From Jan. 1 through Sept. 17, 42,512 wildfires have burned 6,927,327 acres across the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. While Americans view these numbers with alarm – there were 37,274 wildfires over the same period last year – terrorists have turned blazes into incitement propaganda and recruitment pitches, spotlighting wildfires’ devastating effects to their followers and encouraging lone operators to spark their own infernos.
From 2015 to 2019, 88 percent of wildfires were caused by humans, according to a Sept. 1 Congressional Research Service report, though lightning caused bigger blazes on average. Manmade does not mean all of those were arson: humans can accidentally start wildfires – from things like campfires, discarded cigarettes, power lines, controlled debris burns, sparks from equipment, fireworks in parched terrain, etc. – or intentionally set blazes. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimated 7 percent of the Golden State’s wildfires have been set by arsonists, who are rarely caught, often spark multiple fires, and may even have a background in firefighting.
If someone is setting a fire for a cause – the definition of terrorism being acts committed to further an ideological agenda – they’re going to want someone to know about it. Terror tutorials have emphasized that the arsonist not get caught so they can go on to set more fires, but they’ve also been adamant about the arsonist leaving some sort of identifier to pin it on the terror group. If ISIS were to set a wildland blaze, one could expect – like they have done in Iraq – the release of footage or photos of their deeds, and a claim that, if the arsonist has not yet been arrested, does not identify their operative. This evidence to back up a claim could also depend on whether there are one or multiple individuals involved in the crime: a lone attacker, depending on his or her experience with firesetting or familiarity with the area, may be quick to bail from the scene in order to avoid detection or injury and may not stick around to capture the visuals craved by ISIS propaganda producers.
A terror group reporting on an event to its members, lauding it or otherwise telling followers to emulate it is not the same as claiming credit, which usually occurs with overt and unambiguous wording. ISIS initially claimed credit – without offering any evidence – for the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, but after no links were discovered between the shooter and religious or political extremism ISIS continued to lift up the attack as something the group’s followers should try. Sometimes they highlight natural disasters that can cause regional instability or vulnerable infrastructure. Similarly, ISIS doesn’t include reports about wildfire damage in its weekly al-Naba newsletter because readers are interested in forest management: the inclusion of the news is intended to impress upon followers that all of this damage can be caused with low-tech firesetting.
Terror groups are attracted to the tactic of wildland arson for multiple reasons. They see the damage that the larges blazes inflict, and that falls into line particularly with al-Qaeda’s stated goal of aiming for actions that have a crippling economic impact on the West. They see the potential for substantial casualty counts in either blazes ignited near residential areas or more rural conflagrations that whip up into fast-spreading, out-of-control monsters. And utilizing simpler terror tactics – without constructing complicated explosive devices or buying firearms, or needing a partner or cell – means they can recruit from a larger, low-skill pool of potential recruits. This fits into the trend of recruiting would-be terrorists where they live and having them conduct attacks in the backyards they know well instead of sending an unfamiliar operative into the region or needlessly pulling the recruit to a foreign training camp. Simple tools, solo operation, virtual training and open-source online tutorials also lessen the chance that a recruit would be detected in the planning stages. And terror tutorials have also offered pointers on terrain and weather conditions to help arsonists become armchair meteorologists and pick the best time and location to start blazes.
The fire season was already in full swing at the end of July when ISIS’ official Al-Hayat Media Center released a 4-minute video titled “Incite the Believers” in both English and Arabic. “Consider which you can use easily and without drawing attention to yourself and making the result be death, destruction and heavy losses to the enemies,” the narrator stated. “Yes, my brother, it is that weapon which is within reach of every hand and even children are proficient using it, and people have used it since ancient times to harm their enemies — yes, it is fire.” A graphic displayed ratings for different types of terror tactics and gave firesetting five stars.
“To become more convinced of this option try looking for the losses caused by fires in the lands of the crusaders every year — fires in forests and fields, cities and villages completely destroyed, people displaced, armies of firefighters and civil defense personnel working continuous days to no avail,” the narrator continued, noting that death tolls in major blazes sometimes “exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” Examples of death tolls were displayed for wildfires in Australia, Greece and California – specifically, the death toll of the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed most of the town of Paradise. That blaze was sparked by a faulty power transmission line.
Tactically, the video advised would-be jihadists to “monitor well for a place where you can set a fire without drawing attention” and “consider that the fire will be so great that efforts made to extinguish it will cost your enemies greatly and perhaps they will not be able to put it out” before it spreads out of control. The video showed animation of a hand marking a spot on a map between San Francisco and Sacramento. The graphic then lit on fire, burning through the California map. The video also urged arson jihadists to “safely dispose” of evidence after fleeing the scene of their attacks.
Like most open-source materials published by terror groups, “Incite the Believers” can still easily be found on the internet and is among the tutorial materials and calls to action that are available for extremists of any ideology to reference and use.
Has ISIS set wildfires? Yes. They’ve boasted about it, shot video in the act, and turned it into a propaganda film. The targets have been crop fields in Iraq and Syria, with the intention to terrorize the landowners, inflict economic losses and potentially casualties while keeping a community on edge about where the surreptitious firesetting might happen next. ISIS claimed in May 2019 that the terror group was behind a series of wildfires: In the ISIS newsletter al-Naba article “Roll Up Your Sleeves and Begin the Harvest – May Allah Bless What You Reap,” ISIS reminded “soldiers of the caliphate” that they “have before you millions of acres… their plantations, fields and homes, as well as their economic foundation” to burn. A 49-minute video released this May by the terror group, “Strike Their Necks,” featured ISIS-shot nighttime footage of a small group of terrorists setting brush fires. Some Iraqi farmers have reported that these were complex attacks: If they tried to go out and extinguish the flames in their fields, they could be attacked by terrorists lying in wait.
And ISIS seizes upon current events to nudge would-be jihadists into their own independent attacks while the story is hot. As France was hit by wildfires last summer, a propaganda poster depicting emergency vehicles racing toward a burning hillside circulated among ISIS supporters, urging followers to “light fires in forests and fields and in houses and we are speaking more particularly to those who live in Europe and America. It will hurt them.”
Al-Qaeda has done the same. During the 2018 fire season, days after the deadly Camp Fire began and after the Woolsey Fire caused the evacuation of Malibu, supporters of the terror group circulated a “California Burning” image with a Quranic verse. This was distributed shortly after Al-Ansar Media, an ISIS-supporting media group, released a photo of a burning building and labeled it “kalifornia,” adding the text, “O america, This is the punishment of bombing Muslims in Syria. This is Allah’s punishment for you. And in shaa Allah, you will see more fires.” ISIS did not claim starting the California fires; nor did al-Qaeda.
When it comes to writing the manual on wildfire arson terrorism, though, al-Qaeda penned a magazine tutorial, complete with step-by-step how-to photos, that is easily accessible on the internet today for use by any genre of extremist.
In a 62-page issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine published in 2012, “The AQ Chef” – pen name also bylining the pressure-cooker bomb recipe in the 2010 “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” tutorial put to use in the Boston Marathon and Chelsea bombings – declared “It is of your freedom to ignite a firebomb.” Seven pages detail target selection, prime wildfire conditions, and how to construct an “ember bomb” to ignite once the arsonist is at a safe distance.
“In America, there are more houses built in the country sides than in the cities. It is difficult to choose a better place other than in the valleys of Montana where the population increases rapidly. In the year 2000, a fire that is considered to be the biggest in the American history flared up in one of those valleys. It spread in a space equal to that of London. The fire burnt down 70 houses as well as a hundred car. On July of the same year and in the same place, a thunderstorm lighted 78 massive blazes in just one day, most of them were deadly firestorms,” the article said, proceeding to cite other wildfires. “We mention such examples only to show the magnitude of the destructive impact that fires or firebombs make, to then ask the question: Is it possible for us to cause a similar destructive impact using a similar weapon? The answer is: Yes, it is possible. Even in a shorter time and with much bigger destructive impact.” The 2009 wildfires in California were offered as an example of the potential for steep economic impact.
What’s especially dangerous about the al-Qaeda tutorials geared toward a Western audience – which live in perpetuity on the internet, and even lived on Barnes & Noble’s website for years after being uploaded by the terror group or a supporter – is that they go beyond simply encouraging terrorists to act but give them practical D.I.Y. training to do the job. In the wildfire article, weather and geographical conditions and types of forest fires are discussed at length in order to make the blaze “difficult to handle.” Would-be arson terrorists should go into an attack having studied meteorological conditions in the area, al-Qaeda said, and map out the location to ensure structures are endangered “in an effort to cause casualties.” The terror group suggested that arsonists make “more than 30” of their “ember bomb” recipe and details strategic points to place the incendiary devices within a forest. If an arsonist followed the al-Qaeda blueprint they would definitely leave a footprint for investigators; the article suggests the arson terrorist should be “retreating to another city” after the attack.
“The most important damaging result… is the spreading of terror among the targeted community,” al-Qaeda said.
In January 2017, ISIS’ now-defunct Rumiyah magazine told would-be jihadists that “incendiary attacks have played a significant role in modern and guerrilla warfare, as well as in ‘lone wolf’ terrorism.” The magazine suggested targets for arson jihad to “include houses and apartment buildings, forest areas adjacent to residential areas, factories that produce cars, furniture, clothing, flammable substances, etc., gas stations, hospitals, bars, dance clubs, night clubs, banks, car showrooms, schools, universities, as well as churches, Rafidi [Shiite] temples, and so forth. The options are vast, leaving no excuse for delay.”
Jihadists were advised to time arson attacks “preferably in the later part of night to the early hours of morning when people are generally asleep,” and were instructed how to block off exits in an effort to increase casualties. In setting forest fires, ISIS cautioned jihadists to do so “from a safe distance” and, remedially, to look for dry brush “as fire cannot endure in damp or wet environments.” The terror group also pressed would-be jihadists to leave a mark of credit somewhere nearby, “writing there with some words on a wall or on the ground near the target declaring that the attack was carried out by a soldier of the Islamic State.”
“Arson attacks should in no way be belittled. They cause great economic destruction and emotional havoc and can be repeated very easily. Even if such attacks do not always result in the killing of the enemies, Allah has promised to reward the mujahid for simply harming and enraging them,” the ISIS article said, stressing that “ideally, one should strive to maximize the just terror he inflicts, by executing multiple, simultaneous attacks, while following the same guidelines.” The ISIS catchphrase for lone jihad is “just terror.”
More recently, ISIS propaganda has called on jihadists to strike incendiary targets that could spark blazes: “Targeting oil and gas transport trucks with accidental accident that causes the truck to overturn,” directed one poster last year from ISIS-supporting Quraysh Media. “Targeting gas stations by throwing a cigarette to look like an accident. Do a search for the presence of oil pipelines, and then burn them.” Another suggested tactic was floated in a propaganda poster from an ISIS-supporting media group: a hot-air terror balloon. In a poster titled “The Airship,” the Quraysh Media infographic suggests that operatives can “burn large areas using the airship, by throwing (fire) from the airship on different places after you pass over the forest.”
To be terrorism, the arsonist would not just ascribe to a certain ideology but would be committing the crime in the furtherance of that ideology. In August 2018, the Holy Fire ripped through more than 23,000 acres in California’s Orange and Riverside counties; the suspect arrested and charged, Forrest Gordon Clark, reportedly had been involved in the sovereign citizen movement and posted anti-government and QAnon conspiracy theories on his social media. Yet he also reportedly had numerous run-ins with neighbors and the local volunteer fire chief that allegedly involved threats.
Islamist extremists are far from alone in circulating threats of arson terrorism. White supremacists and neo-Nazis have called for arson against symbolic targets, with fiery imagery in much of their propaganda that evokes the accelerationist underpinnings of some adherents: the belief that they must commit violent acts to hasten societal collapse so the country can start anew under their ideological system. The neo-Nazi Feuerkrieg Division, for example, means “fire war” in German, and a teenage member arrested last fall in the UK was accused of plotting an arson spree targeting synagogues as he vowed to journal his activities “from now all the way to the inevitable race war.”
The accelerationist leanings could make an arsonist expand from traditional targets, such as synagogues called out in propaganda, and opt for a larger, more chaotic, more destructive yet indiscriminate attack like a wildfire – while likely not targeting areas in which they live or train. If such an extremist also lacked access to firearms, he or she could embrace fire as a simple and accessible tactic. Experts testifying before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism in July expressed concern that the accelerationist mindset in conjunction with current events and a tsunami of conspiracy theories have increased the risk of a mass-casualty attack from groups such as the Boogaloo, white supremacists, or militia extremists.
Militia extremists have heretofore left their mark on federal lands in other ways: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016 caused nearly $2 million in torn-up land and damage to buildings, personal property, and Native American cultural sites.
For terror groups and movements that are perpetually looking for low-cost, efficient, low-skill means of attack that can result in widespread devastation, wildfire arson gives them a route to inflict casualties and economic losses. Arson lends itself to long-distance inspiration of lone actors who need only find simple encouragement online, incendiary materials and a vulnerable target. Arson is attractive to terrorists looking to hit soft targets such as a forest, where no one is guarding the perimeter. Arson may be chosen by the terrorist who doesn’t want to arouse suspicion by purchasing a firearm or who doesn’t have the know-how to build a complex explosive device (though as a white supremacist in Britain who tried to torch a synagogue found out, sometimes the arsonist sets himself on fire); they may even tell themselves that weather conditions favorable to fire spread constitute divine intervention for their extremist cause.
And if those weren’t enough reasons to heighten defenses against arson terrorism, the symbolism of large swathes of land, landmarks or critical infrastructure going up in flames feeds the narrative of accelerationist terrorist philosophies across the spectrum of movements and ideologies seeking societal collapse with their new world order arising from the ashes. Imagery of extremist groups across the board uses flames to convey the power they believe they do or will hold, from KKK cross burnings to current neo-Nazi propaganda or ISIS’ lengthy two-part P.R. film titled “Flames of War.” The incitement and instructions circulating online can cross ideologies as well, posing a risk to our wildlands and communities nestled within.