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Are lone wolves the future of terrorism?

The Promenade des Anglais on the morning after the 2016 Nice attack

By Linda Schlegel

In Munich a gunman shot nine people, in Würzburg a man attacked train passengers with a knife and an axe, in Ansbach a suicide bomber detonated his bomb at a music festival and in Nice a man purposefully ran over pedestrians in a truck. All these attacks took place in the last year and were executed by individuals not belonging to a terrorist organization. It is therefore not surprising that lone wolf terrorism is seen as an increasing problem.

Terrorist acts planned and perpetrated by individual actors are not a new phenomenon, but have recently come to the forefront of public awareness again with a perceived hike in attacks of this kind. The Guardian titled in June 2016 “Islamist terror has evolved toward lone actors- and it’s brutally effective” suggesting lone actors have become part of a deliberate strategy by Islamic terrorist organizations, which would imply that law enforcement and civil society alike must prepare for more of these types of attacks.

There are three questions to be answered in order to judge whether the Guardian’s concern is justified: a) What is lone wolf terrorism and how effective is it? b) Is this type of terrorism a deliberate strategy facilitated by violent armed groups? c) Is lone actor terrorism the future of attacks in the West?

The definitions of lone wolf actors vary considerably, sometimes including small cells as well as individuals. A basic definition by sociology of terrorism expert Ramon Spaaij describes the lone actor as someone, who “operates individually, does not belong to an organized terrorist group or network and whose modi operandi are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or hierarchy”. In other words, lone wolves are not part of a defined organization and do not take direct external orders.

This does not mean that lone actors need to be completely detached from features of group-based terrorism; for instance, lone actors often justify their actions through a particular ideology also espoused by organizations such as Salafi jihadism or right-wing extremism. An example of this is Anders Breivik, who was not formally a member of any violent political group and who executed every single step from the planning to the bomb making and the shooting by himself without support from the outside.

The 2016 RUSI report on lone actor terrorism showed that these types of attacks are generally not extremely effective with 1.22 fatalities per attack and 76% of attacks not causing any loss of life. In terms of effectiveness, Anders Breivik as well as the perpetrator in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, are outliers in the data set producing a lot more fatalities than other lone actors. In general, attacks perpetrated by actors that can be classified as lone wolves are less common than other types of attacks. However, as shown before, recent years have seen a considerable increase in individual attackers, which leads to the question of whether attacks of this nature are part of a change in strategy by leading terrorist organizations.

It is true that the so-called Islamic State endorsed self-starter terrorists in part of its propaganda. The more general schism between different violent jihadist organizations about whether the near enemy, that is regimes in the Middle East, or the far enemy, primarily Western democracies, seems to play a role in this. Whereas ISIS is very much focused on the establishment of a caliphate, in contrast to Al-Qaeda, it also underlines a determination to attack the far enemy. For this purpose, it is far easier to recruit people, who are already in these Western countries and who cannot be easily reached by a logistical support structure. Espousing lone wolf terrorism is a rational choice for ISIS. For instance, the ‘manual’ on how to use trucks for an attack has apparently inspired the attacks in Nice and Berlin.

There is also an increasing number of attacks being claimed by the Islamic State, which may or may not have been carried out with specific reference to its ideology. It is a strategic choice to accept responsibility for all kinds of violent acts and to exacerbate the fear that the organization can strike anywhere at any time. It may therefore appear that ISIS inspired lone actor attacks increased, but this does not mean that this is necessarily the case.

A call to arms for individuals as well as claiming responsibility for a variety of attacks may be part of a new strategy, but by itself it is not enough to explain the recent rise in individual actors engaging in terrorism. It is difficult for an organization to encourage lone actors without actively recruiting them and thereby making them part of the network rather than a lone wolf. A more general societal shift may help to explain why ISIS seems to succeed in this difficult undertaking.

Already in 2001, American writer Marc Prensky observed that the rise of digital technology fundamentally changed everything especially for the so-called digital natives; that is, the new generation growing up using this technology. In his opinion digital natives process information in a very different way than previous generations did and are networked in all aspects of life. The group-level factors used to explain terrorism, such as peer pressure, group-identity, a feeling of belonging and a radicalization through interaction were thought to require physical contact.

If Prensky is correct, the new generation of violent actors may not need this face-to-face interaction to radicalize and base its identity on the group. Because they are networked already, it is easier for them to construct a virtual community with the same effects on behavior as previous offline communities. Even though they may fulfill the criteria laid out in the definition of lone wolves, they themselves would refer to being a member of a group rather than a lone actor. It may therefore be necessary in the future to alter our definition and understanding of what constitutes a lone actor. In the case of Salafi jihadism, it may not be necessary to have a recruiter in a mosque, but online propaganda could inspire enough identification with the ummah, the global community of Muslims, to take up arms. To be sure, there is significant debate about whether radicalization can take place purely online and more research on this issue is necessary, but it is a possibility that ISIS utilizes the characteristics of digital natives to inspire more self-starter terrorists far away from the caliphate.

Does this mean that lone wolf actors are the future of terrorism? The assessment is difficult. Based on previously acquired knowledge on lone wolfs, these actors are more likely to have mental health problems and generally do not fit into group structures. These characteristics can generally only be found in a small amount of people, which means these actors cannot be the future of terrorism. However, the likelihood that exclusion and frustration lead certain individuals to be inspired by lone wolf attacks should not be underestimated. Grievances are a powerful motivational source, especially if coupled with propaganda glorifying self-starter terrorism. In addition, increasing travel restrictions and monitoring by state authorities may lead those, who would have preferred to travel to Syria to join ISIS or to join another terrorist organization, to seek a different way of engagement, possibly with a lone actor attack.

One of the key questions of terrorism research, why only some individuals employ violent means in response to grievances, is also unanswered for lone wolves and especially for the new generation of digitally networked yet lone actors. One also needs to note, however, that it is possible to engage in prevention and detection measures for lone wolves specifically to counter the new trend. HorganProfessor of Global Studies and Psychology at Georgia State University, and his colleagues found that lone wolves tend to ‘leak’ their plans to family, friends or on the internet, which makes detection possible. In addition, many communities have taken on the task to prevent radicalization in youth; a measure that is also able to help potential lone wolves if the community makes an effort to include these individuals. Lone wolf terrorism is unlikely to take precedent over group-based attacks, but it is very possible that the increase of attacks in 2016 was part of a general trend towards an increase in this phenomenon.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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