Terrorists acting alone or in small cells: a growing concern

Posted: July 27, 2014 in Terrorism

Counter-Terrorism Committee | 24-Mar-2014

Report on challenges in their prosecution

Anders Behring Breivik did it alone. He meticulously planned his terrorist acts, from buying large quantities of fertilizer to prepare explosives and training to shoot his weapons to scouting his target locations and distributing his 1,500-page political manifesto online.

On 22 July 2011, Breivik killed 77 people in two concerted terrorist acts. He killed 8 in explosions in Oslo and 69 more with firearms on an island an hour away from the Norwegian capital. Why? A right-wing extremist, Breivik is an Islamophobe who is against Norway’s multicultural and open society. He wanted to change it through terror. In 2012, he was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 21 years in prison.

Mohamed Merah did it partly by himself. He lived in France but had travelled to several countries, among them Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, and had been in contact with a wider community abroad. The 24-year-old’s activities had drawn the attention of the intelligence services. He had been seen in Kandahar with a known recruiter of French apologists for Al-Qaeda, and had reportedly been asked to attack American interests in France. Merah decided to operate independently, choosing his targets and timeline on his own.

Between 11 and 19 March 2012 he killed 3 soldiers and 4 Jewish people. Known as the scooter terrorist, he shot his victims on the streets of Toulouse and Montauban in France. During a long standoff with police, Merah said about the French Army’s presence in Afghanistan: "You kill my brother, so I will kill you." He was shot dead by police.

As is the case of other terrorists acting alone, Merah had never been completely alone in his cause. Terrorists range in spectrum from people acting in almost total isolation, as Breivik did, to those closely influenced by a group or a political motivation.

Although the phenomenon still represents a small percentage of terrorist incidents, it has grown in the past few years. While judicial authorities should not overstate the threat posed by terrorists acting alone or in small cells, they should remain vigilant.


Terrorists acting alone or in small cells present a number of challenges for law enforcement and judicial authorities. First, they are more difficult to identify and stop than those operating in larger groups or networks, against whom there have been major successes around the world. Borders do not limit recruitment either, with violent extremist propaganda reaching young, vulnerable people across vast distances on the Internet. Postings on social media serve as catalysts for individual would-be terrorists, some of whom may travel to and from conflict zones, a path that could trigger an international investigation.

While there is no formula to recognize potential lone actors, studies have found that, in general, they might have problems socializing and with their cultural identity, may have had a difficult transition to adult life, be prone to introversion, and be avid consumers of online propaganda. They tend to express increasingly extremist views and show interest in or attempt to travel to certain conflict zones or locations where they hope to get training with like-minded people. They may also try to join or engage with a terrorist organization.

Early warnings

One way to deal effectively with this situation is to focus on early signs of trouble. Parents, teachers, health practitioners, religious figures and others in a community could be involved in identifying behaviour that may lead to radicalization and violence. In some instances, for example, the authorities alert parents to the potential risks associated with their children’s online activities. Developing online and offline counter-terrorism narratives and rolling out awareness-raising campaigns are additional recommended measures.

The Internet is seen not only as a key enabler of radicalization and recruitment, but as a source of practical knowledge or autodidactic extremism. The logical approach is to monitor suspicious websites and chat rooms to detect extremist ideologies and groups. There are too many, though, and the authorities have limited resources. It is also difficult to distinguish between a message that was intended as a first step towards violence or incitement and radical, non-violent expressions of extremist beliefs that are protected by freedom of speech.

Intent vs. crime

Examining a suspect’s activities online could enable the authorities to thwart that person’s criminal plans. So could other special investigative techniques, such as search warrants, wiretapping and undercover operations, meant to disrupt as early as possible the suspect’s preparatory phase of research, acquisition of weapons and reconnaissance.

The suspect’s clear dissemination of violent intent may not be enough to secure prosecution, however. Intent alone is not a crime, yet could sometimes amount to public provocation to commit a terrorist offence or to glorification of terrorism, an offence several Member States have introduced. Other offences include providing material support to a foreign designated terrorist organization, soliciting membership in one, and attempting to set off explosives.

Considering the vast amount of information that might be attached to a particular charge, prosecutors must consider what offences to lay, what material to serve as evidence, and how to present the evidence to court in an accessible manner.

New tools and offences

Legal approaches used around the world focus on giving law enforcement new tools to better detect potential terrorists before they act and on introducing new offences that target the perpetration stage. Some countries have opted to take elements from both.

Law enforcement authorities could rely on traditional and new tools during the investigation phase, while a range of offences at their disposal would allow prosecutors to bring charges against a suspect at an early stage. The threshold to start an investigation could be based on indication, rather than the higher one of suspicion.

To illustrate this point, let us say an individual purchased chemicals, which in itself does not constitute a crime. Chemicals are not explosive materials, after all, but could be used to make a bomb. In the past, their purchase would not have met the requirements necessary to authorize a special investigative technique, since there was neither an element of conspiracy nor a finished product.

Taking into account this emerging threat, some countries have moved in the direction of introducing new legislation or amendments to existing ones. This ensures that buying chemicals that could be used to make a bomb is sufficient to establish an indication that a terrorist crime might take place and authorize an investigation aimed at verifying if that is the case or not.

Although a number of States are already using these and other new tools and offences, it would not be advisable to replicate them everywhere. The level of integrity and independence of the judiciary is an important factor in guaranteeing robust checks against misuse.

Strengthening cooperation

Mutual legal assistance treaties, law enforcement cooperation and the provision of reliable, usable intelligence to partners are essential in preventing and prosecuting terrorism. For this to happen, States must strengthen cooperation among all agencies involved. Prosecutors must also be equipped with full knowledge of a case in order to be able to anticipate challenges to evidence, weaknesses in proving elements of an offence, and ensure a fair trial.

Some States have established inter-agency structures that share resources and expertise, and that produce harmonized assessments and reports. To support specific cases, regional organizations have brought together law enforcement, intelligence, political and prosecutorial agencies. At times, it is easier to adopt a regional approach should an agreed framework and definition of terrorism already be in place in these countries.

Ultimately, intelligence and information should flow as easily as the ideologies that give rise to terrorism. Countering the threat, in whatever form, depends on the ability of the judicial authorities to cooperate, to detect crime at the earliest possible stage, and to work closely together with the shared goal of bringing terrorists to justice.

Human rights

Risks of violating human rights exist when prosecutors intervene at a very preliminary stage of suspected activity. International human rights standards protect the rights to freedom of expression and opinion, and the right to privacy.

In order to safeguard human rights and the rule of law, there must be independent judicial oversight, prior authorization of surveillance or online monitoring of suspects, and appropriate standards for admissibility of evidence. More practically, websites that are shut down can easily be recreated in a different server and country. Rather than closing websites and chat rooms, it is preferable to embrace the unique opportunities they offer to collect intelligence and promote narratives to counter violent extremism.

Judicial authorities must apply human rights law, while guarding against inappropriate Government conduct intended to control certain actions, in particular when it comes to the prosecution of preparatory acts of terrorism.

The Security Council and terrorism

Bringing terrorists to justice is a key provision of Security Council resolution 1373 (2001). It requires all Member States to cooperate with other Governments in the investigation, detection, arrest, extradition and prosecution of those involved in such acts. States should also criminalize active and passive assistance for terrorism in domestic law.

By its resolution 1624 (2005), the Security Council built on the foundation laid in 2001. At its core, the resolution is about prevention and places increased emphasis on social contexts that may be conducive to the spread of terrorism.

The resolution calls on States to prevent and prohibit incitement to commit terrorist acts, strengthen international cooperation and border control, and enhance dialogue and understanding among civilizations.

The Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee is charged with monitoring the implementation of both resolutions by Member States. It is composed of the 15 members of the Council and is assisted in its work by an Executive Directorate, CTED.

On behalf of the Committee, CTED has facilitated since 2011 a series of seminars for prominent national counter-terrorism prosecutors on bringing terrorists to justice. Each event has focused on a major issue, with the latest seminar in Tunis addressing the challenges in the prosecution of terrorists acting alone or in small cells.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s