The “Lone Wolf” and al-Qaeda Sleeper Cells in the United States

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 2

Since 9/11, the security and intelligence echelons of the United States have been preoccupied with the possibility of domestic al-Qaeda sleeper cells being activated to perpetrate additional terror attacks. In clandestine activities, a “sleeper” is an operative who establishes deep cover to evade security forces and accomplish his mission in hostile environments. To uncover such sleeper cells, the FBI has devised certain security measures throughout its field offices in the United States. Islamist militants, eager to again attack the United States, are posting instructions on jihadi websites as to how fellow militants could evade the security apparatus and carry out terror strikes on U.S. soil. Comparing the training instructions for jihadi sleepers with the security measures currently in place could shed light on other angles warranting consideration in the hunt for sole sleeper operatives and—to a lesser degree—sleeper cells.

A 2005 FBI report stated that the agency had been unable to find conclusive evidence of the existence of such cells (ABC News, March 9, 2005), though comments on jihadi websites suggest that they exist. The militants are aware of the FBI’s concern about sleeper cells in the United States; each time pertinent information is released in U.S. media, jihadi posters write comments and prayers for the success of those cells. One website participant—who appears to be knowledgeable about clandestine activities—has posted a code of conduct for sleepers in the United States. Nicknamed al-Muhajr, the forum member claims “sleeper cells are walking around the infidels’ land using different cover methods and white names that don’t attract American internal security’s attention, but that is not what terrifies the FBI in particular and internal American security in general. It’s al-Qaeda’s lone wolves that disrupt their tranquility and sleep” (, January 1). Al-Muhajr proceeds to guide the “lone wolf” sleepers on the necessary skills to succeed in their mission:

• The sleeper should have excellent command of the local language, accent and slang.

• The sleeper’s appearance must not reveal their Arab or Islamic origins. To pretend to be of Hispanic extraction is preferable; therefore sleepers should learn Spanish and use Hispanic aliases.

• The sleeper must carry false identity documents, which are easily obtained in the United States. False identities must be used when buying munitions, shotguns or night vision equipment, etc. from licensed Wal-Mart stores or other shopping centers.

• Sleepers must choose their place of residence very carefully. The preferred choice of residence is in multicultural neighborhoods while eschewing areas frequented by drug dealers to avoid scrutiny from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

• The sleeper should learn martial arts and keep fit for personal protection.

• The sleeper must become highly literate in computers and the internet.

• The sleeper should become an expert in surveillance, counter-surveillance and observation.

• The sleeper should train with sniper rifles, especially U.S.-made weapons that are easily obtainable within the country. Al-Muhajr recommends five different types of U.S.-made rifles.

• The sleeper should train with assault pistols with silencers, the weapon of choice for assassinations.

• The sleeper should learn to prepare explosive belts and explosive charges big enough to booby-trap a small car.

Al-Muhajr goes on to say: “It’s a well-known fact that the perfect sleeper is the highly trained loner risking less chance of compromise. It takes one mistake by a cell member to compromise the entire cell.” To conclude, al-Muhajr cites the case of John Allen Muhammad, the serial killer who carried out sniper attacks in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in 2002. Muhammad was eventually captured because the fingerprints of his younger accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, were found at a crime scene. Therefore, al-Muhajr cautions, sleepers must be careful not to let their guard down at any time: “The lone wolf doesn’t worry about security penetrations.”

Although going under deep cover in Western society may involve contradicting certain aspects of Islamic ideology, Salafi-Jihadis have in the past justified certain unreligious practices under the principle of “deterring the bigger evil with a smaller evil.” Hence, profiling for possible sleepers must include ideology-oriented variables in addition to standard indicators, because no matter how well the sleeper assimilates to a foreign society, close scrutiny is bound to uncover certain latent and unavoidable habits.