Lone Wolves?

The Multifaceted Networks Driving Jihadism

A decade ago, an article in Foreign Affairs coined the term, “Protean Enemy” to describe the shape-shifting nature of the Al Qaeda (AQ) threat. A key reason for the terrorists’ malleability, according to its author Jessica Stern, was their innovation of “new style networks,” characterized by a “leaderless” kind of organization. Anyone with the desire to support the group by acting in its name could do so without authorization from a higher authority. Leaders no longer needed to command and organize attacks, but simply to inspire “lone wolves.” This phenomenon was later symbolized with the advent of Al Qaeda’s online Inspire Magazine. In 2010, it featured the article, “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” That the Tsarnaev brothers used a pressure-cooker bomb to attack the Boston marathon was further evidence that the theory had become reality.

Although this paper is not a comment on recent events, it is advisable to note that the case of the Kouachi brothers and their co-conspirator Amedy Coulibaly is rather different. Chérif claimed that he acted in the name of AQ in Yemen. The group later claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo, going as far as to say that it was ordered by the man at the top, Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri himself. Now American officials hypothesize that at least one of the brothers traveled to Yemen, met with Inspire founder Anwar al-Awlaki, and received training and $20,000 in funding.

On the other hand, the level of operational support provided to the Kouachis by “AQ Central” is still under investigation. Moreover, the group praised, but did not claim responsibility, for Coulibaly’s attack. For his part, Coulibaly pledged allegiance to Da’esh (ISIS), though there is no evidence that the group was involved in his attack.

In addition, various local actors and networks can be found along the path to terrorism of the Paris attackers. The Kouachis participated in sessions with a local, self-taught preacher, Farid Benyettou, the leader of the “Butte Chaumont” cell, named after the park in which its members trained. Chérif and Coulibaly developed camaraderie in prison, where the two were further indoctrinated (albeit, by a fellow inmate engaged by AQ to build a terrorist cell in Paris). Finally, there is evidence that online sources may have played a role in Chérif’s planning and radicalization: reportedly, five years before the attack, investigators found several jihadist documents on his computer, including those describing how to carry out attacks and justifying death fatwas.

In short, the Paris attackers were not lone wolves, but it is questionable whether they were fully-fledged AQ operatives. What is clear is that their radicalization and training were driven by networks physical and virtual, transnational and local.

Foreign Fighters

Even before the Paris attacks, growing concerns were raised about the potential that returning jihadists from Syria could perpetrate attacks in their home countries, especially considering that two to three thousand of them were estimated to have come from Western countries as of September 2014.

However, it is worth noting that the Paris attackers had not been foreign fighters. (Chérif was arrested before taking off to fight in Iraq in 2005.) It has even been suggested that one of the reasons that security services were unable to foil the attacks was that they were overwhelmed with tracking Syrian returnees, considered the greatest threat.

All this is not to say that one should not be especially concerned about foreign fighters. Already, multiple attacks planned in Europe by Syrian returnees have been prevented, including in a raid by Belgian police the week after the Paris attacks. Belgium also witnessed the first such attack when a jihadist who had fought in Syria attacked the Jewish museum.

In terms of assessing the risk posed by foreign fighters, it is worthwhile to consider a study by Thomas Heghammer, investigating Islamist terrorist incidences and attempts in Western countries between 1990 and 2010. It shows that no more than one in nine returnees perpetrated attacks. Still, that makes foreign fighting one of the strongest known predictors of involvement in domestic operations. Perhaps more worrisome, the data indicates that foreign fighting makes jihadists more lethal and dangerous: the presence of a foreign fighter increased by a factor of about 1.5 the probability that a plot came to execution and it doubled the likelihood that it killed people.

To explain these results, first, there is a “socialization process” whereby foreign fighters become brainwashed by the jihadist groups, since they may be isolated from dissenting opinions about terrorism while abroad. Second, they may gain an addiction to militarism and an increased comfort level with violence. Third, they may be enlisted into a plot while abroad and agree to it because of their camaraderie and loyalty to the group with whom they have been fighting. Finally, foreign fighting entails training and operational support from list of contacts gained while abroad.

At the same time, Hegghammer has since nuanced his theory: the rate of “blow-back” from foreign fighters depends on where they are returning from. So far, returnees from Syria have not proved as dangerous as those from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The reason is that while AQ Central in those countries actively encouraged Western fighters to return home to perpetrate attacks, there is little evidence that Da’esh is seeking to “weaponize” its fighters in the same way. To be sure, its spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani called on supporters to take revenge against countries currently attacking it. The recent Sydney hostage situation and Coulibaly’s attack show that a couple Da’esh followers have already heeded this call. But Da’esh seems more focused on the “near enemy” in Syria and Iraq than on the “far enemy” in the West. A recent report by the Brookings Institution similarly makes the case that there are various mitigating factors that render attacks by Syrian returnees less likely than imagined by some.

Of course, the problem is that even if only a small minority of returning foreign fighters are dangerous, it only takes a couple guys with Kalashnikovs to wage a deadly attack. Still, there is a need to keep in mind the bigger picture. For one, those who met with AQ Central may be more dangerous than most of those who fought in Syria. Second, local factors can be decisive in the radicalization and operations of terrorists. Indeed, given the track record of prisons, might throwing foreign fighters there pose a problem, especially if they are put together with other criminals whom they could seek to recruit? Rarely are terrorists fully lone wolves, but the networks nourishing them are surely multi-faceted.


Stern (Jessica), « The Protean Enemy », Foreign Affairs, july-august 2003. Lien.

Callimachi (Rukmini ) &Yardleyjan (Jim), « From Amateur to Ruthless Jihadist in France », New York Times, 17 jan. 2015, Lien.

Byman (Daniel) & Shapiro (Jeremy), Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq, Brookings Policy Paper, Number 34, November 2014, 34 p., Lien.

Zamnit (Andrew), « List of alleged violent plots in Europe involving Syria returnees », The Murphy Raid Blog, June 29 2014, Lien.

Hegghammer (Thomas), « Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting », American Political Science Review, February 2013, pp. 1-15, Lien.

Hegghammer (Thomas), « Will ISIS ‘weaponize’ foreign fighters?”, CNN, October 17, 2014, Lien.

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