From 1995 to 2012, more than half of “lone actors” – that is, people who committed acts of terrorism on their own, not as part of a cell or group – have actually been in contact to some degree with either informants or undercover officers. That is the unexpected, alarming summary of Actions Speak Louder Than Words, a study examining 183 people convicted on terrorism charges from 1995 to 2012. Researchers found that of the 39 “lone actors” convicted in that period, 22 had been in contact to one degree or another with either an informant or an undercover agent.
“We’re basically saying lone actors are not really as ‘alone’ as most think,” John Horgan, the lead author of the study, told Inverse in an email. In some of those cases, the would-be terrorist was even pushed along by the government handler. “Lone actors were significantly more likely [than members of a terrorist cell] to be receiving encouragement from an informant.”
The findings suggest that “lone wolves” who have been “self-radicalized” through the internet — a borderline meme thanks to ISIS’s online recruitment efforts — are far less common than media reports or government officials acknowledge. Most attackers believe themselves to be operating as part of a small team, which in turn may have the effect of furthering a plot that the target of the investigation wouldn’t complete on his or her own. The authors acknowledge in the paper that not enough research has been done to draw broad conclusions as to the impacts informants have on terrorism cases, but reporting on the subject has shown many instances where informants were the primary drivers of a plot, either for financial gain or because of their own legal troubles.
Informants and undercover agents regularly develop deep, meaningful friendships with targets, often over a period of months or years. The FBI adopted this strategy reasoning that if the target is susceptible to a fake terrorist recruiter, they would be susceptible to a real terrorist recruiter as well. As a result, many of the would-be jihadists paraded before the nightly news cameras are often unsophisticated and vulnerable, and in many cases suffering from mental illness.
The strategy goes beyond male bonding too. Basit Javed Sheikh, a US national who was arrested trying to fly to Syria allegedly to join the al Qaeda branch there, maintained in court that he was traveling to meet a female Syrian nurse who wanted to marry him. That nurse turned out to be an FBI informant. More recently, Trevor Aaronson broke the story of an FBI honeypot scheme to entice a Michigan man to do jihad.
The increased focus on ISIS’s Twitter presence has led to top government officials to issue dire warnings about the threat posed by jihadist-inspired lone wolves. “I think our most proximate threat are the so-called lone wolves,” James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said on MSNBC in July, 2015. Just days earlier, FBI Director Jim Comey said ISIS posed a larger threat to the US than al Qaeda due to their ability to use “social media in a way to crowd-source terrorism.”
The perceived threat of lone actors is not new, though. Back in 2011, President Obama said the “most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now ends up being more of a lone wolf operation than a large, well-coordinated terrorist attack.”
Since Horgan’s study ends with terrorism conviction from 2012, it doesn’t take into account law enforcement’s ISIS investigations. An ongoing study by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, however, offers valuable insight. The data – which hasn’t been published but was provided to me shows that of the 88 individuals charged in federal court with ISIS-related violations, roughly 57 percent involved undercover agents or informants. Thirty three of the 88 were charged with planning attacks on US soil – as opposed to traveling overseas – and, of those plots, 70 percent involved undercover agents or informants. Nine of those plotters had no co-conspirators other than government agents.
The near ubiquity of informants and undercover agents raises important questions about both the scale of the so-called lone wolf threat, and the extent to which government involvement drives a plot that would otherwise remain an abstraction.
“Is the association with law enforcement an enabler to crimes which otherwise may have rested in the fantasies of disaffected youth, a particularly troubling question when you are dealing with a group of individuals in late adolescents?” asks Karen Greenberg, Director of the Center on National Security. “Could these individuals, one might ask, have been better served by programs designed to divert them towards psychological counseling, rehabilitative programs, and the like?”
To be sure, there is a danger – even a likelihood – that someone in the US will buy a gun, shoot up a mall, and say they were inspired by ISIS or al Qaeda. But given the mind-boggling rate of mass shootings in the United States, the banner news here seems to be that it happens less often than before.
Law enforcement officials argue they are preventing those small scale types of attacks by using undercovers and informants. But even investigators regularly admit there is no coherent profile for who will want to join ISIS either to travel abroad or commit an act of violence in the US. Police attempts at predicting who will commit jihadist-inspired violence, through programs that purport to study radicalization, have been unsuccessful and sometimes have tragic consequences.
The Horgan study acknowledge several limitations. For one, the overall data set is small and making sweeping assumptions based on dozens of cases would be a mistake. Beyond that, the researchers were working entirely with open-source material – that is, public court documents and media reports.
By definition, it’s impossible to know if any of these preventative arrests stopped a future attack that would have definitely taken place without the contact of law enforcement agents. But in the face of this uncertainty, official statements about the danger posed by jihadist-inspired lone wolves should be taken with a grain of salt.