A new normal: individual jihad and the West
15 Jun 2016|

The terrorist attack at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12 represents the recent shift in terrorist modus operandi within Western jurisdictions. Preliminary details indicate that the attack was undertaken by an individual without a direct connection to any established terrorist organisation, using readily available weaponry and rudimentary tactics, and who, according to President Obama, ‘was inspired by various extremist information that was disseminated over the internet.’

The adoption of this form of individualised jihad as an overarching premise for operations, coupled with the explicit deployment of the online environment and weaponised content to facilitate and encourage these types of operations, will continue to have a significant impact on terrorism and counter terrorism dynamics in the West into the future.

As an indication of the virulence of these types of attacks, there have been nearly thirty individual or small cell jihadist attacks in the West since 2009, all using low-tech, low capability tactics, and overwhelmingly evidencing various levels of engagement with the online environment prior, during, or in the aftermath of the operation. Nearly two-thirds of these attacks have taken place since the declaration of the so-called Caliphate in June of 2014.

These types of operations represent the new normal of terrorist attacks in the West, and are likely to remain a permanent aspect of the terrorism landscape. The tactics employed afford high levels of operational security, and minimal likelihood of interdiction. The intelligence challenge that these attacks present will continue to confront counter terrorism agencies of the Western democracies for the foreseeable future.

To understand how these types of attacks became the norm of contemporary terrorist tactics in the West, it’s necessary to understand three intersecting drivers. First, there’s the emergence of a strain of strategic thinking within the broader jihadist milieu that legitimised and advocated for the incorporation of individual and small cell operations into broader jihadist practice. Second, the rise of key English speaking propagandists which openly encourage and inspire this type of terrorist activity. Finally, individualised jihad has been underpinned by the leveraging of the online environment as a tool of decentralised command and control. Social media has been used as a means of providing access to radicalising material, as well as tactical and targeting suggestions, coupled with claims of ongoing religious permissibility. The ongoing refinement of this facilitation system, particularly by Islamic State (IS), has led to the increased adoption of the strategy.

The deployment of these tactics is the outcome of an intentional, directed effort by the broader jihadist movement to inspire actors within the West to undertake individual or small cell operations. These types of attacks have become both more frequent and arguably more effective, in part as a consequence of the emergence of what’s known as ‘jihadist strategic thought’.

In particular, the ideas contained in the ‘military theory’ section of Abu Musab al-Suri’s The Call to Global Islamic Resistance advocate the importance and value of the atomisation of jihadist activity. Al-Suri’s work has been readily available online since 2005, but has informed the broader strategic and organisational thinking of much of the contemporary jihadist movement. As Jason Bourke writes in his recent book:

‘If al-Awlaki was the propagandist who did most to shape today’s threat against the West, and al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi are currently the most influential commanders, then al-Suri is the strategist of greatest relevance’.

Most significant in the amplification of the idea of individual jihad was the adoption of al-Suri’s ideas by Anwar al-Awlaki, and the operationalisation of these ideas through the publication of Inspire magazine. The production of a readily accessible, English language publication that simplified the ideology and justifications for jihadist activity broadly, but in particular a brand of DIY terrorism, individualised jihad has had substantial ramifications for terrorist practice in the West.

British citizen Junaid Hussain and Australian Neil Prakash sought to emulate the practices of Awlaki. In a reflection of the significance with which these propagandists are held by counter terrorism authorities, all three have met similar fates. The substantial quantity of English language output by jihadist groups, in particular by IS, is indicative of the value placed on reaching English-speaking audiences.

The online environment has proven a boon for the full operationalisation of the concept of individual jihad—particularly social media. Providing convenient access to a global audience, while providing the opportunity for interactivity and a sense of belonging has proven highly effective in both recruiting individuals to join jihadist groups, but also in encouraging them to act. The online jihadist community was quick to celebrate the attack in Orlando, with IS issuing a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, and using its online radio broadcast to refer to the attacker as ‘one of the soldiers of the Caliphate in America.’

In the aftermath of an attack like the one in Orlando, there’s an inevitable temptation to apportion blame. Whether this targets the broader Muslim community, intelligence and law enforcement failings, or involves exploiting the tragedy for partisan political purposes, it’s both incorrect and counterproductive.

Those responsible for incidents like Orlando, beyond the operatives themselves, are those who have sought to construct a system that encourages and facilitates these types of operations. Ongoing efforts by various agencies of government are slowly and methodically targeting these individuals, and the system they have built, while trying to preserve the principles and values that oursociety was founded upon. There’s value in reflecting back to Prime Minister Turnbull’s first national security statement in November of 2015, and restating that:

‘Our response must be as clear eyed and strategic as it is determined. This is not a time for gestures or machismo. Calm, clinical, professional, effective. That’s how we defeat this menace’.