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'The New York Times' Uncovers How ISIS Recruits From Afar


We often hear that one of the biggest concerns of counterterrorism officials is the lone wolf. That's the person who acts alone. They might be inspired by outside terrorist groups, but they don't have clear connections to them. And therefore, they can be hard to stop. The shooter at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando last year, the gunman at Fort Hood several years ago - both of these were so-called lone wolves.

But New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi says the lone wolf label is usually not accurate. And that could have implications for immigration and counterterrorism policy. Rukmini Callimachi joins us now on Skype from Erbil, Iraq. Welcome to the show.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Thank you for having me, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You say that instead of thinking about these attackers as quote, "lone wolves," we should think about them as being remotely controlled by groups like ISIS. Can you explain?

CALLIMACHI: So counterterrorism officials are now telling us that there are at least three types of attacks that are being carried out on Western soil by the Islamic State - directed attacks, enabled attacks and inspired attacks. So directed attacks are what we saw in November of 2015 when battle-hardened operatives from ISIS came physically from Syria and attacked Paris.


CALLIMACHI: Inspired attacks are these attacks by people who are only inspired by the propaganda online. But the research I've done over the last couple of months indicates that really the bulk of what we are seeing is in the middle category, the enabled attack. And this is by people who most likely have never been to Iraq and Syria and who are only speaking to the Islamic State online.

But through this online means, the Islamic State is able to guide the attacker, to coax them and to inspire them to translate their intention into violence. In the most complex cases, they are doing everything from providing the logistics down to the bullets that they're using to kill victims.

MCEVERS: And just give us one example of one of these enabled attacks.

CALLIMACHI: So a good example of one of these attacks is by a young a student in a Paris suburb named Sid Ahmed Ghlam. He was planning to attack a church, and he is in touch with a series of ISIS handlers who are speaking to him online.

And in the course of the preparation for this attack, he is told to go to a sandwich shop on the outskirts of Paris, cross the main street, go into the complex that's there, find a parking lot, in the parking lot, find a Renault Megane. Once you find the Renault Megane, look on the right front tire. Find the keys. Open the back seat. In the backseat is a duffel bag. In the duffel bag are the weapons. And mind you, this is being done from Syria.

MCEVERS: Wow. How were you able to see these chats?

CALLIMACHI: Those chats are because I was able to get the French domestic intelligence agency's investigation files on that particular case.

MCEVERS: Let's talk for a minute about President Trump's executive order on immigration and a federal judge's recent temporary halt of that order. Trump tweeted that, quote, "opens up our country to potential terrorists." We just heard former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta say Trump's order could undermine U.S. counterterrorism efforts. I mean do you - what do you think? Does it make a difference one way or the other?

CALLIMACHI: The executive order to me reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what the terror threat is that we currently face. We are not being attacked in America by people who are coming from overseas. We are being attacked by people who are already in America. The majority of the 114 ISIS-linked people who have been arrested in America - the vast majority of them were American citizens.

So it misses the mechanics of how this works. ISIS is able to reach into all 50 states of the nation - we've had cases in every one - through nothing more than an internet cable. It's not by sending operatives here.

MCEVERS: New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi - her latest story is called "Not Lone Wolves After All: How ISIS Guides The World's Terror Plots From Afar." She joined us on Skype in northern Iraq. Thanks a lot.

CALLIMACHI: Thank you, Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF SONG, "RED-EYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.