Wolves Among Us: The Dangers of Lone Wolf Terrorism

In the West, a terrorist is generally perceived as an Islamic fundamentalist belonging to a network of indoctrinated individuals. News media outlets frequently feature stories concerning popular terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Boko Haram. In fact, as the result of their popularity, it is extremely unlikely that you would find a national newspaper in the Western world that does not feature the activity of at least one major terrorist organization in every issue. This skewed perception of terrorist groups has narrowed our understanding and unknowingly made us overlook the dangerous threat of lone wolf terrorism. Our preoccupation with the operations of large and complex terrorist organizations has made us complacent about individual terrorist actors. That is not to say that nothing is being done to stop lone wolf terrorists, but it is evident that we must be vigilant of this increasing threat, by looking beyond the scope of highly publicized terrorist groups. These lone wolf terrorists, who are usually not directly connected to any group or cell system, have demonstrated a greater degree of success in reaching the attack stage than traditional terrorist groups, have an unprecedented ability to avoid law enforcement, and exhibit extreme levels of violence. [1]

Lone wolf terrorism is the popular term given to individuals who commit, or prepare to commit, violent terrorist acts outside the confines of, or loosely connected to a recognized terrorist group in support of a particular ideology or movement. [2] According to the Anti-Defamation League, the term ‘lone wolf’ was popularized by American white supremacists Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, who posit that individual underground activity is the most effective means of promoting an agenda.[3] According to Metzger and Curtis’ model, lone wolf operations leave behind the least evidence for law enforcement authorities, which dramatically decrease the chances that terrorists will get caught. It is believed that the tactics described by Metzger and Curtis have increased in popularity, and that lone wolf tactics have gradually ushered in a new era in terrorism.[4]

This evolving trend in terror tactics is evident in recent events wherein individual terrorists have produced more frequent and deadly outcomes. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh killed over 150 people and injured over 500 hundred more in a lone wolf bomb attack on a Federal building in Oklahoma City. [5] In November 2009, Nadal Hasan, a U.S Army Major and Psychiatrist, killed 13 and injured dozens more in an attack on the Fort Hood military base in Texas.[6] More recently, in August 2011, Anders Breivik killed 77 individuals in a bombing and mass shooting attack in Norway. [7] These incidents are just a small sample of the many lone wolf style terrorist attacks that have occurred in the western world in the last 30 years.

The emergence of a “leaderless resistance” as a means of avoiding law enforcement gained popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s with American white supremacist, Louis Beam. [8] As well, the 1978 novel by William Pierce, The Turner Diaries, popular with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, is seen as a primary motivator for the use of lone wolf terror tactics and has served as inspiration for a number of violent terror acts. [9] Their tactics have been employed by many individuals on behalf of many causes since the inception of the modern lone wolf terrorist. Examples of the divergent reasons lone wolves act out include: David Copeland using the isolation of lone wolf terrorism to target minorities with nail bombs in 1999,[10] and Scott Roeder’s killing of abortion provider, George Tiller, in 2010. [11] The frequency and deadliness of lone wolf terrorist attacks has grown significantly as the benefits become better known to extremists and fundamentalists. It is apparent that lone wolves pose a major security threat that can be just as dangerous as large terrorist groups who have been the primary focus of the West to date.

A declassified 2009 United States Department of Homeland Security Assessment outlined lone wolf terrorism as the greatest domestic threat in the United States.[12] However, it is not easy to understand how a single individual acting with little to no support from a larger terrorist entity can be a significant risk to the safety and long-term prosperity of Western populations. In order to properly understand the significance of lone wolf terrorism, it is imperative we recognize the advantages that terrorists gain when they operate in an unorthodox manner outside traditional terrorist cells.

The most dangerous aspect of lone wolf terrorism is the difficulty that law enforcement agencies have in gathering intelligence to prevent attacks. Currently, Western governments indicate that they have no intelligence to confirm that lone wolf terrorists are currently planning violent attacks. However, the current political, economic, and social climate indicate that attacks of this nature are constantly in the works.  The isolated nature of lone wolf terrorists make it extremely difficult for law enforcement to obtain sufficient intelligence to stop this kind of attack.

Lone terrorist’s operations are much more difficult to identify than groups or small cells. When militants operate in a group with more than one person, there is a much greater possibility that one of the members will abandon the plot and contact authorities, or that law enforcement and intelligence personnel will intercept a communication between militants. [13] The lack of group members ensures that the authorities have nobody to question in a bid to gather information for future plots. [14] The ability of lone wolves to work in isolation grants them a significant amount of time and anonymity that would simply not be available in a group or cell setting. For this reason, Theodore Kaczynski, known as the ‘Unabomber’, was able to plant or send packaged bombs to people involved in the technology industry for nearly 17 years without capture or detection. [15]

The lone wolf terrorist responsible for the Oslo bombings, Anders Breivik outlined this advantage in his manifesto, which he uploaded online shortly before conducting his deadly attacks. Breivik stated:

“One of the great strengths of our enemies, the Western European cultural Marxist/multiculturalist regimes is their vast resources and their advanced investigation/forensic capabilities. There are thousands of video cameras all over European major cities and you will always risk leaving behind DNA, finger prints, witnesses or other evidence that will eventually lead to your arrest. They are overwhelmingly superior in almost every aspect. But every 7 headed monster has an Achilles heel. This Achilles heel is their vulnerability against single/duo martyr cells.” [16]

It is evident that Breivik recognized the profound advantages that isolation has in the successful completion of a terror plot. Breivik’s success also lends itself to the belief that lone wolf models will continue to grow in popularity as long as law enforcement and the intelligence communities struggle to contain it.

Lone wolf terrorists also benefit from the use of the internet to radicalize, train, fund, construct weapons, and plan attacks. Traditionally, what lone wolf terrorists learned from the internet was only obtainable through instruction in organized and knowledgeable groups or small cells. The internet has provided lone wolf terrorists covert access to quick and low-barrier resources on tactics, targets, and weapons from their own homes.[17] The digital age has allowed everyone to connect to individuals and resources at a global level, and this has been a great advantage to radical extremist groups.

Before the internet was so accessible, terrorists had to make a much greater effort to be engaged. Now they can readily turn to the internet for information on how to make explosives. [18] Nowhere is this more evident than in the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers. The brothers used instructions from an online jihadist magazine to build the pressure cooker bombs they eventually used to carry out the attacks.[19] Similarly, the former United States Army psychiatrist and Medical Corps officer responsible for the 2009 Fort Hood terrorist attack used the internet as a means of seeking guidance from Islamic fundamentalists known by the FBI and linked to Al-Qaeda.[20] Moreover, terrorist operations at the lone wolf level are much easier to conduct because of the anonymity and accessibility provided by evolving communications technology.

While most known terrorist groups operate in groups or small cells, it is evident that the isolation of lone wolf operations is drastically more threatening. According to lone wolf terrorism expert Jeffery D. Simon:

“What makes lone wolves so dangerous is their ability to think outside the box. Since they operate by themselves, there is no group pressure or decision-making process that might stifle creativity. Lone wolves are free to act upon any scenario they can dream up. This freedom has resulted in some of the most imaginative terrorist attacks in history. For example, lone wolves were responsible for the first vehicle bombing (1920), major midair plane bombing (1955), hijacking (1961), and product tampering (1982), as well as the anthrax letter attacks in the United States (2001).” [21]

As they are not part of a populous terrorist group with a broad support network, lone wolf terrorists are not concerned with alienating members and supporters, or fear legal repercussions. [22] Moreover, lone wolf terrorists have limitless opportunities when it comes to planning and conducting acts of terror; they are not confined by divergent interests of group members nor the will of supporting networks. Lone wolf terrorists are not constrained by the use of traditional terror tactics as the group’s social, ideological, and organizational buffers seemingly does not apply to individual actors. Isolation gives lone wolf terrorists the time and space to plan attacks, making them a relatively covert threat to the security of international and domestic bodies.

In conclusion, Western understanding of terrorism must evolve to ensure that the threat of lone wolf terrorism is contained. For too long Western governments, media outlets, and general populations have stereotyped terrorism as large recognizable extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram. Although these terrorist groups do pose a threat to Western security, they have been hindered in recent years by increased law enforcement, government presence, and counter-insurgency efforts.[23] On the other side of the terrorism spectrum, the societal focus on large terrorist groups has benefitted the individual lone wolf terrorist efforts domestically and internationally. Lone wolves are difficult to detect due to their isolationist nature and are seldom discovered until after their terrorist attacks have taken place.

It is evident that lone wolf terrorism is difficult to stop using traditional counter-terrorism tactics; however, this does not mean that more cannot be done to prevent lone wolf terrorism from continuing to grow. Measures such as monitoring of the internet, identifying overly aggressive political activism publically, enhancement of weapon identification devices, the expansion of CCTV in public areas, and the use of advanced biometrics to simplify surveillance and gather data must be taken.[24] It is evident that lone wolves pose a significant threat to the security of the West, and they will continue to do so as long as we remain complacent. Lone wolf terrorism can be fought effectively, but it requires us to move away from associating terrorism with large international terrorist groups and practicing vigilance in our own communities.