July 7, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Crying Wolf in Terrorism

• Two recent false alarms concerning gunshots at military installations in Washington, D.C. were not terrorism related but do highlight the persistent public fear of lone wolf attacks

• The massive law enforcement response to such incidents is understandable since the threat is uncertain upon arrival; it is the public response and media coverage that is of great interest to extremists seeking maximum exposure

• The widespread reports of an elevated terror threat during the Fourth of July holiday weekend provided no useful specifics but did provide the Islamic State with massive publicity for zero effort

• While calls for the public to remain vigilant are common sense, they need not become an incessant drumbeat, as fears of lone wolf and known wolf attackers can too easily give way to cries of wolf that are taxing and counterproductive.


For a nation told there was an elevated but nonspecific risk of terrorism coinciding with the Fourth of July holiday, reports of gunshots fired on July 3 at the Navy Yard and on July 6 at Walter Reed Naval Hospital, both in Washington, D.C., brought fears of a possible attack. The supporters of the Islamic State have demonstrated far too many times in the last year that they are willing and capable of killing in the group’s name. From Sydney to Ottawa, and Paris to Tunisia, the external attacks have generated understandable concern as well as discussions about lone wolves, wolf packs, and even known wolves. While both incidents in Washington, D.C. were false alarms, they highlight an unexamined consequence of a society living with a persistent and growing fear of terrorism.

The security response to last Friday’s false alarm involved hundreds of first responders, including police and rescue personnel. Such a massive response shows not only a heightened fear but also a sense of history, given that the Navy Yard was the scene of an attack by a lone gunman in 2013 that killed 12 people. This understandable reaction is at the heart of what the Islamic State has done with modern terrorist attacks: a blending of real threats with an exaggerated sense of menace that brings about a disproportionate panic and response.

That neither false alarm was terrorism related did little to blunt the worry that both could have been; indeed both were assumed to have been terrorism by a public told to expect the worst but not told why. The spectacle of massive law enforcement responses, which make sense given the history of ill-advised moderation and hesitation during active shooter situations, plays into the propaganda playbook of the Islamic State. Unspecific warnings to be on the lookout for an attack further add to the false but easily repeated sense that the national security situation is out of control. The nation is actually relatively safe, thanks to a decade of intense efforts by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. No one feels safe, however, given the attacks, tweets, and taunts of a terrorist group long active in Iraq and now in Syria.

This unease stems in part from the way the Islamic State has changed the landscape of terrorism, moving away from spectacular attacks that topple a society’s skyscrapers to banal but brutal attacks that destroy a society’s sense of security. A sound misheard as a gunshot at the premier military hospital in the United States can be assumed to be the start of a Tunisia-style terror attack precisely because such an attack is so easy to pull off. Shooting tourists on a beach in Tunisia or in an office in Paris means no one feels safe, even if no one is actually threatened beforehand.

The recent false alarms inadvertently fit into a larger pattern that include seemingly random bomb threats to commercial passenger flights. Disruption is as important for terrorist groups as death, and there will be more such threats against travel and tourism in this new age of terrorism. Bomb threats that disrupt nearly as much as a real bombing are irresistible to publicity-addicted groups such as the Islamic State. As its internal situation comes under threat, its external efforts will increase. The group will gladly accept people crying wolf in its name as much as it accepts lone wolves acting in its name. A persistent level of perceived threat allows this approach to succeed where it should fail.


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