The term “lone wolf” attacks may lead some to assume such endeavours to be a single individual’s undertaking. However, research has shown that the Internet- through the provision of virtual communities- is crucial in leveraging an individual’s disenchantment by validating their motives and goals to engage in lone wolf terrorism. This role of the Internet in emboldening the threat of lone wolf terrorism has been relatively understudied in the context of India’s domestic dynamics. The violence that broke out in the aftermath of the recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India saw cases of individual shooters with no explicit links to terror networks coming to the fore. However, the lack of links to terror networks does not mean such shooters acted without external influence. As noted by Gabriel Weimann in his research examining the intersections of lone wolf terrorism and cyberspace- “lone wolves are not indeed so lonely,” and this may well be the case in context to India’s domestic lone wolf terror threats. Thus, examining the unique nature of lone wolf terrorism in India and the role of the Internet in exacerbating such threats is an important undertaking.
The role of the Internet in exacerbating lone wolf threats
The Internet and social media have been integral in galvanising lone wolves by validating their ambitions and providing tactical and logistical support in conducting attacks. Even though lone wolf attacks may appear to be products of individual volition, they do not exist in a vacuum. The Internet provides lone wolves with a community of like-minded individuals that validate grounds for inciting violence as well as enabling “a conversation between disconnected, scattered people which was not possible before.” Along with enabling such conversations, the Internet has also accelerated access to information and enabled heightened awareness of the activities of likeminded people. For instance, the Jamia shooter’s Facebook timeline had posts wherein he claimed that if he had even half the followers of Mr Updesh Rana- a far-right social media celebrity- he would have turned Shaheen Bagh into the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh. Thus, along with providing a community that validates one’s views, social media platforms also enable lone-wolves to keep abreast with other activities of like-minded individuals that in turn, contributes to the radicalisation process.
The Internet also provides lone wolves with the anonymity to communicate without filters and freely express their extremist views online without fear of backlash. This provision of anonymity furthers the perception that lone wolves are acting “in a completely extra-judicial space” thereby reiterating the power of the Internet in emboldening lone wolves by harbouring and nurturing their extremist views.
In cases where traditional family structures and socialising avenues are compromised, online communities may also provide lone wolves with alternative sources of legitimacy and belongingness that was previously lacking. This provision of legitimacy leads to lone wolves thinking of themselves as being envoys for the collective and, by extension, romanticises the idea of martyrdom. Even in the case of the shooter who waved a firearm outside the Jamia Millia Islamia University to retaliate against the protestors dissenting against the CAA, the goal of martyrdom was evident. The shooter proclaimed, “Mere antim yatra par… mujhe bhagwa mein le jaye… aur jai Shri Ram ke nare ho (Cloak me in saffron for my final journey and chant the glory of Shri Ram).”
The Internet can also propel the cycle of violence by being a platform wherein motives and rationale of lone wolf attacks may be misrepresented to suit individual or political self-interest. For instance, 33-year-old Mohammed Shahrukh was also caught waving a firearm at a Delhi police officer. While reportage on the motives of the attacks has been fraught with contradictory claims, the act of waving a gun “in a fit of rage” in context to perceived group-level discrimination has been repurposed on social media with some claiming the shooter to be a party worker, despite a paucity of evidence. On ground reports indicated that contrary to many news and social media claims, the shooter represented the Anti-CAA demonstration. Irrespective of which side of the protest the shooter identified with, it is evident that the Internet, through the spread of fake news and misinformation, may be used to misinterpret and misrepresent the motives of lone wolves by framing the attack in context to furthering a preferred political narrative. Emboldened by the fact that fake news can spread like wildfire on the Internet, such retrospective framings of attacks reinforce the “Us vs Them” narrative, and may be repurposed to legitimise retaliatory violence.
Another way in which the Internet can incubate and encourage lone wolf terror threats is by becoming the locus of providing extremist material and logistical support. Resources aiding the making of bombs and other devices to carry out attacks has been effectively enabled by the Internet in the past. For example, the Comprehensive Encyclopedia for the Preparation of Jihad which includes instructional videos for weapon manufacturing along with twenty-two separate terrorist manuals has been found to be circling the web. Since research on the role of the Internet in emboldening lone wolves in India is a relatively new phenomena, the specific resources on the Internet used in the Indian context to facilitate radicalisation is underserved. Nonetheless, the existence of open access resources that provide instructions on how to prepare weapons have found widespread usage globally. This indicates how the Internet has enabled access to extremist material-irrespective of geographical and socio-cultural boundaries, thereby making the usage of such resources within India to be a looming possibility. Thus, the Internet has enabled easy access to such resources, thereby equipping lone wolves operationally along with validating their notions of perceived injustice, underscoring their desire to incite violence.
It must be noted that access to firearms in India is not as easy as in the case of some other countries such as the United States wherein 40% of the population own a gun or live in a household with a gun. With strict rules regarding holding firearms, India may be less susceptible to lone wolf shootings, but as witnessed with the case of the Jamia shooter, the illegal channels of accessing firearms, especially those made locally, still present security challenges to India. Close ups of the firearm used by the shooter indicate that it was not licensed for civil trade from the Ordinance Factory Board (OFB), thus making it a clear violation of the Arms Act. Nonetheless, illegal networks are still able to fulfill a demand for owning a firearm thereby making the potential growth of lone wolf attacks in India a looming possibility.
Generalisations about the threat of lone wolf terrorism in India purely based on isolated incidents like the shootings during anti-CAA protests may seem presumptuous. However, certain factors pertaining to the drivers of such attacks and the role played by Internet communities in furthering them make it an important conversation in context to India’s domestic security posture. Acts of violence in the name of nationalism present unique security and policy implications for India that are only exacerbated by the wave of fake news enabled by social media. Fake news propagated through social media sites crystalise biased narratives and seem to legitimise and reinforce the desire to seek violence against the “other”. Thus, it is imperative that lone wolf terror threats-irrespective of their ideological affiliations- are better understood and dealt with to strengthen and more importantly, diversify, India’s counterterrorism capabilities and understanding of new, developing threats coming from the intersection of technology, nationalism and counter-terrorism.