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'Lone Wolf' Terrorist Acts Will Be Used to Justify the Surveillance State

The apparent end of the bogus distinction between groups who are terrorists and individuals who are merely crazy could have troubling consequences for civil liberties.
October 27, 2014, 10:10pm

When Nidal Hassan, the US Army psychiatrist turned jihadist, shot dead 13 people and injured more than 30 at Fort Hood in 2009, his act was not officially deemed one of terror. The Department of Defense controversially classified the mass shooting as a case of "workplace violence"; Hassan had acted alone and could not be linked to any terror groups. Individual actors, it seemed, could not carry out terrorist acts.

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Had the massacre taken place today, would it perhaps have been differently designated? We are, after all, in the era of "lone wolf" terror attacks.

The 24-hour news cycle is never shy to proclaim new "waves," "frontiers," and "faces" of terrorism. Accordingly, following a hatchet attack on NYPD officers and a shooting on Canada's Parliament Hill, the "lone wolf" has been discursively established as the domestic terror threat du jour. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton called the hatchet attack "a terrorist attack, certainly"; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the same of the shooting that left a soldier dead.

New Islamic State video shows hostage John Cantlie allegedly reporting from the ground in Kobane. Read more here.

The phenomenon of individuals committing violent and murderous acts in the name of an ideology is nothing new in the US. The FBI's Operation Lone Wolf investigated white supremacists encouraging autonomous violent acts in the 1990s. Why, then, are we seeing pundits and politicians newly focus on the "lone wolf" category? There's no simple answer, but we can at the very least see that the old binary, distinguishing terror as the act of networked groups versus lone madman mass killings — a distinction that has tacitly undergirded post-9/11 conceptions of terrorism — doesn't serve the latest iteration of the war on terror.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, speaking on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday, suggested that "the Internet, as well as certain specific Muslim extremists, are really firing up this lone-wolf phenomenon." Whether intentionally or not, the Senate Intelligence Committee chair performed a lot of political work with that one comment. Crystallizing "lone wolves" as a key threat domestically helps legitimize the US's current military operation against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. With or without established connections, the Islamic State's far-reaching tentacles of online influence encouraging individuals worldwide cement the group as a threat to the homeland — which is always useful for politicians struggling to legally justify another protracted war. In this way, attributing attacks to homegrown "lone wolves" is more useful for current US political interests than attributing them to madness alone.

The assumption that terror acts were always borne of connected networks problematically buoyed domestic counter-terror efforts that saw entire communities profiled as potential threats.

Which is not to say that "lone wolf terrorist" is a flawed designation for attacks by ideologically motivated individuals. In many ways it seems apt, and any challenge is welcome to the all too basic distinction that imbues group terror with motive while dismissing individual acts as madness. The "lone wolf" straddles the ill-conceived gap between madman and terrorist node. It's an intersection all too complicated for the inexpert punditry of Fox News: "They are terrorist acts, to be sure," Megyn Kelly said about Canadian gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, adding "but this guy was also a nutcase."

Furthermore, the assumption that terror acts were always borne of connected networks problematically buoyed domestic counter-terror efforts that saw entire communities profiled as potential threats. Under the premise that terror networks ran like arteries through US Muslim communities enabled an era of profile-driven preemptive policing that has been nothing short of racist. Entire mosques in New York were designated terrorist organizations to enable police surveillance. The NSA's meta-data collections claim justifiability on the premise that terror was locatable by tracing networks of communication.

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Homegrown extremism in Canada is nothing new. Read more here.

The "lone wolf" phenomenon should at least prompt the questioning of the sort of profile-based counter-terror efforts that assumed terror lurked in any network of Muslims, and that the mass hoarding of communications data was vital to national security. However, the rhetoric surrounding this type of domestic threat already bodes ill for civil liberties. If the hunt for terrorist networks has been plagued by ethnic profiling and overreaching spycraft, an established threat of "lone wolf" attacks gives a defensive imprimatur for unbounded NSA-style surveillance — anyone can wield a hatchet with ideological ire.

As Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul said on This Week, finding such lone actors in advance of attacks is like "finding a needle in a haystack." And as Feinstein said the same day, "You have to be able to watch it, and you have to be able to disrupt them."

As such, the era of the "lone wolf" terrorist does not only spell the end of the bunk distinction between motivated group and deranged individual. It ushers in the dawn of a new era of justification for our totalized state of surveillance and national security paranoia.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard