Why U.S. Terrorists Reject the Al Qaeda Playbook

The problem with homegrown terrorists? They just don't listen.

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Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri / Reuters

Al Qaeda, its ability to lead more conventional operations curtailed, is increasingly emphasizing "individual jihad" -- the theory that Muslims around the world, and especially in the United States, can be induced to take up arms and strike out at Western targets without receiving money, training, or so much as a pat on the back from the Al Qaeda organization proper.

On paper, this approach has some advantages. Operational security is a big problem for Al Qaeda these days. The terror network's top leaders and trainers are being hunted relentlessly, and their communications systems have been compromised. Just ask Osama bin Laden, whose e-mail habit led Navy Seals to his doorstep.

So the idea of a cadre of terrorists who can act on their own initiative is, to terrorist leaders, very appealing. The problem is that these new recruits aren't quite with the program, in ways large and small.

One element of the individual jihad that most homegrown terrorists can't seem to master is the part where you keep your mouth shut. It's been a recurring theme, highlighted explicitly by American Al Qaeda member Adam Gadahn and in recent issues of Al Qaeda's English-language magazine, Inspire:

We have witnessed that operations done by lone individuals has proven to be much more successful. So what can we learn from this? Group operations have a greater tendency of failing than lone operations due to the idea (of the operation) escaping the mind and tongue to other individuals. Even if those individuals are trustworthy in your eyes, there is still that 1% chance that someone from the intelligence agencies are listening in and paying attention to your groups' actions or that the person you are talking to might be working for the enemy or that he might be pressured at a later period to give information to them. With lone operations however, as long as you keep it to yourself, nobody in the world would know what you're thinking and planning.

Every single homegrown plot against the U.S. since September 11 that involved more than one person has failed, most often because law enforcement caught wind of it. Nevertheless, homegrown jihadists keep talking about their plans, and keep getting caught.

Although there are rare individuals who are capable of acting in complete isolation, jihad is ultimately a social and political activity. By its very definition, it is tied to an overwhelming sense of community with the global Muslim Ummah. Being a solitary jihadist is like being a solitary majorette. It's certainly possible, but you're likely to feel foolish marching around your basement in uniform.  

The problem with individual jihad is, ironically, its individuality. Although loose lips are probably the most operationally significant manifestation of this failure to conform, it works on the ideological level as well.  

For instance, Al Qaeda's leaders and its most visible propagandists have repeatedly drummed their justifications for killing American civilians. From an operational standpoint, civilian targets are easier to hit, but Al Qaeda also estimates that they make for more effective theater, driving home the point that no Americans are safe from the terror network's reach for as long as its list of grievances remains unsatisfied.

"Non-combatants are people who do not take part in the war," Yemeni-American Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki said in a May 2010 video translated by MEMRI. "The American people in its entirety takes part in the war, because they elected this administration, and they finance this war [by paying their taxes]."

In late 2010, Inspire published an article by AQAP's resident scholar, 'Adil Al 'Abab, which reiterated the justification for attacking civilians. Earlier issues of Inspire suggested tactics such as driving a truck fitted with lawnmower blades into crowds of civilians and picking off any survivors with firearms.

There are only three cases where Awlaki is known to have provided specific operational guidance to would-be terrorists. All three were attempted airline bombings aimed at killing civilians: the 2009 Christmas day plot, the 2010 UPS cargo plane plot, and a 2010 effort to target British Airways.

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