Law enforcement officials believe the San Bernardino massacre and a stabbing attack on a California college campus were done by lone wolves inspired by the Islamic State terror group, and counterterrorism experts say both show how the organization is expanding its reach through social media.
Recruitment videos the terrorists post are often short and flashy. They feature music, promising a chance to be part of a global cause and, experts say, most importantly, target a vulnerable audience.
“For somebody searching for meaning and feeling disconnected, that’s a very powerful message, and difficult to resist,” said John Cohen, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University and formerly the Department of Homeland Security’s counterterrorism coordinator.
That’s how Faisal Mohammad, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of California, Merced, appears to have become self-radicalized. The FBI says he visited IS online sites for several weeks before he wounded four people in the Nov. 4 knife attack. A campus police officer shot and killed him.
A month later, the gun-wielding husband-and-wife team in San Bernardino shot and killed 14 people and wounded 21 others. Investigators say they were also influenced by the Islamic State group, but not directly connected to it.
“The Internet enables people who aren’t necessarily able to function well in a group to claim at least that they’re inspired by an ideology,” said Jessica Stern, a research professor at the Pardee School for Global Studies at Boston University.
Mohammad had been shunned by a study group at U.C. Merced, where he was a freshman, authorities have said, and Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, launched the San Bernardino attack with his wife against a group of colleagues gathered at a luncheon.
“More must be done to combat jihadists’ narrative and their use of the Internet to radicalize, recruit and fundraise,” said Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield. He cited two dozen IS-inspired plots in the United States since 2014.
Lone-wolf attacks carried out in America are a “Western luxury,” said Max Abrahms, a political science professor at Northeastern University. He says it’s a sign that there are not large terrorists groups carrying out attacks.
But he agrees that isolated attacks are likely to increase as the Islamic State is increasingly under fire in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
“Islamic State is going to continue to decentralize as it gets battered,” Abrahms said. “The Internet isn’t going away. The group is going to call upon locals to commit attacks.”