London's gruesome attack and the rising threat of lone-wolf terrorism

Does the world have to worry about a new wave of Muslim extremists who are inspired by al Qaeda but working alone?

Police and forensic officers work near the scene of the alleged terrorist attack, in which an off-duty British soldier was brutally murdered in broad daylight.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

British intelligence officials are treating Wednesday's brutal murder of an off-duty soldier on a London street as an act of terrorism by lone wolves. The suspects are believed to be Islamist extremists inspired by al Qaeda but with no formal ties to any organized group. Similarly, the Boston Marathon bombing suspects — the Tsarnaev brothers — were believed to have had contact with radical Islamists, but plotted the April attack on their own.

With al Qaeda's leadership and network severely weakened by more than a decade of war with the U.S. and its allies, do lone wolves now pose the greatest threat to Western cities?

The U.K.'s intelligence service, MI5, has long feared that lone-wolf terrorists pose a major danger. And Tom Whitehead, security editor at Britain's Telegraph, notes that this danger is one that even experienced counter-terrorism experts are essentially powerless to stop. "The nature of the new threat is often such attacks can come out of nowhere," Whitehead says, "with no network or obvious plot for MI5 or the police to pick up on in advance."

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The reason for that is that lone wolves don't do things intelligences services can spot, such as contacting known terrorists or visiting countries where al Qaeda has training camps. They simply get radicalized by jihadist internet sites and cook up their own plots, then strike without warning. Clive Irving says at The Daily Beast that it's possible the London attackers — who struck in broad daylight and then stuck around to declare war while witnesses videotaped them with cell phone cameras — was just a one-off. But, he said, it could also be the West's new worst nightmare.

The two assailants could, indeed, just be a couple of deranged freelancers. But the guidance British ministers have been giving reporters assumes something much graver, a form of terrorism so unsophisticated and amateur that it can't be detected by existing surveillance methods.The fact that the wild, bloodied harangue to camera was delivered by a black man with no trace of a foreign accent — indeed, in an accent that seemed to originate in south London in particular — suggests homegrown militants, perhaps men radicalized via the Internet, through a form of widely dispersed propaganda rather than targeted brainwashing. [The Daily Beast]

But is this really lone-wolf terrorism? Tom Chivers at Britain's Telegraph warns that calling this a new and effective form of terrorism — instead of treating it as the kind of murder that happens every day in big cities — might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Giving these killers a soapbox for the religious zealotry, Chivers says, will just make other extremists want to follow their example.

The concern is that other people, other troubled young Muslim men, will see this, see the publicity it is getting, the impact it is having on the nation's leaders, and think: that works, that's the way to a horrible form of global celebrity, that's the way to get my face on the front pages. As far as I understand it, al Qaeda isn't really an organization any more, it's a sort of ideal. Any thuggish youth with internet access or even, it seems, a cleaver and a Ford Fiesta can commit an act of brutality and portray themselves as fighting for the Caliphate or trying to drive troops out of Afghanistan. [Telegraph]

So what's the best way to respond? The editors of the London Evening Standard suggest that we all ought to show the world that the terrorists — whether they were lone wolves or part of an al Qaeda cell — can't win. Some Britons are proposing that soldiers should not wear uniforms in public, so they won't be targeted, but that's the wrong approach, the Evening Standard says. Investigators believe the off-duty victim was singled out because he was wearing a T-shirt from Help for Heroes, a charity that helps British soldiers wounded at war. People should wear those widely to show which side they are on, the editorial says.

We should redouble our efforts to ensure soldiers feel safe and valued; the notion that there are areas where they are abused or assaulted is repugnant. This attack was unprecedented in brazenness and savagery but London is too civilized a city to respond except with compassion and solidarity. [London Evening Standard]

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.