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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  They tend to be withdrawn, have few social contacts and are uncomfortable in organized groups (even extremist or terrorist groups).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


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).

What do we really know about terrorism in the U.S. and what the hell do we need analysts for, anyway?

I just finished reading two recent papers on terrorist activity in the U.S. that, unintentionally it appears, complement each other quite well and have some very interesting things to say with regards to preconceived notions about terrorism here in the U.S.

The first is “The Plots That Failed: Intelligence Lessons Learned from Unsuccessful Terrorist Attacks against the United States.” Rather than looking at successful attacks to figure out where things went all pear-shaped, Erik Dahl looks at unsuccessful attacks to see what went right.

The second document was Building on Clues: Examining Successes and Failures in Detecting U.S. Terrorist Plots, 1999-2009. (Hereafter referred to as the IHSS piece since it was written under the umbrella of the Institute of Homeland Security Solutions) The authors looked at a broader scope of terrorist activity, including both failed and successful attacks over a ten year period to identify indicators and successful techniques for disrupting terrorist attacks.

Both are worth a read but I want to talk about a few of the mutual findings here.

The biggest find (in my opinion) was this gem (from the Dahl piece):

Most plots are disrupted not when a highly skilled analyst detects subtle clues that link otherwise insignificant bits of data, but when intelligence and law enforcement agencies obtain very precise information about specific plots being planned by specific groups.

The IHSS piece finds that:

Although the media is filled with exhortations that he U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to do a better job of “connecting the dots”…our analysis suggests that this ability has been useful in foiling only a few terrorist plots (3 cases, 4%).

I think this is worthwhile considering for a bit since it seems to me that the idea of analysts ‘connecting the dots’ as the essential work of intelligence units and fusion centers around the country.  If that’s not, in fact, what disrupts terrorist attacks then maybe we’ve been barking up the wrong tree for the past ten years.

So, am I saying that analysts are useless or irrelevant to homeland security?

No.  Just that we might be expecting something from them they are unlikely to be able to deliver AND that they may be better used at other tasks.  This line of thought deserves its own post and so I’ll leave it here but keep it in mind as we move on.

Very common among the general population (and even among the law enforcement/homeland security community) is the notion that terrorism = al-Qaida (or at least Muslims).  That simply gets blown out of the water by both papers.

Although AQAM [al-Qaida and allied movements – TwShiloh] and AQAM-inspired plots were responsible for a plurality of attacks in our study…white supremacist and militia/anti-government groups were also responsible for a significant number of attacks. [IHSS]

Even though the Dahl piece used a significantly different dataset he found a significant number of right wing/anti-government plots as well, making a focus primarily on al-Qaida unwise.

One of the interesting things I found in both studies was the parameters they used in determining what sort of events they’d include.  In both cases, violence against persons was one of the key factors.  The IHSS report addressed this directly:

During our initial search for incidents, we uncovered a significant number of small-scale attacks against property, almost all of which were conducted by animal rights and environmental groups…

For several reasons such attacks were discarded.  Likewise, in the Dahl piece, such attacks seem to be discarded for both practical reasons (no one really tracks foiled, small scale events like vandalism or graffiti) and, I suspect, theoretical ones (can keying an SUV at a car dealership really be lumped together with a bombing campaign?).

That raises the question of whether the term ‘terrorism’ is really adequate to our needs today.  Can it contain an al-Qaida and a person writing ‘meat is murder’ on the bathroom mirror of a McDonalds?  If it can, is the term so broad that it has lost its usefulness?  And does it say anything when those studying terrorism routinely discard a subset of activity that legally fits within its definition?

Again…questions to be addressed later.

Another interesting tidbit:

…the vast majority of attacks were by single actors and small groups…”lone wolves” have also been more successful in executing attacks…compared to…small and large groups. [IHSS]

It’s difficult to assess this statement fully since the IHSS report made the judgement (erroneous, in my opinion) of considering ALF as a ‘large group’ similar to al-Qaida.  I think there simply isn’t much evidence to support such a claim and I’d be interested to see the results if ALF attacks were considered ‘lone wolf’ or ‘small group’ attacks.

Another important point in the IHSS report (which seems to be buried) is that more than half of the terrorist attacks that were successfully executed had NO initial clues reported.  That means that even if everything works right, we can still expect attacks to get through.

So, the idea of ‘zero tolerance’ is not worth pursuing and we should be getting the population used to that idea.

Both are worth checking out and raise a host of interesting questions.