The attempted attack on a provocative cartoon contest in Texas appears to reflect a scenario that has long troubled national security officials: A do-it-yourself terror plot, inspired by the Islamic State terrorist group and facilitated through the ease of social media.
Trying to gauge which individuals in the United States pose such threats — and how vigorously they should be monitored — is a daunting challenge for counterterrorism agencies. Some experts caution that a limited number of small-scale attacks are likely to continue.
Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said federal authorities are aware of “thousands” of potential extremists living in the U.S., only a small portion of whom are under active surveillance.
Concerns have been intensifying since the rise of the Islamic State group and were heightened this week after two gunmen were shot dead while trying to attack the event in Garland, Texas. One of the men, 31-year-old Elton Simpson of Phoenix, was arrested in 2010 after being the focus of a four-year terror investigation; investigators are trying to determine the extent of any terror-related ties involving him or his accomplice, Nadir Soofi.
At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that intelligence officials would be investigating Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the incident.
“This is consistent with what has previously been described as a lone wolf attack,” Earnest said. “Essentially you have two individuals that don’t appear to be part of a broader conspiracy, and identifying those individuals and keeping tabs on them is difficult work.”
Terrorism experts say the spread of social media and savvy use of it by terrorist groups has facilitated a new wave of relatively small-scale plots that are potentially easy to carry out and harder for law enforcement to anticipate.
While plots orchestrated by al-Qaida have historically involved grand plans designed to yield mass carnage — airline bombings, for instance, or attacks on transportation systems — the Islamic State group has endorsed less ambitious efforts that its leaders say can have the same terrorizing effect on Western society.
U.S. officials say that more than 3,400 people from Western countries — including nearly 180 from the U.S. — have gone to Syria or Iraq, or attempted to do so, to fight on behalf of Islamic State or other extremists groups.
Although there is concern that fighters returning to the U.S. might pose a terrorism threat, some national security experts say a more immediate danger is posed by individuals in America who are inspired by these terrorist groups yet have no direct ties to them.