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To deal with lone wolf attacks, governments need to rethink their strategies

The primitive nature of the Manhattan attack also makes it much harder to detect beforehand

editorials Updated: Nov 01, 2017 22:44 IST
New York,Manhattan shooting,Manhattan attack
New York Police Department vehicles seen in midtown Manhattan, following a pickup truck attack , in New York, October 31(REUTERS)

The recent attack in New York City is a reminder that the world is now in a second and more difficult phase of countering terrorism. The New York City attack is the seventh lethal attack after 9/11 on US soil linked to the Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Increasingly such terrorism is associated with “lone wolves,” radicalised individuals who do not have direct organisational connections to a terrorist group but are often motivated through the internet. This lack of a physical link has made preventing terrorism much harder. In Europe, for example, interception rates have fallen by half because of the difficulties posed by such terrorism.

After 9/11, a largely military strategy that deprived terrorists of safe havens and targeted the cell structure of groups like Al Qaeda had remarkable success. Terror attacks were few and far between on US soil. The number of jihadis arrested and plots uncovered in the country was in the single figures till 2009. That’s changed now.

The rise of the Islamic State and its use of the internet, encryption and social media has resulted in a significant surge in Islamicist terror attacks across the world, including the US. Studies show that most lone wolf terrorists consume a large amount of radical Islamicist propaganda online. A few have some form of direct communication with an Islamic State sympathiser. Many don’t. And very few have any deeper relationship with a terrorist organisation.

One saving grace, if it can be called that, is that lone wolves inflict far fewer casualties. The terrorist cell that carried out multiple attacks in Paris and Brussels was the work of trained terrorists. Its lethality and sophistication was correspondingly high. The New York City attack is more in line with what has become a more common occurence: the use of a vehicle to knock down people, minimal or no use of firearms or explosives, and the absence of any co-conspirators. Casualties in such attacks, while horrific, are far less than in terrorist attacks in the early 2000s. But the primitive nature of the attack also makes it much harder to detect beforehand.

Already a new wave of counterterrorism measures is being introduced. Tighter controls on vehicle rentals, greater electronic surveillance, limited censorship of the internet and, more controversially, a debate on the preventive detention of suspects and recommendations for laptops and mobile phones to have monitors at the time of manufacture. In considering such actions it is important to begin with the assumption that all terror cannot be stopped all the time. The alternative is an Orwellian police state.

First Published: Nov 01, 2017 19:09 IST