CST Blog

Online radicalisation. 'Lone wolves' of all stripes.

10 October 2012

This article, by CST's Mark Gardner, is in the September-October 2012 edition of Hope Not Hate magazine. A shorter version is on the Haaretz website, entitled "Jihad, lone wolves and the terror threats facing Jews today":


We already know that Al Qaeda and the extremes of the far right share an obsessive and murderous hatred of Jews. Now, as Al Qaeda’s core is squeezed from physical space into virtual reality, as it becomes as much an idea as a structure, so its use of the Internet is increasingly replicating the experience and practise of its far right counterparts: with local actors seeking to make their own deadly demonstrations of international Islamist unity, threat, power and rage.

Let us begin, not in cyberspace, or Kandahar, but in a red bricked terrace house in Oldham, home to Mohammed and Shasta Khan.

Home grown terrorists

On 19th July 2012, the Khans were found guilty of planning to bomb Jewish communities in nearby neighbourhoods in Prestwich and Salford. They were the first married couple to be convicted of such terror offences: but their deadly plot was only uncovered because Mr Khan assaulted his father-in-law. The police attended and Mrs Khan’s brother warned them, “I think he’s a home grown terrorist”.    

The Khans’ conviction came the day after the bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria; and the day before the shootings of American cinema-goers at a Batman movie. Bulgaria fitted the pattern of international state-backed terrorism (in this case Iran’s shadow war with Israel). The Batman killings also fitted a pattern: the lunatic gunman.

The Khans were not in an international terrorist network and they were not deranged. Rather, they were part of a growing trend that poses serious threats to public safety: modern “Lone Wolf” terrorism, in which our fellow citizens self-radicalise via the Internet in the privacy of their own homes and part facilitated by Internet providers, commercial companies and the like 

The increasingly common pro Al Qaeda model fits what American neo-Nazis developed, long before the Internet, as the “leaderless resistance” strategy. Would-be terrorists must act alone to avoid detection; and their actions will inspire others to follow their lead. Hierarchy is redundant. Ideas and physical attacks are all that matter. Al Qaeda has clearly learnt the lesson: its online English language publication is entitled “Inspire”. This is how it reaches English speakers, those whom it wishes to convert and inspire.    

Leaderless resistance 

In American far right and survivalist circles, “leaderless resistance” ideas crystallised via the Turner Diaries, a book about a race war, sparked by a lone white supremacist terrorist and from which whites emerge triumphant. Published in 1978, it inspired Tim McVeigh’s murder of 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Formerly only available from neo-Nazi groups via shady underground PO Boxes, you can now buy this guide to racist murder and supremacist revolution on Amazon, or literally read it on your Kindle. This is how modern technology facilitates race hatred; and it is how Internet corporations add another few pennies of profit out of the process.

In the Internet age, radicalising propaganda is self-selected online, at the click of a mouse. There is no need to somehow physically enter the world of international terrorism, to somehow catch the notice of your local terrorism recruiter, to somehow disappear off to Pakistan, Idaho, or wherever.

Why bother with convoluted command and control networks that can be penetrated by security services, damaged by drone strikes, or shut down by nervous host regimes, when the Internet already has more incitement and instruction than you could access in a lifetime of terrorist training camps?  

Back in Oldham, investigators found that the Khans had used facebook to obtain the July 2010 issue of Al Qaeda’s “Inspire”, with its feature article, “Build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”. The Khans set to work, using Shasta’s home-based Sassy Hair Studio as cover for purchasing explosive ingredients, mixed in kitchen pots in the back yard. Wires and timers were bought from nearby stores; and then, thankfully, Mohammed Khan attacked his father-in-law.

It is the outward normality of such would-be terrorists that can make them so hard to catch. A headline in The Sun summed it up best: “Corrie-loving Brit turned home-grown terrorist after finding hubby No3 on Muslim dating site”.

It was local Jihadi terrorists, who had formerly been normal everyday people; and who were looking to kill their nearest local Jews.

Radicalised inside a year 

The couple’s honeymoon photographs show the husband as clean shaven and the wife dressed in a T shirt and without a headscarf. Within a year, they were fully radicalised. Coronation Street had been replaced with downloaded beheading videos; and scores of incitement CDs and DVDs had been run off. The only time these terrorists actually had to leave the house was when they conducted at least eleven “hostile reconnaissance” trips to the targeted Jewish neighbourhoods. After all the Internet incitement and indoctrination, seeing Jews in the flesh moved the husband to comment, “we must kill them all”. 

Had the Khans succeeded, their crime would have been bracketed with that of Mohammed Merah, who killed Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and French soldiers in Toulouse in March 2012. Merah’s past shows he is no lone actor reliant upon the Internet, but there is another lesson here: before he was caught, there were many who assumed that Merah was a neo-Nazi.

On the flip side to Merah, back in 1995, the dreadful Oklahoma bombing was originally blamed upon Muslims. More recently, there was the confusion when Anders Breivik’s awful crimes unfolded on 24hr news. Recall how long it took for Breivik to be identified and revealed as being far right, rather than a Jihadist of some sort.

Breivik is another terrorist who appears to have had an Internet obsession. His virtual reality of modern day crusader networks, his array of self-selected propaganda and his bizarre “manifesto” are all prime examples of the manner in which the Internet can move individuals to destroy others.

Uniting the far-right and Jihadists

So, the furthest extremes of far right and Jihadist ideology unite not only in their choice of targets, but increasingly in their electronic modes of propaganda, indoctrination and incitement. The far right have long operated in this manner out of necessity: but the Internet facilitates their hatreds in ways unimaginable to the mad, sad and bad Nazi grouplets of earlier decades; and now Al Qaeda is fast heading in the same direction.

Society needs to decide how seriously it takes the Internet’s role in all of this. We already make the effort when tracking sex crimes against children, and I am unaware of Amazon and Kindle knowingly selling paedophilia: but how many more Breiviks do we need before serious action is taken?          

Read More