Are ISIS’ Online Terror Guides Really Training ‘Lone Wolves’?

Home-made bombs, indoctrinating documents and propaganda have been accessible online for years, for generations of wannabe terrorists to find

Illustration: Vocativ
Jul 21, 2016 at 2:25 PM ET

Days before a French-Tunisian man took the helm of a 19 ton truck and hurtled through a crowd of people watching fireworks along the seaside in Nice, France, the Islamic State published a new article online for its “soldiers” in Europe and America.

“The tyrants closed the door for hijrah,” the article said, referring to the Arabic term meaning ‘migration,’ which the terror group had used when calling for volunteers to come join its ranks in Iraq and Syria. “And they opened before them the door for jihad. Even the smallest operation you execute in the heart of their homes would be better and more loved by us than a larger operation we would do here.”

The Tunisian truck driver apparently did not swear loyalty to ISIS, but his murderous rampage, which took the lives of 84 people and wounded hundreds others, was claimed by the terror group as a lone wolf operation carried out on its behalf. One of the images accompanying the June 16 article that was published by al-Battar, a pro-jihadist media network, included the various methods “Islamic State Wolfs” could carry out these attacks. Among the suggestions of shooting, stabbing and bombing them was a picture of a car and the words: “ram them.”

The online guides the Islamic State regularly puts out include manuals on how to make explosives, remote-control bombs, how to create and use ricin and how to best deploy hand grenades. These are disseminated on Telegram channels found by Vocativ’s analysts, where they are discussed in forums that have between 230 and 800 members, who message each other several times an hour and give tips like: “before making a bomb, use gloves. Don’t mix chlorine with sugar.”

ISIS is only the latest group to flood the internet with “how-to” guides, yet the plethora of material has not led to more terrorist bombings abroad.

The manuals and instruction guides and lists of chemicals and equipment needed to create explosives have been online and accessible for decades. They’ve been put there by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Abdullah Azzam, who led resistance fighters in Peshawar in the 1980s.

Many have tried to construct booby traps, mix chemicals to make improvised explosive devices, connect detonators and test them remotely with mobile phones. Most have failed. Those who have succeeded, were trained, at least in part, by others in person.

“One likely reason why al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists have not made better use of the Internet’s training potential is that its value as a source of real-life terrorism knowledge is, at least to date, quite limited,” wrote Michael Kenney in 2010, when he was a fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State University Park. He is now an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Kenney argued at the time, when ISIS was still in its infancy and al-Qaeda and its branches around the world was considered the most dangerous terrorist threat, that while booksmarts were helpful, nothing could compare to hands-on performance. That many of the successful terrorist attacks that occurred in Casablanca in 2003, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, were largely carried out by people who likely had training, real-life experience, or someone skilled in bomb making to help.

“The skills required to succeed at urban terrorism in the West are not easily obtained from training in guerrilla warfare, even as taught at the best al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan,” Kenney wrote. “The abstract formula for making hydrogen-peroxide IEDs may not vary across locations, but the materials available to bomb makers will.”

“The counter terrorism community’s focus on militant websites as sources of operational knowledge of terrorism is misplaced,” says Kenney. “Even when the information contained in these online artifacts is correct, which often times it is not, most militants learn terrorism by doing terrorism.”

“These are very very difficult things to do, to try to do them as not a scientist and in places where you can’t really practice easily and when you have security forces looking as closely as possible at people like you, there are just so many more barriers to carrying out an explosives-based operation than renting a truck or stabbing people on a train, and I think the people who are that way inclined will follow the path of least resistance,” said Charlie Winter, who has long researched ISIS for several think tanks.

The recent attacks in both Nice and in Bavaria, in which a 17-year-old Afghan teenager attacked passengers on a train with an axe and a knife, were markedly different to the Paris attacks of last November, which were carried out by ISIS fighters who had traveled back from Syria into Europe.

We will likely see this type of attack more frequently now that borders have closed, making the journey to Syria or Iraq much more difficult for would-be jihadists. Those who try to enter Europe are subjected to greater scrutiny, and those who try to travel from Europe to the Middle East see their itineraries thwarted.

Even as ISIS urges its followers to eschew symbolic institutions and buildings if they are too difficult to target, it is happy to encourage “roughshod, spontaneous and not particularly sophisticated attacks,” said Winter.

“Islamic State also says that if you can’t attack something with a bomb, if you can’t attack the police, then kill some civilians, and if you can’t, then spit in their faces,” he said. “They’ve used as broad a brush as possible to make it easy to become a soldier of the Islamic State.”

And the propaganda goes hand in hand with encouraging the attacks. In another brochure featuring a “Lone Wolf” ad for the “Islamic State Caliphate” is the line: “Know that inside the lands of the belligerent crusaders there is no sanctity of blood and no existence of those called “innocents,” thereby justifying attacks on fellow Muslims.

The praise each killer receives in ISIS publications is likely to inspire others to do the same, said Winter.

“The fact that every man can go from being an every man to a lionized individual celebrated as a hero in Iraq and Syria, and built up as an omnipotent figure by the international press … the cycle that comes after an attack, it’s happened enough times now that people know what to expect, people know they will be celebrated by the Islamic State.”