The ISIS Effect & Tackling a Lone Wolf
Written by: Stephen G. Metelsky, M.A.
To read the edited/published version in Blue Line Magazine – click the link below:
Terrorism & Technology
The acronym is ISIS – the Islamic State, Iraq, and Syria. They are likely the most dangerous terrorist group to date in history. A group of highly military trained jihadists, with extremist ideologies involving destroying the West and attacking anyone in their way, particularly representations of government – such as military personnel and police officers. Given their access and possession to weapons of potential mass destruction, likely one of the most dangerous weapons ISIS has at their disposal is their ability to utilize digital social media to produce and release images that will intimidate, terrorize, and create a hysteric climate across the globe. ISIS is also adept at using social media, attempting to attract, influence and persuade some people towards radicalization and joining the jihadist cause through their technologically savvy propogandist messages strewn across the internet in several languages almost daily in various digital forms.
The violent videos projected across the globe via social media of ISIS soldiers beheading prisoners is by far the most blatantly constructed graphic images ever strewn across digital media. ISIS utilizes social media to fulfill two goals. The first, is to release their terrorist intentions to the world, capturing their murderous mantra with demonstrable, and heinous ferocity, in professionally produced graphic videos. The second, is to utilize social media to spread their extremist jihadi propaganda to not only recruit potential jihadists, but to create an aura of hysteria built on fear and paranoia across the world that a terrorist attack is imminent at anytime, anywhere. One of the main facilitators to the rise of ISIS is how they manufacture and manipulate social media to proliferate their propagandist messages to potential target audiences across the world. 1
ISIS is comprised of highly trained and educated individuals, some specifically tasked with recruiting potential new jihadists into their organization via digital media. The prolific ISIS propaganda targets and reaches an audience comprised of varying age, gender, culture, and countries of origin. 2 Having the ability to reach a worldwide audience with the strokes of a few computer keys has been an extremely effective media tool to recruit members into their terrorist organization, in the absence and proximity of being present in ISIS territory. There have been several documented cases of individuals being radicalized by ISIS mainly through their online terrorist propaganda that has prompted them to travel abroad to fight as a jihadist. Yet, ISIS utilizes an alternate form of terror attacks through their persuasive media tentacles across the globe, the seeds of terror being planted in the minds of potential radical converts whose only exposure and knowledge of ISIS has been through social media access.
“Lone Wolf” Attacks in Canada
In 2014-2015 ISIS recruiters built on this alternate form of planting and implementing the seeds of terror across the world with a new marketing message for their audiences via digital social media. The extremist campaign encouraged newly radicalized members to represent and serve the caliphate in their own home countries, without the need to travel abroad to fight for ISIS on their own turf. ISIS specifically encouraged individuals to carry out a terrorist attack in the west on their behalf. 3 This is what came to be known as the “lone wolf” terrorist ideology. A ‘lone wolf’ is an individual inspired by ISIS but acting independently without the groups support or direction. 4
A majority of the ‘lone wolf’ radicalized individuals have never travelled abroad, nor have they met any members of the terrorist organization. Yet, the ramifications of this terrorist propaganda media message would have dire consequences world wide, with several “lone wolf” attacks being carried out across North America and Europe between 2014 to present. Most of the incidents involved individuals who became radicalized through social media contacts and ISIS videos and propaganda. In 2014 there were two high profile ‘lone wolf’ incidents that occurred in Canada. The circumstances involved two tragic incidents of radicalized individuals, both of Canadian descent, who carried out separate horrific incidents, hailed as “lone wolf” attacks, inspired and influenced by the digital media propaganda produced by ISIS.
The first incident in 2014 involved a radicalized Canadian citizen who decided to run down warrant officer Patrice Vincent and a second soldier in the province of Quebec, mortally wounding Vincent. The killer was Martin Couture-Rouleau, a ‘lone wolf’ who identified with the ISIS terrorist ideology, particularly in the year leading up to this tragic event, as his descent into the dark web of terrorist propaganda inspired him to travel abroad and fight as a jihadist and die as a martyr. His passport was eventually seized, leading the radicalized lone wolf down the path of committing a terrorist atrocity on his home turf – Canada.
The family of Couture-Rouleau later claimed that his behaviour had drastically changed leading up to the tragic events, as well as his appearance – donning Islamic clothing and growing facial hair. He was also upset with the Canadian government regarding their approach and stance on ISIS. In the aftermath, it was discovered Couture-Rouleau had been spending a significant amount of time on the internet, including viewing jihadist/ISIS propaganda messages and videos via his Facebook page. Like most lone wolves, terrorist events and/or spree shooters, the planning and premeditation typically involves the knowledge that they will die during the event; precisely what occurred during this ‘lone wolf’ incident as Couture-Rouleau was fatally shot by the police. The troubling aspect involving individuals becoming radicalized on their own, in tandem with succumbing to the Islamic terrorist rhetoric, is the notion that they will be recognized and rewarded for the tragic circumstances as a ‘martyr.’
The second incident in 2014 also involved another radicalized Canadian citizen who shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo while he stood guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Ontario. He was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, an individual with a troubled past, involving prior contact with the criminal justice system and speculation of lingering mental health issues and substance abuse. Yet, it was evidently clear Zehaf-Bibeau was devoted to Islamic rhetoric and motivated by political ideology. The video recordings he subsequently produced and documented, confirmed the fact Zehalf-Bibeau was a radicalized and articulate individual with a staunch political and ideological stance, a viewpoint clearly not pro-Canadian.
After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a Canadian passport, to facilitate travelling abroad to Syria to fight for the jihadist cause, Zehaf-Bibeau opted to formulate an alternative plan entailing a terroristic ‘lone wolf’ attack on Canadian soil, inspired by, but not under the direction of ISIS. The attack began when Zehaf-Bibeau drove towards Parliament Hill in a rented vehicle, void of license plates. After the tragic, unprovoked fatal attack on Corporal Cirillo, the shooter stormed the interior of Parliament Hill and died in a hail of gunfire moments later near the Hall of Honour. Both ‘lone wolf’ Canadian terrorist incidents in 2014 epitomize how two Canadian born, radicalized citizens succumbed to the Islamist rhetoric and ISIS terrorist ideology, opting to carry out terrorist ‘lone wolf’ attacks in their home country as per the directions ISIS provided via digital social media.
What are the root causes that propel these individuals to carry out these atrocious, violent criminal acts? Are the motivating criminal behaviours fuelled by their ideological beliefs or triggered by a mental health psychosis, or a combination thereof?
Psychosis versus Extremist Ideological Beliefs
During the aftermath of any tragic event, albeit a terrorist ‘lone wolf’ attack or a ‘spree shooting’, investigators and researchers vehemently attempt to discern the sequence of events that led a person to commit these heinous, atrocious crimes to identify additional evidence and the motivators that propelled these perpetrators to do what they did. At times, the public perception or collective conscious of society presumes the terroristic or spree shooter was operating under duress of some underlying psychotic disorder that was the motivating factor behind the crimes they committed. As difficult as it is to discern the internal motivators of killers, whether influenced by internal psychosis or internalized beliefs, the persuasive power of people’s extremist ideological beliefs can propel them to commit these ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks, in the absence of a psychotic mental illness.
It is difficult to identify and discern if psychosis was a contributing factor and motivator in the two homegrown Canadian ‘lone wolf’ terror incidents. There is still some lingering debate about this contentious issue, particularly with Ottawa based terrorist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. However, the video messages he produced reveal an articulate well-spoken individual, appearing to be a mentally balanced individual whose behaviour is more apt and influenced by the social external influencers of ISIS, which molded his internal extremist ideological beliefs, thus forming the premeditators for future criminality.
Similarly, Timothy McVeigh, the American responsible for the largest homegrown terror attack in the United States with the bombing of an Oklahoma federal building in 1995. The motivators for McVeigh did not evidently appear to be rooted in any form of psychosis or mental disorder as he had been deemed competent to stand trial. He was solely motivated by his extremist ideological beliefs, based on anti-government resentment stemming from the government intervention during the Waco, Texas standoff in tandem with his support for the supremacy movement in the United States. This tragically culminated in the loss of 168 lives in Oklahoma on April 19, 1995 – planned on the anniversary of the Waco incident and a day before the birthday of Adolf Hitler on April 20th. The date selected for this attack was not a coincidence. Anniversary dates of previous tragedies may sometimes serve a pivotal role in the premeditated mind of a potential terrorist and/or spree killer when they are planning an attack.
Most of these terroristic, spree type attacks involve perpetrators with internal ideological beliefs so strong, albeit in the absence of a mental illness, that they are willing to act out in the most extreme way, culminating in what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders terms – an ‘extreme overvalued belief.’ 5 Tahir Rahman, an assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Missouri school of Medicine defines this ‘extreme overvalued belief’ as: “a belief that is shared by others and often relished, amplified, and defended by the accused. The individual has an intense emotional commitment to the belief and may act violently as a result of that belief.” 6 The discussion of psychosis and ideological beliefs both involve internalized processes that may be difficult precursors for investigators, friends, and family to identify before tragedy strikes. However, there are some external indicators and commonalities that many of these perpetrators exhibit and share that need to be proactively examined, investigated, and inspected with a scrutinizing approach.
The Contagion Effect
When ISIS was actively promoting the ‘lone wolf’ ideology through a social media marketing campaign in 2014 it is difficult to discern if the terrorist organization anticipated the ripple effect their ideology would have in North America and Europe – specifically pertaining to the contagion, or “copy-cat” effect. For example, the two Canadian lone wolf terror attacks in Ottawa and Quebec occurred within two days of each other on the 20th and 22nd of October 2014. The factual evidence stemming from these two tragic instances confirms that both perpetrators were influenced and motivated to commit these violent actions due to their extreme ideological beliefs, rooted in Islamist rhetoric and propaganda-laced social media, produced by ISIS.
Both perpetrators experienced difficulties with their Canadian passports, forcing them to buy into the ISIS promoted ‘lone wolf’ ideology of instigating a terror attack on their home soil. It is a difficult theory to assert, but the contagion effect would suggest the media exposure surrounding the terrorist attack on October 20, 2014 in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec may have propelled Michael Zehaf-Bibeau to conduct his terrorist, murderous intentions two days later in Ottawa, Ontario. There is no doubt Zehaf-Bibeau was going to act on his extreme ideological jihadist beliefs in the form of a Canadian terrorist attack, but his plans may have been expedited due to the massive media exposure directed towards the Quebec ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack.
Pertaining to media contagion, trauma psychologist Dr. Robert Butterworth suggests: “you take a person who has that predisposition. You put them in an environment where the media shows these things (violence) and it’s like a triggering effect. The media doesn’t create, it triggers these people with the disposition.” 7
Zehaf-Bibeau possessed the extremist ideological disposition to carry out a murderous terror attack. The proximity of these two Canadian ‘lone wolf’ attacks to each other suggests the media exposure on October 20th, 2014 may have triggered the Ottawa attacks two days later. The Columbine shooters, both obsessed with Timothy McVeigh, perpetrated the mass shootings at their high school on April 20th, mirroring Hitler’s birthday and anniversary of Waco, Texas, and the Oklahoma bombings. Another tragedy specifically planned to occur on a significant, yet tragic historical date. With the intense media coverage of the Columbine shootings, eight days later in Taber, Alberta another school shooting occurred, propelled, and motivated by the contagion or ‘copy-cat’ effect.
The troubling aspect to the contagion effect is the rippling effect of motivating other potential perpetrators viewing the repetitious media coverage of a violent event, with either an extreme ideological belief or underlying psychosis (or a combination of both), to act out in a violent way due to the media exposure of another violent tragedy. The contagion effect may trigger a person to act out violently who is suffering from a form of psychosis alone, without them even harboring extreme ideological beliefs affiliated to ISIS.
Precursors of Radicalization
It is very difficult for investigators to predict when a ‘lone wolf’ terror attack will occur, because most times they are not privy to the internal and external signs being exhibited by the potential perpetrator because nothing about them overtly places them on the radar as a potential ‘person of interest.’ Most perpetrators have a clean criminal record. It cannot be overstated why the family, friends, coworkers, peers et al. of potential extremists need to be proactively vigilant with recognizing, identifying, and reporting potentially troubling signs that may pinpoint an extreme ideological shift with a specific person’s mindset.
The following precursors, in no way represents a full, comprehensive list of specific descriptors to be cautious of when identifying a person who may be susceptible to, or is becoming radicalized. However, an increase in the number of precursors identified and associated with a specific person would warrant further inspection and monitoring et al. The following may be some of the common precursors to be cognizant of, including, but not limited to the following list:
• May not have a criminal record
• Possible onset or increase in alcohol and/or drug consumption
• Fluctuation in mood & overall demeanour
• Cognitive reasoning becomes more extreme (example: ‘anti-government’)
• Conversion to Islam from original family religious background
• Verbal utterances adhering to ISIS support and/or in relation to another terrorist incident
• Onset of psychosis/mental health issues
• Socially withdrawn from family and friends
• Change in employment – termination and/or resignation
• Increased travel plans (either abroad or within Canada)
• If enrolled as a student, increased absenteeism, and a decrease in grades
• Change in style of clothing
• Longer hair and growing of facial hair
• Weight loss
• New tattoos possibly symbolizing radicalism/ISIS
d) Digital/Print Media
• Increased internet usage and streaming content
• Possession of more than one cellular device
• Travelling frequently outside the home to utilize free WIFI services (re: IP address)
• Newspaper clippings of terrorist attacks or pdf files on computer
• Utilizing several online pseudonyms on various fake social media accounts
• Various social media posts, images, videos and/or comments made on their own
Social media accounts that may appear anti-government and in support of ISIS et al.
• The printing of maps of potential Canadian locations (soft and hard targets)
• Handwritten or typed notes/drawings/journals et al.
• Closing of various bank accounts
• Paying off or incurring debt on credit card(s)
• Utilizing a rental vehicle(s)
• Wiring money abroad and/or elsewhere
• Obtaining or updating a Canadian passport
• Purchase and/or possession of any type of weaponry
• Historical dates of significance (example: September 11th)
To successfully deter and prevent these atrocious events from occurring, a joint multi-faceted approach must be adopted and implemented, promoting ‘proactive resilience’ – comprised of research, investigation, collaborative intelligence, education, and awareness. This must occur on many institutional levels, incorporating joint responsibility and input from all facets of the judicial system, researchers, the family structure, the media, peer support programs/systems and the educational system to intercede and proactively prevent these tragic circumstances from occurring. Reacting after a tragic event has become more frequent today.
Not every situation is avoidable, however, with shared, focused due diligence, tragedy can be potentially deterred and avoided. This was evidenced by the successful teamwork with the recent sentencing of a radicalized Canadian citizen to 4.5 years in jail, who was communicating with and attempting to join ISIS in Syria. This came to fruition on October 31, 2017 after a joint investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The key to combatting repeated victimology is a concentrated proactive focus on ‘intervention’ and ‘prevention.’ The proactive ISIS acronym to combat terrorism must involve an: Integrative Security & Intelligence Strategy. Tackling a lone wolf, let alone a pack, will require a joint collective effort.
1-4 Investigative Report (2016). Arts & Entertainment Television Network: “ISIS: Rise of Terror.” (Video Documentary) October 3, 2017
5-6 Chew, J. (2017). “Extreme Overvalued Belief & Anders Breivik: How Beliefs Can Be Mistaken for Psychosis.” Crime Traveller: Researching Crime & The Criminal Mind. (Online Journal) 17 July. From website: https://www.crimetraveller.org/2017/07/extreme-overvalued-belief-anders-breivik/
7 Investigative Reports (1999). Arts & Entertainment Television Network: “Copy-Cat Crimes.” (Video Documentary) February 1, 1999.
Belluck, P. (1995) “Terror in Oklahoma: Defense Strategy; McVeigh Said to Play Role in Seeking Holes in Government’s Case”, New York Times, 11 May. From website: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/11/us/terror-oklahoma-defense-strategy-mcveigh-said-play-role-seeking-holes-government.html
Dyer, E. (2015). “Was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s Attack on Parliament Hill his Plan B?”, CBC News, 28 February. From website: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/was-michael-zehaf-bibeau-s-attack-on-parliament-hill-his-plan-b-1.2970066
Gollom, M. & Lindeman, T. (2014). “Who is Martin Couture-Rouleau?”, CBC News, 21 October. From website: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/who-is-martin-couture-rouleau-1.2807285
Gollom, M. (2014). “Ottawa Attack: Was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack a terrorist act”, CBC News, 30 October. From website: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa-attack-was-michael-zehaf-bibeau-s-attack-a-terrorist-act-1.2818329
Rahman, T., Resnick, P.J., & Harry, B. (2016). “Anders Brevik: Extreme Beliefs Mistaken for Psychosis.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Vol 44(1): 28-35.
Russell, A. & Bell, S. (2017) “Canadian Who Tried to Join Terror Group in Syria Sentenced to 4.5 Years”, Global News, 31 October. From website: https://globalnews.ca/news/3834323/kevin-omar-mohamed-canadian-terror-suspect-sentenced-jail/