One could be excused for being a little confused about the recently promoted label: "Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist." Were old-fashioned Al-Qaeda terrorists not inspired by their cause? I confess to being one of the label-pushers during numerous media appearances that sought to make sense of the tragic Boston marathon bomb attacks.
In the early hours that followed the bombings, many noted national security experts weighed in on the likely source of the attacks, pointing to right-wing extremists as the probable perpetrators. I disagreed - primarily because of the terrorist methodology - and over many media engagements argued that what we were looking at was not the act of right-wing extremists, so-called lone-wolf attackers, nor even Al-Qaeda as we know it, but rather, "Al-Qaeda-inspired" terrorists.
Again, this past week, the RCMP apprehended two suspects -- John Nutall and Amanda Korody -- after the duo planted pressure-cooker style IEDs amidst 40,000 Canada Day revellers in Victoria, British Columbia. Fortunately, and to the great credit of Canada's collective law enforcement agencies, the devices had been rendered inert prior to their planting. As the story broke, the RCMP described the pair as Al-Qaeda-inspired, yet with no direct links to international terrorist organizations.
Encouraged by underground support communities, Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists usually act on their own without direct operational control or funding from international terrorist networks. This differs greatly from the 9/11 attacks, which were heavily orchestrated and funded through international terrorist affiliates. In most cases, Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists have little or no direct contact with Al-Qaeda leadership; they see themselves as self-enlisted agents. In many cases, their terrorism aspirations may be intended to seek recognition, glory, or notoriety from their underground communities of support.
As argued by terrorism expert Scott Atran, modern Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists are more often motivated by peer acceptance than ideological persuasion, an assessment that I also recorded in my own work on recruitment and indoctrination into armed groups. This notion has seeded countless counterterrorism efforts that focus on building legitimate alternative outlets for youth who may be exposed to radical messaging.
The shift from large international terrorist plots to smaller self-directed efforts is the result of extremely robust post-9/11 intelligence efforts to detect the movement of people and funds for the purpose of terrorism as well as the controversial, yet effective, US drone strikes against high-value Al-Qaeda leaders.
Forced to adapt, Al-Qaeda began to spread online messages to would-be adherents, asking them to carry out attacks in their homelands -- attacks that could require little planning, little funding, and little preparation. The online Yemen-based magazine Inspire became a forum for promoting this type of low-profile terrorism. Meant to thwart detection, this new strategy was designed to reduce the need for travel, money transfers, and large-scale acquisitions of materials -- the principal means of intelligence tracking. It was the beginning of low-cost terrorism.
No longer did terrorists have to attend so-called training camps; they could prepare hydrogen peroxide bombs in their kitchens (like the London 7/7 bombers) or put nails in pressure cookers (like the Boston bombers). Without the transfer of people, money, or materials, contemporary terrorism had become much more difficult to detect. Moreover, such low-cost means were now attracting a new breed of terrorist, one who need not make any contact with nor be directed by Al-Qaeda leadership; one who need only trumpet the Al-Qaeda brand.
For many would-be terrorists, the Al-Qaeda message has become a flag-of-convenience for them to seek notoriety or glory within their narrow communities of support. As forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer Marc Sageman points out, contemporary Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists are a strange breed, unlike the fanatically religious terrorists of yore. Modern terrorists are often internet lurkers, less religious, and more likely spurred on by acerbic online chat rooms. For others -- as I suspect is the case with the Victoria suspects -- the Al-Qaeda movement provided them an opportunity to step out of the fringes of society while offering them licence to avenge perceived grievances through violence. I am confident that this is closer to the truth than is their interest in Al-Qaeda's message of global jihad and geopolitical redress.
While the new breed of terrorist may operate under the radar of large post-9/11 terrorist tracking mechanisms, counterterrorism programs are quickly adapting. Counter-radicalization and countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts are narrowing in on susceptible groups and communities -- and in particular disenfranchised youth. This is the new domain of counterterrorism: it is no longer who joins violent groups but how they join. As the Victoria example illustrates, counterterrorism teams are finding effective means of uncovering and tracking would-be terrorists within their chosen peer groups. The new arena for counterterrorism and counter-radicalization is at the community level, to help ensure that what inspires youth is not Al-Qaeda's message of hate but rather one of belonging. Canada's thwarting of the Toronto 18, the VIA Rail bomb plot, and the Victoria Canada Day plot suggest the Canada may be ready to lead by example.