Entrepreneurs of Violence: Lone Wolf Terrorism

Posted By May 23, 2017 No Comments

The following paper was written by the Mackenzie Institute’s General Manager Jeff Sole in 2013 for a Master’s Paper he wrote while completing his Master’s of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University. 

In light of the recent terror attack in Manchester, UK on 22 May 2017, we at the Mackenzie Institute extend our condolences and support to those who were impacted. In the face of evil, may we continue to build a more just society based on compassion, pluralism and respect. May we remain intolerant of hateful ideologies and ignorance.

“The risk that we’re especially concerned over right now is the lone wolf terrorist, somebody with a single weapon being able to carry out wide-scale massacres… When you got one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage, and it’s a lot harder to trace those lone wolves” (Bates, 2012).

                                    -US President Obama


In 1999, the US Department of State defined terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” (Bates, 2012). Modern terrorism takes many forms. A number of typologies have been created to distinguish groups and intents. Hudson provided one of the most complete examinations, analyzing terrorism from a variety of approaches including political, organizational, psychological and multi-causal. More recently, these typologies have classified terrorism by place, purpose and target (Bates, 2012).

Terrorists are fairly ubiquitous. We find them throughout cultures and societies, they are frequently well educated and often do not present with any overt psychopathologies (Simon, 2013; Sieck, 2013).

David C. Rapoport has described the history of modern terrorism as occurring in waves or cycles of activity. There have been four basic waves since the late 1880s. The first wave began with the anarchist movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Following the first wave came the Anti-Colonial Wave in the 1920s, the New Left Wave of the 1960s, and the Religious Wave, beginning in the late 1970s. The lifespan of a wave is roughly generational; a timeframe in which dreams that inspired parents lose attractiveness to their children. If Rapoport’s timeline is accurate then the Religious Wave should come to an end nearing 2020.  According to Rapoport each wave is initiated by a grand event. For example, the end of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles precipitated the second wave. The third wave, set in motion by the Vietnam War, led to the formation of radical groups of ambivalent youth critical of the value of the predominant system at the time. The Religious Wave followed the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which prompted Islamic extremism (Simon, 2013).

While it seems unlikely that the fourth wave will lose momentum, a fifth wave – the Technological Wave – is already gaining momentum and morphing with the fourth. It appears to be serving in the capacity of an enabler. Certainly, the use of technology – specifically the Internet – does not belong to religious extremists; virtually every terrorist cell has a website for promoting, recruiting, and training terrorists. Rapoport considers the Internet the grand event that has ushered in this fifth wave (Simon, 2013).

The use of the Internet by terrorist groups will be explored in greater detail later, but in an introductory fashion we need to understand how it has enabled the face of terrorism to change. Access to terrorism websites creates an environment for self-radicalization among individuals and concurrently provides – to a certain extent – an anonymity that easily hides one’s identity and activities. While lone wolf terrorists existed prior to the Internet, it has most certainly served as a catalyst.

We are living in a technological age of terrorism where there is basically nothing holding back an individual who wants to learn how to perfect his or her skills in perpetrating a terrorist attack. Many individuals are also becoming self-radicalized via the Internet and other means (Simon, 2013).

As the many typologies profess to, lone wolf terrorism is not exclusively the domain of radical Islam. The concept in fact emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as an outgrowth of reactionary right-wing, anti-government activities. Many of these groups provided motivation for individual acts of terrorism. Many unaffiliated individuals self-radicalized through exposure to teachings and writings and acted alone (Bates, 2012). The term lone wolf was popularized in the late 1990s by two white supremacists, Metzger and Curtis, in an attempt to encourage other racists to act alone for tactical reasons (Weimann, 2012).

Stern (2003) introduced the concept of the lone wolf avenger, while others have contributed the lone wolf vigilante, revenger, and guerrilla to the body of knowledge. Bates drew a distinction between chaos and career lone wolves. Suicide bombers are chaos lone wolves; career – or serial terrorism – lone wolves include the likes of Ted Kaczynski (Unabomber) and Bruce Ivins (anthrax letters). Weimann additionally identified the risk-averse and risk-seeking lone wolves (Bates, 2012; Simon, 2013; Weimann, 2012).

Jeffrey Simon, in Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, offers a spectrum of historical lone wolves and their political, religious, or personal motivations. He provides five groups: secular, religious, single-issue, criminal, and idiosyncratic (Simon, 2013). While the diversity of actors detailed in the book may rightfully be characterized under the heading of lone wolf terrorists, his typology is so broad as to make profiling near impossible. Some individual actors, such as John Gilbert Graham, Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski, are so divergent and idiosyncratic in their beliefs and motivations that it is difficult to determine whether they are outliers or whether this defines lone wolves. If the latter is the case then it is in fact impossible to profile traits of lone wolves, as there are few group identifiers or markers. We then must ask where the fuzzy border lies between lone wolf terrorists and criminals who carry out violent acts? As this paper is not intended to serve as an examination of violent criminals, we will focus on the typology offered by Raffaello Pantucci that identifies lone wolves in the context of radical Islam, in what is labeled the Jihadist Lone Wolf (Pantucci, 2011).

To read the full essay, click here.