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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any institution with which he is affiliated.

Since the retaking of Mosul, Iraq in 2017, and the loss of most of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has lost some of its capacity to recruit Western supporters to come and fight in the Middle East, as well as some of its capacity to send trained operatives back to Europe. They now must rely primarily on supporters living in Western countries to plan and execute attacks. This change of modus operandi and tactics necessitates that law enforcement adapt and respond differently to jihadist attacks. We are already beginning to see such attacks occur. For example, in 2015, we saw attacks in San Bernardino, CA and Columbus, OH; in 2016 we saw attacks in Orlando, FL, and Columbus, OH; and in 2017 an attack in New York City, NY. More recently, a 28 year old man was arrested in Washington, D.C. as he was planning to ram a van into a crowd. Lone jihadists are a specific challenge for law enforcement and require an understanding of their methods and goals to be properly handled.

The French example is therefore an instructivet one. France has been facing attacks since the mid 1980’s and has witnessed the evolution from hijacking and hostage taking (Marignane Airport,1994), to lone operator shootings (Toulouse and Montauban in 2012) to the large scale, Mumbai-style, attacks (November 13th 2015 series of attacks). Due to its large Muslim community, military involvement in the Middle East and Africa, and secular society, France has been targeted by jihadists in more than 30 attacks since 2014. If large scale attacks like the one targeting Charlie Hebdo or the Bataclan have been largely debriefed, they represent only a small minority of the jihadist threats in France. Half of the total of the attacks took place in and around Paris in a dense urban area, while the other half was scattered all around the French territory, sometimes in cities with only a few thousands inhabitants. They were committed by lone jihadist who targeted civilians, military personnel, law enforcement, prison staff, schools, religious buildings, and businesses. From this vast range of attacks, it possible to gain some insight on how these lone terrorists operate, and help law enforcement in the United States and other western countries detect, prevent, and counter potential attacks.

Path to Violence and Disguise

The lone terrorist’s path to radicalization and violence may vary. The first Western Al Qaeda recruits were slowly vetted after months or years of discussion on private online forums, or slowly radicalized in mosques or through acquaintances in the jihadist community. Today, the path to violence is much quicker for the lone jihadist. Their radicalization happens more frequently online, and at a faster pace than their predecessors. From Youtube videos and PDF files, they become accustomed to jihadist propaganda and calls for violence by fellow extremists. The decision to organize an attack usually follows one of two patterns.

The future terrorist is authorized to launch an attack by an online “sheikh”, often a self appointed ring leader, who sanctions the attack. The terrorist and the sheikh will usually have met online, through social media or on instant messaging app such as Telegram. For instance, in the United States, Anwar al Awlaki played the role of sheikh in several attacks, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. In France, an example of such remote-controlled jihad came into form of the 2016 Normandy Church attack where two radicalized teenagers stabbed a priest to death during a catholic mass, following the command of their sheikh, Rachid Kassim.[1]

The future terrorist can also choose to act on his own, without any contact with a terrorist group. This scenario shortens the path to violence for the future jihadist, making detection more difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement and intelligence officers. In the United States, the 2014 Queens hatchet attack on NYPD officers is an example of such a path to violence. France experienced a similar attack when Abdallah El Hamahmy attacked military officers with a machete close to the Louvre museum in February of 2017.

Communications with online sheikhs, or research and reconnaissance effort before the attack, can allow law enforcement to detect and prevent an attack. Others signs of radicalization, such as isolation from friends or family, violent rhetoric, wearing tradition garments, etc.., can also be potential indicators. However, during the preparation of the attack such terrorists usually try to dissimulate their plans, under “taqiya,” the islamic concept of allowing the dissimulation of religious belief in order to avoid detection of a jihadist attack. Jihadists have regularly implemented taqiya in order to cover their tracks and avoid detection by law enforcement officers. For example, some start smoking and may shave their beards, frequent nightclubs, or even stop going to the mosque. These changes in behavior make detection more difficult. Nonetheless, any quick change in attitude or behavior by a suspect with extremist ideology should be investigated.

[1] Rachid Kassim was in contact with the terrorist responsible for the killing of a catholic priest in Saint Etienne du Rouvray, and the assassination of two police officer, Jean Baptiste Salvaing and Jessica Schneider in Magnanville. He was also in contact with the female commando in charge of the fail bombing of Notre Dame in Paris.

Increasingly violent attacks

During the jihadist attacks from between 1980 and 1990, the terrorists used violence as a tool to coerce Western governments into helping their political goal. At that time the indiscriminate use of violence by terrorists was a risk but not a constant feature. Things changed in 2004, when jihadi strategist Abu Bakr Naji published “The Management of Savagery,” an online manuscript describing a new strategy for jihadist groups. Describing the jihad as “violence, crudeness, [...] and massacring”, his advice was then followed by Abu Musab al Zarkawi, “The Sheikh of the Slaughterers”, who created the basis for the rise of ISIS. Zarkawi chose to use graphic violence has a recruitment tool, and is believed to be responsible for the beheading of 26 year-old Nick Berg. Indiscriminate violence became characteristic of jihadist attacks.

The increase in violence is indiosyncratic to the wave of jihadist attack which has impacted France since 2012. Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse and Montauban shooter, attacked symbolic targets (French paratroopers in uniform, and Jewish children in front of their school), recording it all on video and, before being shot by the National Police RAID operators, sending it to the Al Jazeera News channel to be broadcasted[1]. In 2015, Yassin Salhi beheaded his employer before launching an attack on a chemical factory. This level of violence was new to French law enforcement but became a regular feature of jihadist attacks. In 2016 in Magnanville, jihadist Larossi Aballa stabbed to death Jean Baptiste Salvaing and Jessica Schneider, both police officers, in front of their 3 year-old son, before starting a live broadcast were he threaten multiple attacks. He was shot dead by the National Police RAID team.

Expert negotiators in France agree that negotiations have become ineffective during such attacks. Operational intelligence can still be obtained, such as the number of hostages or weapons of the terrorist, while the tactical teams get ready for breaching and taking down the jihadist. However the terrorist will generally not surrender and wants to shock the public by displaying as much violence as possible. This must be anticipated and psychological care must be provided to officers and surviving victims facing determined killers soon after the attack.

[1] The video were never released.

Modus Operandi :

Most of the lone jihadist attacks follow a similar pattern that can be summarized in three stages.

Initial attack and statements: The March 2018, Trebes attack, which left 4 people dead, and 15 injured, is a textbook example of an attack by a lone jihadist. At the beginning of the attack, the terrorist started by opening fire on police officers training, then stole a passing car after shooting both its passengers. He drove for fifteen minutes to a local supermarket, opened fire, killing members of the staff and took the customers hostages. After selecting the target, the lone jihadist usually starts by attacking victims around them indiscriminately while stating the motive for the attack. His objective is to demonstrate the seriousness of the threat he represents and alert law enforcement. The initial loss of life is difficult to prevent, and patrol officers have to be trained to attempt to disrupt the attack as fast as possible before the situation can evolved in a barricaded position. Sometimes, the perpetrators can attempt to reach a different location to commence their barricaded position.

Barricaded position and hostage crisis: At the Trebes supermarket, the terrorist placed three explosives devices by the entrance of the building, while retreating in the back with the hostages. Lone jihadists usually try to avoid engaging in a confrontation with the first law enforcement officers in the early phase of his attack. Moving to a barricaded position allows him to gain media attention and prepare for the final stage of the attack. The lone jihadist usually asks for media coverage in order to broadcast impossible demands (removing all French military personnel from a deployment zone or the release of convicted terrorists). None of these demands matters for the perpetrator as they are a ploy from the perpetrator to get some time to prepare for the final stage of the attack. In the case of the Trebes attack, the terrorist released most of the hostages before deciding to keep a young female cashier as his last hostage. Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame from the French National Gendarmerie, a former special operator, offered to take her place, and allowed the release of the hostage. During his exchange he was able to leave his phone on inside the supermarket and allow tactical officers outside to listen to the terrorist. The use of trained negotiators is critical at this stage to allow the safe release of hostage. Hostages make preparation for the last stage more difficult for the terrorist and it sometimes motivates the terrorist to release them before the end of the attack.

Suicide by cop: In the case of the Trebe attack, the Toulouse GIGN branch, an elite French tactical team, arrived on location and proceed to launch the assault in the supermarket rigged with three explosive devices. They were able to kill the terrorist. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Colonel Beltrame, who had swapped his place with the last hostage, was severely injured by the jihadist and later died in the hospital. The delay caused by the neutralization of the explosives while under fire slowed down the tactical team, which resulted in a speech by the Director General of the National Gendarmerie encouraging the “transmission of skills” from elite groups to local teams around France. The barricaded position and hostage taking by the perpetrator are used by the jihadist to slow the action of law enforcement, and prepare for his last act. His final objective is to die as a “shahid”, an islamic “martyr” while fighting law enforcement officers. By taking hostages and slowing down the process, the terrorist also anticipate drawing in elite tactical teams, such as the French GIGN and RAID, to take the lead in this operation. If the jihadist is hoping for a “suicide by cop” type of situation, he usually tries to avoid being killed hastily by the first responders and aims at a last stand facing what he considers being the elite troops of the “enemy”.

Lone wolf jihadist attacks are a growing concern in Western countries, and law enforcement professional have a responsibility to anticipate and plan for such attacks. France has seen more than thirty such attacks in the last few years and continues to face a growing risk of jihadist attacks. On October 3rd 2019, the Paris Police Department was reminded of the dangers of jihad, when a radicalized police IT specialist stabbed four of his colleagues to death[1]. The experiences of French law enforcement officers are useful and relevant for their counterparts facing a similar threat. Through international cooperation, and by monitoring the evolution of the threat, Western law enforcement officers are more prepared to take on the frontline fight in the new era of terrorism

Alexandre Rodde is a lieutenant in the French National Gendarmerie (Reserve) and a LLM Graduate from the National Security Law Program at The George Washington University. Specialized in terrorism issues, he trains French National Gendarmerie and National Police tactical teams on active shooter events. More info:

[1] He was shot by another police officer and died.

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Unknown member
Oct 26, 2020

We will have other articles for those who want

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