"Lone wolves" are regarded as the most elusive and dangerous figures counterterrorism agents hunt today.
Such suspects can pop up seemingly from nowhere to commit unfathomable massacres against their fellow citizens – consider the Norwegian right-winger who gunned down 69 youths near Oslo, or the French jihadist suspected of killing seven people in and around Toulouse this month.
How can authorities prevent such crimes? It's not easy, even when individuals are red-flagged. Ever more powerful surveillance technologies provide authorities with long lists of potential threats, but police on the streets can usually muster only enough manpower to keep an eye on any given suspect for a few weeks at a time. When no proof of a crime or conspiracy emerges, authorities often have to ratchet down surveillance and move on to other, more immediate threats.
This dynamic means there are hundreds of individuals who are known to be worth watching – but not necessarily worth arresting – in any given Western democracy at any given time. "We must keep in mind the lone-wolf or stray-dog threat," said Canadian Security Intelligence Service executive Andy Ellis in a speech in Ottawa last year. "These lone actors are some of the hardest to detect and investigate."
A decade ago, the Islamists who arrived in the West after taking paramilitary training in terror camps in Afghanistan camps were seen as public menace No. 1. Yet they were relatively easy for authorities to spot and subdue. They travelled in packs, they fit a pattern and they didn't need to be proven to be criminals. Lacking citizenship, they could often be deported under lower evidentiary standards.
Today, however, terrorist threats are as likely as not to be citizens radicalized via the Internet. Prevention is harder. Federal agencies have had to come up with creative strategies – including what CSIS and the RCMP cryptically refer to only as "disruption" techniques.
In Canada, that means suspects can be confronted while passing through international airports – facing questioning, bag searches and sometimes being blocked from boarding an outbound plane, especially if their ultimate destination is a hot spot like Somalia or Pakistan. There are more invasive techniques too. Sources say one young target complained of being followed around on Toronto streets by unidentified plainclothes agents using video-cameras last year – an apparent "overt surveillance" campaign designed to instill the feeling that every move is watched.
Yet no state can watch anyone indefinitely – a fact that has become obvious in Toulouse as the suspected gunman was tracked Wednesday to a barricaded apartment. Mohammed Merah, according to media reports, is a French citizen, the son of Algerian immigrants, and had apparently been in a militant training camp in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan. When he got home, possibly after being arrested in Afghanistan, French authorities put him under surveillance but did not arrest him.
Why was he allowed to remain at large? Legally, there might have been no other choice – NATO countries would bristle at a citizen being jailed indefinitely in Afghanistan or held by the United States as an "enemy combatant." Domestic prosecution would be the preferred response, but not necessarily achievable.
Consider how Canada faced a similar case in 2007 – when a University of Calgary student was arrested in Afghanistan and accused of plotting terrorist attacks. He was quietly repatriated to Canada. As the RCMP tried and failed to put together a criminal case against him, the Mounties parked a manned cruiser outside his parents' home just to watch him – for a time.
Counterterrorism agents in different countries employ different strategies. U.S. authorities tend to launch police stings the moment they get a whiff of a suspect. The strategy was embraced by Canadian counterterrorism officials who successfully used two paid police agents to infiltrate the so-called Toronto 18 in 2006 – but such stings are less workable against small groups and individuals.