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The "Lone Wolf" Threat

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John P. Hartigan III
  • 310th Airlift Squadron commander
In the news lately has been a lot of discussion about terrorist groups such as ISIS encouraging "Lone Wolves" to attack US military members in America. I take this threat seriously, because during my last assignment, ten people were killed because after making themselves easy targets through their use of Facebook.

Before I was stationed here at MacDill in the 6th Air Mobility Wing, I served a year-long tour in Pakistan.  I worked at the US Embassy in Islamabad as the Chief of Air Force Programs, where I assisted the Pakistanis in improving their Air Force through the use of US military equipment. One of my favorite experiences during this time was a mission through the mountainous northern regions aboard a Pakistani Mi-17 helicopter. We visited many of the frontier outposts in order to better understand the needs of the Pakistan military. It was an incredible opportunity with some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen.

One of the places we visited was called Fairy Meadows, which was a beautiful green grassy plain next to a glacier and in the shadow of a snow-covered mountain named Nanga Parbat, which means "Killer Mountain."  Fairy Meadows serves as a launch point for hikers attempting to climb Nanga Parbat.  It looks like a scene from The Sound of Music...absolutely beautiful.  That beauty and the challenge of hiking Nanga Parbat attract adventure seekers from around the globe.

One such group had hikers from Ukraine and China. They created a Facebook page ahead of their adventure to coordinate their epic trip. It was an open group that anyone could follow.  It allowed the hikers to easily share information with each other and fellow hiking enthusiasts that were interested in their adventure. Unfortunately, it wasn't just friends and hikers that were following the group; Islamic militants from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan were, also. The coordination done by the hiking group gave the terrorists plenty of time to plan, as well.  When the hikers arrived in Pakistan, they continued to post updated locations and plans. Because of the detailed posts documenting their trek and advertising their locations and intentions, the terrorists were able to locate the hikers where they were camped out in the countryside and killed them and their guide while they slept.

It was a tragedy. In addition to the deaths, it also reduced the adventure tourism in northern Pakistan and tarnished the reputation of Pakistanis--who were some of the warmest, most genuinely hospitable people I have ever met. And it was completely avoidable.

That event was about a week after I had visited Fairy Meadows, so it really caught my attention and made me think. Traveling with the Pakistan Army, I never felt unsafe while going through that part of the country, but we also practiced good operations security, or "OPSEC" for short--something the tourist hikers should have done, too.  Since that incident, I am more sensitized to things posted on Facebook. The current "Lone Wolf" threat was enough for me to take another look at my Facebook practices to make sure I'm not excessively exposing myself, my family, or my friends. I took a couple of minutes to make sure my privacy settings are secure so only friends can see my information. I don't post pictures of trips until after I'm back home. I try to minimize anything that would tell people where I am or where I will be at some time in the future. I don't want to be an easy target.