Not now. No centralized control is needed. Solo jihad is in fashion.
Have a grievance? Say, Western intervention in Syria’s civil war? Or a supposed insult to Islam? Or disgust at the social behavior of non-believers that undermine Islamic purity? Don’t wait. Act on your own. Kill.
The grand promoter of this contemporary jihad practice is Mustafa Abdul Qadir al-Set Mariam, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri. Al-Suri is a one-time al-Qaeda operative captured by the CIA in Afghanistan several years ago, turned over to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and released into parts unknown in 2012. His innovations, which he has laid out in extensive writings, include critiques of al-Qaeda’s hierarchical structure and justifications for persecuting Christians in Syria.
For al-Suri, potential for holy war exists wherever there is a willing Muslim. No connection to, nor orders from, an established terror group is necessary. A prime target, directly or indirectly, is the US. “Any Muslims who wish for jihad and resistance can participate in this battle against America in his country or anywhere else,” he once wrote.
Al-Suri offers several helpful tips that are relevant to the background of recent terror attacks in the United Sates. All are available online. He tells would-be perpetrators not to stand out in their alien society. He says they should live a normal life, go to work and trust only closest associates, preferably members of their own family. They should disguise themselves to obscure religious roots, if necessary; even wear a cross and avoid going to mosques.
If portions of that profile sounds familiar, they should: San Bernardino assailants Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, basically match al-Suri’s vision of dream terrorists. He was a county worker; she a new mother. They fit into their neat suburban neighborhood and didn’t talk a lot; he liked kids. They even let people they would soon kill throw a baby shower for them. (By the way, the San Bernardino couple did not necessarily intend to leave their six-month old an orphan. They planned to escape by blowing up the San Bernardino building by remote control as they fled. The bomb just didn’t go off. Al-Suri has suggested that suicide is not the preferred end to a jihad assault.)
Al-Suri’s ideal profile also fits the Tsarnaev brothers who detonated a homemade bomb at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Before his eventual capture, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two bombers, went so far as to resume his normal, public life after the attack by visiting his university for a few days, working out at the school gym and attending a party with some of his soccer buddies.
The unassuming profile is in harmony with the killer of four Marine recruiters in Chattanooga last May, Mohammad Abdulazeez, who was described as an “all-American, small town high school athlete.” Same with Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who shot and killed 13 people at Ft. Hood Texas in 2009. He was just doing his job and didn’t attract FBI attention even though he corresponded by email with an al-Qaeda propagandist.
President Obama’s post-San Bernardino speech tried to answer the threat posed by solo-jihadists, at least in part. He urged Americans not to stigmatize “millions of patriotic Muslim Americans” and “enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” This certainly makes sense when one recalls that the Paris bombers hatched their attacks in an alienated Brussels neighborhood, cut off from mainstream Belgian society. It is probably no coincidence that a segregated and impoverished Somali community in Minneapolis has been a fountainhead of volunteers for jihad abroad.
Obama talked about Muslim responsibility to confront “extremist ideology” within their communities. Obama didn’t specify where these ideology originates, though every Muslim and perhaps Obama himself knows: Salafi and Wahhabi branches of Islam. Adherents of these sects have been in the forefront not only of international holy war, but suppression of non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East and of Muslims they consider heretical if only because they are uncommitted to jihad.
It would help if Muslim leaders used Islamic texts and commentary to fight these ideological sources. Plenty of Islamic writings and spokesmen oppose the ultra-conservatives, although liberal Muslims are frequently tarred as stooges of the West. But this is aq long-term project.
But what to do about the San Bernardino killers, or the assailants in Boston, Chattanooga and Ft. Hood? They all hid their jihad ambitions even from fellow Muslims, it appears. All relied on traditional American live-and-let live tolerance as a perfect environment to prepare their attacks.
So that leaves law enforcement. Since 9/11, most expectations of terror assaults have centered on big metropolises like New York or Los Angeles. But San Bernardino and its predecessors in Boston, Chattanooga and Ft. Hood suggest that the jihad front has reached what is sometimes called the American heartland.
This likely means intensified pressure on police and citizens to be on the lookout for Main Street solo jihadists. Under guidelines for a country-wide information-sharing program known as the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, everyone is supposed to be alert to “observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning associated with terrorism or other criminal activity.”
That’s a sad sacrifice for our free-wheeling American life, but we are in al-Suri’s world now: the world of the terrorist next door.