Is America Threatened by “Lone Wolf” Terrorists?

From March 4 – May 30, 2011, the National Constitution Center hosts Spies, Traitors & Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, a traveling exhibition created by the International Spy Museum. Below is the second in a series of guest posts from Mark Stout, SPY Historian, and our friends at Spy Blog highlighting topics covered in the exhibition.

Congress recently passed and President Obama signed a one year extension to three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. These three sections authorized FISA Court-approved roving wiretaps; allowed court-approved seizures of business records of terrorism suspects without their knowledge; and permitted surveillance against non-US citizen “lone wolves,” individuals engaged in terrorism who are not part of a recognized terrorist group.

Let’s look at the “lone wolf” provision. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act only allows wiretapping for intelligence purposes when two conditions are met. First, the target must be engaged in clandestine intelligence gathering or terrorist activities. Second, the target must be a “foreign power,” such as the Russian Embassy or an acknowledged Russian diplomat, or the “agent of a foreign power” such as a spy for China…or Mohamed Atta.

However, these two conditions prevent the wiretapping of certain types of terrorists who might be in the United States – for instance, a “lone wolf” who has severed his connection to an international terrorist group.

Apparently the U.S. Government has never used the “lone wolf” FISA authority that the Patriot Act gave it. However, the sorts of scenarios that it is designed to deal with are all too real and they are increasing in urgency.

Abu Musab al-Suri provides an interesting example of the sort of problems that the “lone wolf” provision seeks to address. Al-Suri, Syrian by birth and currently in detention at Guantanamo, is one of the leading strategists in the Al Qaida world. However, he has famously quarreled with Osama Bin Laden and was not a member of Al Qaeda. While he never lived in the US, he did live at various times in Spain and the United Kingdom. Were al-Suri to have come to the United States, the FISA Court would not have issued a surveillance warrant because he wasn’t an agent of a terrorist group, merely an independent actor ideologically aligned with a terrorist group.

There is a case to be made that the threat posed by “lone wolves” such as Al-Suri is getting more dire with every passing year. That case centers on the concept of “super empowerment.”  Thomas Friedman has coined the phrase “super empowered angry men” and military theorists such as John Robb and T.X. Hammes have picked it up with slight variations of terminology.

Small Wars Journal and ZenPundit have fine explanations of the problem. In the words of the latter: “the devolution of increasingly powerful and versatile technologies at continually descending costs into the hands of individuals, coupled with the increasing interdependency of complex systems due to globalization, make [the arrival of super empowered individuals] all but inevitable.” The results could be dire. For instance, “the world is but one self-sacrificing genetic microbiologist away from a super-empowered suicide bomber riding international air routes to a new black plague.”

While reasonable people may differ over whether the cure is worse than the disease, the fact is that this provision of the Patriot Act seeks to address serious problems.