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Lone Wolf Terrorism

June 21, 2016


Lone wolf attacks – the threat or actual violence from a radicalised individual (or small) group largely independent of external direction – are likely to form an increasing part of the world’s experience of terrorism.  This is not just about Al Qaeda and Islamic State, although they are likely to feature prominently in future attacks.  Extremist ideologies (predominantly right wing and extremist Islam) together with “home-made” combinations of grievance against society, government or the world are interacting with readily accessible modern global communications platforms to proliferate ideas of violence.  Tactics and typologies will inevitably vary considerably.  The Orlando, Florida attack on a gay club by a self-identified IS supporter and the murder of a UK Member of Parliament by a British far right sympathiser occurred within the same week.  This makes the lone wolf attacker very hard to identify – although alienated males with criminal records and mental health problems form a large part of the lone wolf community.  The internet acts as accelerant, tutor and surrogate social group for those vulnerable and angry that seek to leave their mark on societies that they see as having failed them.  


The world is becoming more complex: conflict, war and forms of political violence are no exception.  In the 21st century, shifting balances of power, evolving interdependencies and identities, technologies and the pace of change are exacerbating the complexity of existing conflicts and creating new ones. The local, the national and the international are interacting in myriad combinations.

“…in a more fragmented and more complex world, the prevention and resolution of conflict, like the new wars themselves, has to be multilayered…Our world has become less intelligible…[bringing] the growing temptation of retrenchment, based on the perception that the world is just too complicated for any effective human intervention.” (Guehenno: 2015):

Terrorism is no exception to this rapid evolution in conflict.  “Lone Wolf Terrorism” is not a new phenomenon.   However, new forms of communications technology are enabling the spread and impact of extremist ideologies, creating increasing potential for violent politically-motivated acts of terror acts to be inspired and undertaken without the need for any significant central controlling organisation.  The term has been given additional prominence recently with its new associations with Islamic extremism.  RUSI has a highly useful and interesting literature review of over 50 papers looking at lone wolf terrorism which I recommend.  Ironically, I was compiling some thoughts on lone wolf terrorism after the Orlando mass murder, only to be confronted days later with another example of lone wolf terrorism – albeit of a very different nature – with the murder of UK Member of Parliament, Jo Cox.  A key point the literature seems to return to is the diversity of profile and agenda of the lone wolf: we should avoid cramming this into an “ISIS only” analytical process.

These forms of independent terrorism are gaining in prominence and are posing new forms of security challenge.  The Global Terrorism Index of 2015 notes the:

“…striking prevalence of lone wolf attacks in the West. Lone wolf attacks account for 70 per cent of all terrorist deaths in the West since 2006. Additionally, Islamic fundamentalism was not the primary driver of lone wolf attacks, with 80 per cent of deaths in the West from lone wolf attacks being attributed to a mixture of right wing extremists, nationalists, anti-government elements, other types of political extremism and supremacism…Lone wolf attackers are the main perpetrators of terrorist activity in the West”

This shift may be due in part to advancements in counter-terrorist work.

The Economist, June 2016

“Once spooks had to hunt terrorist gangs.  Then they had to adapt to a search for members of loose terrorist franchises.  Now the threat comes from individuals who act like fans following favourite sociopaths on social media”

I have taken a brief look through some of the recent literature.

Definition and study

A lone wolf terrorist is someone who uses violence or the threat of violence in support of a political goal.  The Hamm and Spaaij definition is a good working base:

“Lone wolf terrorism is political violence perpetrated by individuals who act alone; who do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network; who act without the direct influence of a leader or hierarchy; and whose tactics and methods are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or direction.”

But there are some issues of definition: this impacts on methodology, data and conclusions.  What are the analytical boundaries?  Should it be purely the number of the people involved or the level of independence from any external command?  The term “lone wolf” might suggest a single individual, but some studies argue that two or even three individuals working together could also qualify.  The extent to which this individual or small group has contact with an external control organisation is also open to debate: some feel that a “true” lone wolf has no contact whatsoever.  Others hold that a lone wolf might have contact at some point in the pathway towards violent action- are they simply inspired by, or have some contact be it inspirational or enabling – with, extremist groups?  RUSI makes three helpful recommendations about future study of lone wolf terrorism:

  1. Increased methodological rigour in empirical research;
  2. Focus on process as well as perpetrators;
  3. Specific examination of the confluence between returning foreign fighters, domestic Islamic State supporters, and the lone-actor threat


Social alienation, grievances and mental health issues recur as causes of lone wolf attacks.  But reporting suggests perhaps three main subsets of ideological motivation behind someone driven to act in this way:

  1. Right wing (e.g. US anti-government, racist, neo-Nazi). Hamm and Spaaj suggest over half lone wolf attacks in the US were right-wing or anti-government
  2. Extreme Islamist (e.g. AQ, ISIS)
  3. Self-developed/hybrid, based on some elements of external ideology combined with personal issues and grievances

Profile and characteristics of a lone wolf terrorist   

Much of the literature stresses the difficulty of coming up with precise profiles of lone wolf terrorists.  There is considerable variety in individual ideologies, social backgrounds and personality types, but some themes keep recurring (from RUSI):

  1. Higher average age to “normal” terrorists
  2. Few female lone wolves
  3. Criminal convictions
  4. Relatively well-educated but socially disadvantaged?
  5. Military experience (such as those returning from combat in Syria/Iraq)
  6. Greater degrees of mental illness (perhaps 40% from one survey) – but doesn’t mean they cannot plan or implement an effective attack – social problems and alienation
  7. Grievance/personal frustrations with society or government – but it is unclear what triggers the move from anger to violence/terrorism
  8. Lone actors often combine personal grievances with terror ideologies (FOI 2012), blending religious, society, political – can therefore come in all shapes and sizes – Spaaij “recommends caution in developing typologies”
  9. But possible to identify different categories of lone wolf based on ideology/religious background

A report by McCauley, Moskalenko and Van Son compared lone wolf terrorists with school shooters and came up with four common characteristics:

  1. Grievance
  2. Depression
  3. Unfreezing (a particular event in their personal life unlocks the potential for them to take violent action)
  4. Experience with weapons

They also suggested two profile types:

“disconnected-disordered are individuals with a grievance and weapons experience who are social loners and often show signs of psychological disorder;

caring-compelled are individuals who strongly feel the suffering of others and feel a personal responsibility to reduce or avenge this suffering.”

An ICIT report looking at the Orlando attacker, Omar Mateen, pointed at Mateen’s mental issues:

“The ISIS recruitment profile is a carbon copy of Omar Mateen…ISIS relies on isolated, psychologically unstable and angry individuals.”


ISIS have adapted AQ manual “Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen“, emphasising blending in with Western culture: shaving off a beard, being polite.  They recommend attacks on night clubs, where there is maximum noise to distract and a large group of people packed into a small area (presumably all engaging in “non-Islamic” activity).

Weapons employed (or planned to be used) look quite diverse (aircraft, biological weapons, knives and construction tools) but gravitated around firearms and explosive devices.  Hamm and Spaaij highlight the destructive power and ease of access of high velocity assault weapons in the US.  In an attack in South London in May 2013, knives and a car were used, killing one person (British soldier Lee Rigby), contrasting starkly with the 49 dead in Orlando, Florida in June 2016 at the hands of one person armed with an AR-15 military assault rifle.

The Internet

The internet gives people with grievance, frustration and mental health problems the opportunity to nurse and nurture these issues with writers, groups and ideas that fit their own situation.  It can be empowering to find that they are not alone.  Building “walls” to control trade or migration might have some impact (as Donald Trump will tell you), but ideas are less readily corralled.  The Internet is cited as key to the process of radicalisation and action in two ways.  It works as an “accelerant”, helping someone to access extreme ideologies and communities.  It provides support as an enabler, by providing instructions and guidance on operations and tactics.  But the internet also offers opportunities to detect and interdict lone wolves.

The “Tell” – signature activity and behaviour of lone wolves

Many cite the nature of their engagement on the internet as a potentially key indicator.  RUSI notes that lone wolves are prone to detection in the reconnaissance and planning phases, due to lack of professional deception skills and that people who knew the attacker generally had some idea that something was going on: a “detectable and observable range of behaviours”.  Hamm and Spaaj highlight the lone operator’s “broadcasting of intent: the announcement of planned action as part of a need to be recognised, acknowledged and understood in some way.

FOI suggest a “typology of warning behaviours, including:

  1. Leakage – the would-be terrorist gives away his or her intention to someone
  2. Fixation – extreme preoccupation with target
  3. Identification – fantasies – hero/warrior, an interest in weapons and military issues


There is a mixture of old and new in this branch of terrorism analysis.  Historical examples show the clear dangers of lone operators, however they are defined: John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and Timothy McVeigh.  The evidence points to a range of different ideologies.  The literature appears to be a little backwards in catching up with the new manifestations that we can now see.  There are struggles with definition and methodology that might hamper database collation and identification of clear typologies.  There are many different types of lone wolf, but people with problems (or combination of problems) be it mental health, alienation from society, grievances against government and similar can now readily access ideologies that suit their issues and instruction and inspiration for action.  But new technologies in communication and media propaganda are being exploited by Islamic extremist groups and lone wolf attacks look currently to be “the crest of the terrorist wave”.  Do-it-yourself operations that could take place anywhere at any time are harder to track and interdict.  They may be less effective but the element of surprise can still generate fear within civil society.  As counter-terrorist organisations hone their skill at disrupting tangible and traceable networks, it makes sense for dynamic organisations like ISIS to seek yet more creative ways of disrupting Western society by harnessing the raw human material of often vulnerable and susceptible people.  This is here to stay for a while and may spread beyond what we currently see as “conventional” forms of terrorist agenda.

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