Lone wolf terrorism trends and findings


With the anniversary of 9/11 approaching we can expect a plethora of retrospectives and various experts of varying levels of actual knowledge.  As you read and listen to the ‘conventional wisdom’ about what the intent and capabilities of terrorists are keep in mind that it be at variance with the evidence we’ve acquired over the decades.

One recent journal article focuses on a trend which many assume will be predominant in the near term, that of ‘lone wolves’.

The Enigma of Lone Wolf Terrorism: An Assessment

DefinitionFor this report, lone wolves were defined as those that:

  • Operate individually
  • Do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network
  • Whose modi operandi are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or hierarchy

Comment:  this definition would exclude small groups (like Timothy McVeigh/Terry Nichols) and might exclude others (people who claim affiliation with ALF) who are often placed in the lone wolf category.  Given the findings presented in this report, which seem to support such a restrictive definition, there may be a need to develop another category which incorporates small groups or loosely affiliated persons.

Ideology:  “Lone wolf terrorists may identify or sympathize with extremist movements but, by definition, do not form part of these movements…[a]ssigning purposes and motivations to individual actors of terror is inherently subjective and open to interpretation.  In many cases it is extremely difficult to effectively determine the wider cause, even when researchers closely engage with their subjects.”

Lone wolves suffer from psychological disturbances at considerably higher rates than the general public and other terrorists.  They tend to be withdrawn, have few social contacts and are uncomfortable in organized groups (even extremist or terrorist groups).

Comment:  Lone wolves defy easy categorization in terms of motivation which may be one reason why they are notoriously difficult to identify and interfere with their plans.  The report asserts that they will combine their political motivations with personal grievances to such a degree that it’s impossible to disentangle the two.

This might very well mean that lone wolf terrorism is less a binary category than a sliding spectrum of criminal/psychological activity.  Inclusion/exclusion in this list, therefore, is likely to be fuzzy and worthy of further consideration.

Within broad categories of ideological affiliation, however, U.S. lone wolves looked like this generally:

  • ·         White supremacists (9 cases)
  • ·         Islamist (5 cases)
  • ·         Anti-abortion (4 cases)
  • ·         Unknown affiliation

Targeting/effectiveness:

Lone wolf terrorism is claiming a larger proportion of all terrorism victims over time.

  • ·         From 1955 to 1977, lone wolves accounted for 7% of all terrorism victims
  • ·         From 1978 to 1999, lone wolves accounted for 26% of all terrorism victims

Comment:  This seems to support the findings of the Institute of Homeland Security Solutions (that I blogged about over the past two days) whichrecently found that lone wolves were nearly twice as successful in carrying out attacks than small or large groups.

Lone wolf terrorism seems to manifest itself differently in the U.S. from the rest of the world. It accounted for less than 2% of all terrorist attacks across 15 countries from 1968 to May 2007. In the U.S., however, it accounted for almost 42% of all terrorism cases over the same time period.

Comment: This may be, in part, due to several factors including the ease of access to firearms, the resonance of the idea of ‘leaderless resistance’ among both Left and Right extremists over the past several decades and the lack of emphasis of communal action (both legitimate and illegitimate) which seems more prevalent in other parts of the world. In short, it may be that this is the dark side of American ‘rugged individualism’.

Other findings:

  • Lone wolves in the U.S. are more likely to use firearms in their attacks than those from other countries.
  • No U.S. lone wolves engaged in armed hijackings which was the preferred method of attack for non-U.S. lone attackers
  • It appears very rare for lone wolves to use (or attempt to use) CBRN weapons
  • Civilians are the primary target for lone wolves
  • In the U.S., medical staff are the second most common target

Comment: Targeting of medical staff is probably related to anti-abortion violence.

So, there we are. Probably the one lesson we can learn from history is that while we’re pretty good at stopping the next attack (provided it looks just like the last attack) we aren’t that good at figuring out what methods and tactics our opponents are likely to use. Perhaps that’s natural cognitive functioning but it probably means that the next terrorist act won’t look like 9/11 or anything you’ve seen at your local cineplex.

Lone wolves are tough to catch for the reasons listed above plus a few others but, that solitary behavior means they’re unlikely to conduct sophisticated attacks with really high body counts (although the Norway attack demonstrates it is possible, let’s face it, he wasn’t in the middle range of the bell curve).

Lone wolves are tough to catch for the reasons listed above plus a few others but, that solitary behavior means they’re unlikely to conduct sophisticated attacks with really high body counts (although the Norway attack demonstrates it is possible, let’s face it, he wasn’t in the middle range of the bell curve).

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Posted on 24 August 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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