Lone-wolf Terrorists, Their Operations and the Threat they Pose


Lone wolf terrorists pose a tremendous threat to the United States, as they are challenging to detect using traditional intelligence methods. Moreover, in the presence of robust counterterrorism activity that deters organized terrorism, lone-wolf terrorism has become easier to accomplish. This paper seeks to provide an understanding of lone-wolf terrorists, their operations in the United States, the threat they pose and possible avenues that counterterrorism agencies can exploit to detect and apprehend them.

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White supremacists leaders Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, were responsible for popularizing the term “lone wolf” in the 1990s. They encouraged their supporters to carry out acts of terror on their own for tactical reasons and to avoid detection. A lone wolf terrorist is defined as one who commits acts of terror, without orders or connections to any radical organization. Lone wolf terrorism is frequently associated with individuals who prefer to limit interactions but have a tendency to disseminate their extremist ideologies before attacks.

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 There is a high likelihood that individuals who engage in lone wolf terrorism suffer from psychopathologies and psychological disturbances. Today, lone wolf terrorism is one of the most challenging and unpredictable form of terrorism. It is difficult to detect potential lone actor terrorists by traditional police means since perpetrators typically plan and carry out acts of terror on their own. Unlike organized group terrorist attacks, it is incredibly challenging to predict; who might engage lone acts of terror, what their objective(s) will be, how they will carry out the attack and what will motivate them to attack the first place.

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Trends in the work of lone-wolf terrorist

Due to the increasing availability of powerful weapons, lone wolf attacks have been increasing steadily in the western world. Although lone actors make up a small percentage of all terror attacks, they remain an incredible threat. Solitary acts of terror may still result in massive fatalities when properly executed. This threat is evident from the increase in the number of deaths from lone-wolf terror attacks from five in the 1990s, to twenty-nine in the 2000s (Teich, 2013). According to a Spaaij’s 2010 study, the United States has had an exceptional increase in the number of lone-wolf attacks in the past three decades compared to countries such as Canada, Russia, Portugal, Sweden, Netherlands, France, and Spain. In the 1990s the United States witnessed four attacks from lone-wolf terrorists. This number rose to twenty-four in the 2000s and has been rising steadily from eighteen in 2003.

Typology (Who?)

Lone wolf terrorists may exist in five main variants; the lone vanguard, the lone soldier, the loner, the lone follower, and the lone wolf killer. “The lone vanguard” often authors his own idiosyncratic ideology. He/she may craft this ideology with inspiration from a formal terrorist ideology but is not likely to have any ties to any radical organization (Beydoun, 2013). He/she will often execute acts of terror in an individual capacity and function and a one-man organization. Examples of lone vanguard act of terror are the July 2011 attacks of Oslo by Anders Breivik. Breivik formulated a radical manifesto that blamed Islam and feminism for the decline of Europe. He pioneered his own movement, and acting on individual capacity, carried out two terrorist attacks that resulted in the death of ninety-nine people (Beydoun, 2013).  

“The lone soldier” acts on his own to further the ideology of an existing terrorist organization. In radical Islamists circles, small scale, loosely organized terrorist attacks are incredibly popular. Osama bin Laden sympathizers were often encouraged to act on their own without awaiting instructions from the organization (Beydoun, 2013).  This call for action was often widely disseminated on the internet, where lone soldiers often maintain an active social life. The internet allows lone soldiers to belong to a community. It offers a platform where unacceptable extremist ideologies can be normalized. It also creates an opportunity for known terrorist organizations to encourage and support individuals with deviant beliefs and attitudes. These individuals can then be used to further extremist causes through individual acts of terror. An example of a lone soldier act of terror is the shooting of three South Asian men in Texas by Mark Stroman. Stroman had lifelong ties with the Aryan brotherhood, who gave consent and support to murder two men he believed to be Muslim as revenge for 9/11 (Beydoun, 2013).  

“The loner” typically presents as an individual with low social competence, rebuffed by terrorist organizations despite having strong desires to become a member of one.  While the lone vanguard carries out his/her cats of terror individually out of choice, the loner is forced to become a lone wolf terrorist out of circumstance. “The loner” shares somewhat similar characteristics with the lone follower. This type of lone-actor may find the ideology possessed by a radical terrorist organization particularly attractive and seize it.

While “the loner” may desire to lead a group of their own, the “lone follower” desires to become a formal member of the group but lacks the social competency to do so. An example of a lone follower act of terror would be the attack in South Carolina in June 2015 by Dylann Roof (Beydoun, 2013).  Driven by an ideology similar to that of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), Roof proceeded to open fire in a church and killed nine African Americans. When called to comment, representatives of the CCC condemned the shooting, denied knowledge of Roof but stood by his ideology since it was mostly their own. Another example could be the work lone wolf terrorists, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. These two brothers killed three people and injured close to three hundred more in a premeditated attack of the Boston Marathon (Beydoun, 2013). The brothers lacked the social competence and knowhow to become members of a terrorist organization such as ISIS. However, they did execute an attack driven by ideologies similar to those held by formal terrorist organizations, albeit in an individual capacity (Beydoun, 2013). The final lone wolf variant is the “lone wolf killer” who is often a white male. This kind of lone-actor does not get the classification of a terrorist since he lacks the defining religious and racial/ethnic attributes of a typical terrorist or does not belong to any organization that has already been pegged as a terrorist group (Beydoun, 2013).

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How? (Radicalization)

Lone wolf terrorists may also be categorized according to the extent of radicalization, motivation, and risk awareness. The internet has been an essential factor in the radicalization lone wolf terrorism by providing access to information. Freely available books, manifestos, and articles are essential tools to promote self-radicalization of lone-wolf terrorists from any corner of the world. For instance, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were radicalized through access to jihadist articles on the internet, which even provided instructions on how to make explosives from household items (Beydoun, 2013).

Moreover, recruiting followers via the internet tends to attract a younger, more impressionable people compared to traditional recruiting methods such as radio broadcast (Brynielsson, et al. 2012). The internet enables individuals to share ideas, opinions, and grievances in online chat rooms. Although this exchange could harmless, the presence of at least one radical Islamist member could expose members to the externalizing narrative of radical Islam. These enticing narratives could trigger radicalization within the group.

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Why? (Motivation)

Lone wolf terrorists often have personal grievances of their own or become increasingly angry after traumatic events exacerbate preexisting psychological problems. Exposure to externalizing narratives formulated by terrorist organizations gives these individuals someone/something to blame for their situations. Lone wolf terrorists then merge their personal frustrations, with the political or religious aims of a terrorist organization. The terrorist organization narrative categorizes the world in to “us” versus “them.” This enables the individual to dehumanize/demonize his enemy and removes any preexisting deterrence to violence (Beydoun, 2013). For instance, John Allen Muhammad endorsed the 9/11 attacks out of support for Jihad and anger toward his ex-wife and Mir Aimal Kansi was motivated by Jihad, and a desire for vengeance against the CIA who had mistreated his father in Afghanistan (Beydoun, 2013).

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The threat of lone-wolf terrorist in the United States

The United States exercises a variety of counterterrorism objectives that make it practically impossible for terrorists acts carried out by large terrorist organizations to go undetected. The substantial number of huddles that terrorist organizations have to face to execute successful attacks on US soil makes it necessary for small loosely organized groups or lone wolves to carry out the attacks instead. The failure rate for lone-wolf attacks is exceptionally high. However, a successful attack can be almost as lethal as one that involved multiple members and a high level of organization. Lone wolf activities are challenging to detect, so they’re less likely to be apprehended before they carry out their attack.

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 Moreover, they are not constrained by being a member of an organization. They do not have to follow the kind of vigorous decision making process that a large scale organization employs (Phillips, 2017).   This freedom allows them to apply creativity and ingenuity while carrying out the attack. Lone-wolf terrorists typically work on their own. This independece means that they do not depend on motivation from others. The lethality of their attack is also not affected if a member decides to back out of an attack. For instance, Breivik considered taking on additional members to carry out his attack but rejected the idea due to the potential risk of apprehension the increased capacity would bring. Acting on an individual capacity reduces the probability of infiltrated by undercover law enforcement or leaking of confidential information by informants (Phillips, 2017).

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 Organizations may not use weapons of mass destruction to carry out attacks out of fear of backlash from the community. On the other hand, lone wolves do not depend or expect any support from the community. It is, therefore, possible for them to use any weapon available to them as long as it suits their purpose (Phillips, 2017).   Traditional government counterterrorism responses such as travel bans and intense government crackdowns on specific communities are less likely to have any effect on the lone wolf terrorist especially if he does not fit the profile of a typical terrorist.

Moreover, the lone actor often possesses underlying psychopathologies and psychological disturbances. These disturbances may trigger the formulation of irrational, costly attacks that may not be undertaken by members of a terrorist organization (Phillips, 2017). Psychological disorders may also render the lone actor unaware of the consequences of his/her actions and therefore, capable of committing extremely harmful acts.

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The threat of lone-wolf terrorists is further exacerbated by the neglect of white radicals by counterterror objectives. Vivid illustrations can be found from the refusal by counterterrorism agencies to label white male perpetrated mass shootings as acts of terror (Beydoun, 2013).  Moreover, violent acts committed by lone wolves affiliated, or expressing ideologies similar to anti-abortionist and white supremacist are rarely labeled acts of terror since these groups are not considered terrorist organizations despite engaging in violent acts of terror.

 When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols planned and executed a bombing of the Alfred Murrah building in Oklahoma and killed a hundred and sixty-eight people, they were not labeled lone wolf terrorists (Beydoun, 2013).  On the other hand, the involvement of any individual with a Muslim identity in any violent act almost qualifies that attack as an act of terror. These double standards exist even after a KU Klux Klan plot to blow up gas refineries that should have killed tens of thousands of people and a plot to kill Barrack Obama and murder hundreds of African Americans by white supremacist were uncovered (Beydoun, 2013).  

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While the potential for lone and organized terrorism by white males increases, counterterror agencies direct all their energy and resources to the deterrence of Islamic terrorism. Moreover, agencies have now completely neglected efforts to combat the radicalization of white males and focused all their attention to the prosecution and investigation of Muslim residents (Beydoun, 2013). These institutionalized racial and religious stereotypes increase the probability that a white non-Muslim individual who desires to carry out a violent act in the United States will not be detected and the fatal consequences of his actions will not be prevented (Beydoun, 2013).

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Combating lone wolf terrorism in the United States

Although lone-wolf terrorists are difficult to detect using traditional intelligence techniques, counterterrorism units may be able to track them down by analyzing their online activity. Many lone terrorists are often only loners in their offline life. Observing online activity may assist in the detection of radicalization processes, terror plans, and apprehension of individuals before they execute them (Brynielsson, et al. 2012).

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Lone wolf terrorists often leave behind manifestos and articles for law enforcement to find later. Some perpetrators may even leave hints that the attack is about to happen. This information can help law enforcement detect and prevent attacks before they happen. Counterterrorism agencies could benefit from law enforcement direction on discerning the validity of threats. Monitor potential radical individuals’ online activities will provide to explicit information about attacks and prevent the promotion of extremist ideologies. (Brynielsson, et al. 2012)

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While the objective of many terrorist organizations is widely known, lone wolves may have varying objectives for committing violent acts. Counterterror agencies should examine motives to determine where ideologies came from and if they are similar to those propagated by any terrorist organization. This information might guide agencies in countering radicalization and establish new areas that need monitoring. The modus operandi, or how the attack was carried out, can reveal similarities between perpetrators. If two or more actors carry out attacks in the same fashion or utilize the same weapons, then more appropriate security measures can be taken.

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Lone wolf terrorists are classified into; lone vanguards, loners, lone wolf killers, lone followers, and lone soldiers. Although lone wolf terrorists account for a small proportion of terrorist acts, they still have a highly lethal capacity, especially in countries with robust counterterrorism activities. Counterterrorism agencies must examine the modus operandi of violent acts and the objective/motivation behind lone wolf terrorism. This examination will assist in the formulation of strategies to intercept threats, discern their validity and prevent solitary acts of terror. Sacrificing honesty, accountability and consistency to engage in violent acts is contrary to Saint Leo University core value of integrity. Members of the University have a duty to be honest, just, consistent in words and deed and observant of the law at all times regardless of personal grievances. Utilizing campus facilities for their intended purpose, and taking responsibility for the safety of every member, are pertinent to these duties. Maintaining integrity in words and actions means that members are expected to have strong principles that cannot be swayed by extremist groups under any circumstance.

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