have the ability to train themselves and covertly act in their respective countries have a greater success rate than those planned from the theatres of Jihad and they carry a huge surprise factor.
The utility of random shootings for lone-wolf jihad have also been an active topic among English and Arabic language jihadi forums and jihadi social networking sites. These recommendations have been hosted on both open-access social networking sites, such as Twitter, as well as password-protected jihadi forums.
A month later, a May 23, 2014 discussion thread on the Shumukh al-Islam and Fidaa Arabic-language jihadi forums titled "Share Your Ideas \\ How is it Possible to Strike America," hosted a wide range of advice for potential lone wolf attacks. Echoing Gadahn's point that the availability of firearms is a boon for jihadis, a discussion participant noted:
Ownership of weapons of many types by an America is a right protected by the Constitution, and this is valid for permanent residents (Green Card holders). There are between 5-7 million Muslims in America, and if only ten thousand, i.e. 0.2%, and it is a very small percentage, and everyone of them does ablution and goes out after dawn prayer and plucks the head of a Crusader with his pistol, ... you can imagine what panic will hit ...
A notable stream of similar advice was also shared on social media in the spring of 2014. Among these messages, on April 2, 2014, a jihadi tweeted recommendations to lone-wolves for targets in the West and ways to carry out their operation. The jihadi, who used the name "Jarrahu al-Saraya," explained that prospective fighters who are unable to come to the battlefield can inflict damage to the enemy at home, and they can "easily" procure weapons in Europe and the United States.
Other calls of alleged fighters in Syria describe regret about not carrying out domestic operations before leaving for the battlefield. These messages are particularly notable given the immense online influence that individual fighters have on open jihadi social networking platforms.
Such messages included one by a purported Canadian fighter in Syria who stated, "I should have done my own solo op in Washington DC instead of coming here tbh [to be honest]."
A day later, an alleged foreign fighter in Syria instructed jihadis to carry out lone wolf attacks in the West instead of traveling to participate in combat. In a series of May 3, 2014 Twitter messages, the fighter, who calls himself "Abu Maryam Englizee," encouraged aspiring fighters to follow the example of the Woolwich attack. On May 28, 2014, Englizee used the Ask.fm social media platform to encourage discontented Western Muslims to "clinch a knife bro and go stab a soldier," and followed up, "its so much easy to kill an enemy of Allah there then here."
Brown is the latest in a series of homegrown terrorists who are inspired by the rhetoric and propaganda of jihadi groups, but who carry out domestic operations without ever leaving the country for battle.
Thus, while Brown's ultimate motivations for his 2014 series of attacks will yet be determined, in articulating a jihadi motivation for the shootings, he is following a playbook that has been heavily promoted by AQ and similar organizations. Brown is the latest in a series of homegrown terrorists who are inspired by the rhetoric and propaganda of jihadi groups, but who carry out domestic operations without ever leaving the country for battle.
While more attention has been paid to the attempts by jihadi organizations, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to distribute instructional manuals that provide step-by-step instructions designed to train individuals to carry out large-scale domestic attacks, the case of Ali Muhammad Brown indicates that jihadi supporters are listening to these messages.
By lionizing the examples of previous lone wolf attackers who have carried out attacks using the weapons they have at hand—such as Nidal Hassan, Mohamed Merah, and Michael Adebolajo—jihadi media groups continue to provoke individuals with access to weapons to engage in random acts of politically-motivated violence.