December 2, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: From San Bernardino to Ohio State
On December 2, 2015, Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in a terror attack in San Bernardino, California. Coming just weeks after the terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, the immediate concern for investigators and the general public was that San Bernardino might have been an attack directed by a group such as the so-called Islamic State or al-Qaeda, and that additional ‘cells’ may be present in the U.S. The investigation into San Bernardino—which is still ongoing—has not produced any evidence that the attack was directed by the Islamic State, nor that there had been any direct communication between the attackers and members of the group.
While fears of Islamic State-directed cells have not materialized in the U.S., inspired attacks—involving the tactics encouraged by both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda—continue to present significant challenges for law enforcement and counterterrorism officials. Calls by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda to conduct attacks—coupled with instructions and suggestions on how to do so—have blurred the line between ‘inspired’ and ‘directed’. Thus, law enforcement has had to grapple with the challenges presented by individuals motivated to commit acts of terror who are able to obtain easy instructions on how to kill, but lack the tell-tale signs of direct communication or travel that serve as early warnings to counterterrorism agencies.
On November 28, Abdul Razak Ali Artan drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians on the campus of Ohio State University and then attacked them with a large knife. In the short period before he was shot and killed by a campus police officer, Artan was able to wound 11 people. As with the San Bernardino attack, the initial investigation has not revealed any clear affiliation or communication with a terror group. Officials say Artan may have been inspired by the Islamic State’s call for terror, as well as the words of the late al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki. The tactics used in the attack were consistent with methods specifically called for by the Islamic State: using a car or a knife to attack the West wherever possible. While certain clues and warning signs often seem obvious in hindsight, the Ohio State attack presents yet another indication of the persistent threat of homegrown radicalization based on personal grievances combined with relentless extremist messaging.
While the number of people attempting to travel to Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria has dropped dramatically over the last year, the number of people arrested for attempting to act in the group’s name in the U.S. has increased. This increase is consistent with the Islamic State’s repeated calls for its supporters who cannot travel to attack however and wherever they can. According to an update released on December 1 by the George Washington University Program on Extremism, 18 people were arrested, charged, indicted or sentenced in terrorism-related cases by the U.S. government in November 2016 alone.
The year between the attacks in San Bernardino and Ohio State also saw the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Like San Bernardino and Ohio State, the June terror attack at a nightclub in Orlando also blurred the line between ‘inspired’ and ‘directed’. As seen in recent terror-related arrests and prosecutions, the threat of attacks capable of producing mass casualties despite little to no traditional instruction is one that will persist for years after the fall of Raqqa and Mosul. Anwar al-Awlaki has been dead for over five years, yet his message of bin-Ladinism still resonates for many extremists. Similarly, the Islamic State’s call to terror has no expiration date.
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