Terrorism experts once would have quickly put the “lone wolf” label on Khalid Masood, the man who drove through a crowd on an iconic London bridge recently and then tried to slash his way into Parliament with a knife. The British-born Masood had apparently not traveled to terrorist-held territory in the Middle East. Top British officials also said there is no evidence that he had met or associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), though the group later claimed credit for the four lives lost in the attack.
But ISIS’ ability to leverage social media and instant messaging without detection is making law enforcement suspect that terrorists who may first appear to be operating alone are instead getting online guidance from afar to carry out destruction. This is a grim new reality that the Trump administration needs to rapidly factor in as it weighs the future — and funding — of the nation’s fledgling efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE).
ISIS, which has seen its geographical strongholds shrink, is apparently switching to a chilling new “remote control” model to foment violence. Would-be jihadis are told to stay put in their home countries. Then, terrorists guide them through an actual attack without ever physically meeting or talking. “The ‘virtual planner’ model has helped transform lone attackers who rely heavily on the internet from the bungling wannabes of a decade ago to something much more dangerous today,” concluded Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in a new Foreign Affairs article headlined “Lone Wolves No More.”
British officials are still trying to determine whether ISIS guided Masood. Officials have demanded access to his information from WhatsApp, the instant messaging software Masood used. The Trump administration should follow the investigation closely but not wait to act. Neglecting countering extremism strategies, which aim to prevent recruitment in the United States, is not an option when terrorists are increasingly adept at weaponizing online communications.
So far, there have been too few statements from the White House about the direction CVE programs will take in the Trump administration. Minnesota, of course, has a particular stake in this. ISIS and other groups have preyed on young people from the state’s Somali-American community. But the rise in right-wing extremism is also reason for robust support of CVE efforts. “Law enforcement agencies across the country express at least as much concern about political violence carried out by antigovernment extremists as they do about Islamist extremists, if not more so,” according to a new report from the respected Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The report takes a “best practices” approach. The overall strategy is one that will seem familiar to Minnesotans. Countering terrorism isn’t just about arrests and interdiction. It requires a preventive medicine approach to build resilience in vulnerable communities — a strategy that former U.S. Attorney Andy Luger championed.
A critical component of what the report calls a “public health” prevention approach are youth and community programs led at the local level. It also recommends robust funding for these programs, as well as elevating CVE leaders within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Editorial Board also saw merit in the report’s recommendations to give federal health and human services agencies a higher-profile role in CVE efforts. The agencies provide services that will play a critical role in building resilient communities. It also may help address concerns by some, especially in the Somali-American community, that these programs’ close links to homeland security discourage participation.
Minnesota has been a national pioneer when it comes to CVE, but it can’t do it alone, especially as technology allows terrorists to wield influence from afar. The state needs the Trump administration to be an ally, not an obstacle.