A seemingly all-American, well-adjusted young man of Arab and Muslim roots goes haywire and shoots innocent marines in Chattanooga, killing five service men. As of writing this, there has been no direct link connecting the gunman to any terror organization such as the Islamic State (ISIS), and none has claimed it as one of their own.
How the landscape of terrorism has changed in the last fourteen years since 9/11. Once-upon-a-time we used to associate major radical Islamist terror attacks with a group of creepy-looking, highly-organized, well-funded men in thick beards and long robes, huddled in a dark cave somewhere that ends with “stan” for months or years prior, plotting cataclysmic and dramatic acts of terror to bring the rest of the world to its knees. And when the act of terror went down, they were quick to claim the glory. This was the predictable Al Qaeda business model, until ISIS came around and disrupted the whole terror industry with something even more insidious – the crowdsourcing of terror.
ISIS has figured out a unique aspect of why terrorism is such an effective tool in terrorizing the rest of us. Essentially, it doesn’t matter how intricate or many years in the making a terror attack is: any death toll is sufficient to rattle the public and advance their brand name to win more supporters. Rather than exclusively investing directly in planning and executing highly visible acts of terror, ISIS and its proxies are also nurturing another long-term project to crowdsource terrorism from lone wolves or smaller groups across the world. By honing their brand and ideology in a manner that makes it sexy and highly appealing to disenfranchised millennials, the new HQ of terrorism has embraced social media in a big way as a primary tool to quietly radicalize a new generation of would be terrorists, who could ultimately strike of their own accord, irrespective of any direct contacts with command central. Thing of groupies who take it upon themselves to promote their favorite rock band.
From the perspective of a terrorist organization like ISIS, this is a winning proposition. Not focusing on or investing heavily in the operational side of terror attacks frees the nerve center of the organization to focus more on consolidating its hegemony by expanding its geographic territories, enriching its coffers, and bringing large swathes of the Arab word to its knees as it reverts the region back to the dark ages. Its communication and social media arms on the other hand become the main catalysts of winning the hearts and minds of its critical mass of radicals and would-be active terrorists, at arguably a fraction of the cost of directly orchestrating terror.
The Chattanooga shooting is not the first of these types of unilateral attacks, and it certainly won’t be the last. In 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan, a US Army Major serving as a psychiatrist, murdered 13 and wounded 29 in Fort Hood, Texas. He claimed to be acting alone, inspired by Jihadist ideology. In 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers executed the Boston marathon bombs that killed three and injured 180 people. A note written by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the boat where he was captured said the bombings were retaliation for US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan against Muslims, once again inspired unilaterally and not as part of a complex terrorist network.
The appeal of radical Islamic ideology is also not limited to your archetypal young Muslim male, but has crossed over to women, as in the case of the three British teen girls who escaped their quaint suburban lives in the UK last February to join ISIS in Syria. And its not even limited to Arabs or Muslims either, as in the case of ‘Alex,’ the “lonely young American” Sunday school teacher in rural Washington State who was converted to Islam through online conversations she had with a British man.
I have argued before that winning the war on terrorism will require us to defeat radicalization first, and nothing exemplifies this need more than this onslaught of radicalization by proxy. No matter how healthy your counter-intelligence budget is or how alert and well trained your security agencies are, it will be almost impossible to thwart these crowdsourced acts of terror undertaken by individuals or small groups of individuals where most of the planning occurs in their heads with little to no trail that could trigger the right alarm bells. To thwart the crowdsourcing of terrorism, we need to beat the master terror organizations at their own game and engage in a massive counter-radicalization program that touches all aspects of life including education, social media, traditional media, and even faiths. And we cannot rely on governments to do this for us, because that’s not what bureaucracies are positioned to do best. Corporations, religious establishments, the entertainment industries, foundations, intergovernmental organizations, and even influential citizens of the world must all pool their resources and launch a multi-pronged, long-term global counter radicalization project before it’s too late.