Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat by Jeffrey D. Simon

Matthew Feldman on the expanding threat to society from unpredictable individuals

May 2, 2013

Hot on the heels of Ramón Spaaij’s Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism, this is the second book on this resurgent phenomenon in as many years. Whereas that study, by a lone-wolf specialist, was concise and quantitative, this account by terrorism consultant Jeffrey Simon is expansive and qualitative. They form a useful pair, despite Simon’s unwillingness to enter into meaningful dialogue with the (admittedly sparse) literature on the subject - underscored by the foreword’s mistaken assertion that “until now, there has been no study of lone wolf terrorism”.

Research has indeed been done, albeit too little. That is surprising, given that what one expert dubbed “first-wave terrorism”, anarchism (followed by anticolonial, “new Left” and, since 1979, religious waves), was typically the work of individuals. In one shocking instance, at least 33 people died and hundreds were injured on 16 September 1920 in the first-ever car bombing, near Wall Street in New York City. Mario Buda, widely seen as the most likely suspect, was never caught or tried, nor in fact seen again, so it should lead to some speculation as to whether this was a lone-wolf attack, as it should in the cases of the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 (for which Nidal Malik Hasan is awaiting trial) and the 2001 anthrax attacks (a suspect, Bruce Ivins, killed himself in 2008), both of which are perhaps overzealously treated here as cold cases.

Did lone wolves commit these recent attacks? That hinges on the definition, and Simon’s is overly long and generous. Found on the appendix’s final page, a 128-word mega-sentence embraces “the use or threat of violence” by up to three (!) people; unhelpfully, it includes asymmetrical attacks as well as “intended or actual” destruction with “the same effect, or potential effect, upon government, society, business, or the military”. From hurricanes to earthquakes, in this reading, Mother Nature might well be the greatest lone wolf of all.

This definition gets Simon into real difficulties: the political assassinations of US presidents William McKinley and James A. Garfield; the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 (for which two people were convicted); even the first mid-air bombing in 1955, which killed 44 people on board - among them bomber John Gilbert Graham’s mother, targeted for her life insurance. None of these “criminal” or “idiosyncratic” (or mentally ill) individuals was an ideological lone wolf of, say, Anders Behring Breivik’s stripe, and Simon is on rather surer ground in his first three - although still porous and problematic - categories of secular, religious and single-issue lone-wolf terrorists.

Taxonomy aside, incisive insight is offered on why women rarely undertake these sorts of attacks; on nascent counterterrorist strategies for lone wolves; and, most valuably, on what the future holds. Avoid the latter chapter if you are prone to post-Boston Marathon nightmares, as the three points repeated throughout - the “creative and innovative nature of the lone-wolf terrorist”; the growing potential for the use of weapons of mass destruction by have-a-go hellions; and most significantly, “technology, particularly the Internet”- detail some seriously scary scenarios. For all its communicative emancipation, the dark side of the web “has undoubtedly been a godsend for the individual terrorist”, argues Simon, as it offers access to a relatively safe, anonymous and omniscient corpus of radicalising agents and nefarious information for the autodidactic terrorist. The thousands of hate sites and many paramilitary manuals online highlight this point only too clearly.

Lone Wolf Terrorism rightly emphasises that self-activating terrorism is no longer the preserve of the radical Right - which heretofore cornered the bloody market - but in recent years, frighteningly, has been deployed by decentralised Islamists and others, too. In this century, Simon concludes, lone wolves have already “demonstrated that they are important players in the world of terrorism”, meaning that this tactic “will have to be reckoned with both now and for the foreseeable future”. Patently true, if troubling, words: we need more, and more nuanced, books to aid in this overdue reckoning.

Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat

By Jeffrey D. Simon
Prometheus Books, 335pp, £22.95
ISBN 9781616146467
Published 26 February 2013

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