There is no single solution to stop “lone wolf” attacks. However, the recent assault in New York City and last year’s violence in Orlando and San Bernardino reveal important information about both the perpetrators and the paths that led to their rampage. Terrorists are individuals with deep-seated personal, political, or ideological grievances, who are driven towards violence and provide little to no warning before killing innocent people.
The majority of those who commit lone wolf attacks purchase weapons legally. These perpetrators start out as “ordinary people,” but along the way they are radicalized to become homegrown terrorists. In these cases, even the most restrictive immigration or gun control policies would fail to prevent them from carrying out their attacks.
Take, for instance, Sayfullo Saipov, who arrived in the U.S. from Uzbekistan over seven years ago but was inspired by ISIS only recently. Even his wife appeared to be shocked and horrified by his recent transformation from a father of three to a murderer of eight civilians in New York City almost overnight.
In the wake of these horrific acts of violence, politicians use the opportunity to advocate their own policies, like extreme vetting, gun control legislation, bans on assault rifles, background checks, or better access to mental health resources. However, even if all of these measures were in effect, they would still fail to deliver a solution for federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to prevent lone wolf attacks. Preventing these attacks requires online initiatives designed to find, engage, and assist vulnerable individuals.
While there are no clear solutions, authorities in Canada and the U.K. have recently embraced the Internet’s role in inspiring radicalization. However, more novel approaches need to be implemented. Social media analysis is the key to identifying high-risk individuals and allowing officials to pinpoint, monitor, and predict changes in behavior.
Social media has made it incredibly easy for terrorist organizations to spread their insidious ideologies and increase membership globally. These groups prey on marginalized people by reinforcing radical views and inspiring online contacts to pursue violent actions. Their sites are “echo chambers” that allow vulnerable individuals like Sayfullo to vent their frustrations and find common ground with others, normalizing their extremist beliefs.
As a short-term countermeasure, governments block websites, shut down accounts, and use counter-messaging strategies to engage high-risk individuals the same way terrorist organizations do. But these activities are not enough. They need to be reinforced by cyber warfare efforts that deploy resources into the dark web, hacker networks, and hidden IPs to root out malicious networks that aim to entrap vulnerable people.
Increasing levels of Islamophobia and xenophobia, manifested in both pubic rhetoric and government policies, should be countered with targeted communications strategies that use real-time, crowd-sourced information from the affected public. As a society, our focus must be on improving relations between immigrant and non-immigrant groups and reducing the likelihood that vulnerable individuals will turn to terrorism.
At the same time, improving relations between law enforcement and at-risk populations is crucial to stemming homegrown extremism. Individual citizens, online forums, and social groups are likely to illuminate behavioral changes that provide indications and warnings of a potential lone-wolf attack. Civilians must feel comfortable turning to the police for help. Again, social media provides the answer. It creates a direct line of communication for police to listen, understand, and act on important issues and activities.
Law enforcement should take care, however, that the focus remains on public safety, rather than on hard and fast anti-terrorist measures. These measures typically perpetuate negative perceptions and reinforce the isolation and marginalization of social outcasts or immigrants, when what they need most is a sense of belonging.
Homegrown extremism and lone wolf attacks are growing in frequency and magnitude, becoming a national security issue which requires a long-term, systematic, population-centric strategy to combat. Current countermeasures reflect weak guesswork and feeble attempts to play catch up. If the current Administration is going to spend trillions on physical and technical solutions for homeland security, it must direct a portion of these funds towards strategies that actively monitor, predict, and mitigate terrorist threats from online forums.
Editor’s note: This post was co-authored by Haley Allen, a research analyst at ENODO Global, Inc., a risk advisory firm that conducts population-centric analysis to solve complex social problems in dynamic cultural environments. View the original post here.