Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention

Matthew Feldman reports on the modus operandi of far-Right 'leaderless resistance'

May 3, 2012

The chilling premise of Unthinkable, Gregor Jordan's 2010 film starring Samuel L. Jackson, is of a lone-wolf terrorist commandeering several nuclear bombs and targeting literally millions of people. When he is captured and interrogated, for the terrorist (brilliantly played by Michael Sheen) no less than for his captors, "Right and wrong no longer exist", as the film's tagline emphasises. Of course, the extraordinary circumstances and several graphic scenes of torture could only come from Hollywood's bag of tricks. But is the idea possible? Could a lone-wolf terrorist have the potential to wreak such mayhem?

The evidence to date suggests...not yet. "Not yet", however, is bad enough. In Norway, a trial is examining - in ghastly detail - 77 murders at the hands of an archetypal lone-wolf terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, who vaingloriously sees himself as the vanguard in a coming European civil war against multicultural infidels and "cultural Marxist" traitors. His manifesto, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, is as much an incitement to hatred as a lone-wolf terrorist DIY kit, ranging from a personal diary to daily instructions on bomb-making. In the real world beyond Hollywood, the flood waters are rising.

Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism thus comes at a welcome time and succeeds in making this complex phenomenon comprehensible. Perhaps surprisingly, Ramon Spaaij's slim but highly significant account is the first to crunch the numbers on lone-wolf terrorism. To do so, he makes use of underused open-source materials, notably the impressive Global Terrorism Database, which since 2008 has been hosted by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, alongside the Terrorism Knowledge Base. Both are significant compendia, collectively containing 11,235 terrorist incidents (including failed attempts) between 1968 and 2010. From these, 198 incidents by 88 "solo-actor" terrorists, claiming 123 lives across 15 Western countries - including the US, home of the radical right-wing lone wolf a la Breivik - are described by Spaaij as political terrorism "conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or hierarchy".

At less than 1.8 per cent of all terrorist incidents since 1968, lone-wolf terrorism seems almost trivial when compared with coordinated atrocities on the scale of events such as those of 11 September 2001. Before Breivik, for example, Spaaij identifies the most murderous lone-wolf terrorist as Joseph Paul Franklin, an American white supremacist who killed 18 people in the late 1970s. Yet as a strategy it is on the rise, notably having been adopted by Islamist terrorists in recent years. Apparently thus motivated, Nidal Malik Hasan, a US Army major, killed 13 people in a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009. Perhaps this is a sign of the failure of organised jihadism, as Spaaij observes.

But as the book makes clear (among what in places can be dry reading comprising statistics and pie charts on geographical distribution, incident trajectory over time, weapons and tactics), for more than a generation lone-wolf terrorism has been the favoured preserve of the far Right (especially in America). Deriving from "leaderless resistance" concepts advocated in the 1980s by Louis Beam - of Aryan Nations infamy - and taken up with renewed vigour in the 2000s by propagandists such as Tom Metzger (perhaps the sole member of WAR, or White Aryan Resistance), radical-Right ideology formed the basis for 17 per cent of lone-wolf attacks in Spaaij's study (rising to about a quarter when "anti-abortion activists" are included). Add notoriously loose gun laws to the mix - the US accounts for an overwhelming 45 per cent of incidents included in this smallish sample - and this starts to look like a very American problem.

Yet as Breivik so horrifically showed on 22 July 2011, far-Right Europeans can also source weaponry and undertake solo-actor terrorism. One such terrorist was jailed not two years ago in the UK under the Chemical Weapons Act 1996. Ian Davison had succeeded in preparing ricin, one of the most toxic substances on earth, all by himself. While the dozen or so lethal doses he produced are nowhere near the scale of the acts in Unthinkable, we are truly at the threshold of (lone-wolf) terrorism connecting with weapons of mass destruction.

In concluding this necessary first monograph on the study of lone-wolf terrorism, Spaaij helpfully turns to responses: both professionals' and the public's. This includes surveys of key interdiction techniques alongside a timely reminder that lone-wolf terrorism (and every other form as well) is not a fundamental threat to nations or liberal values: only our responses can have that effect, as Unthinkable shows so starkly. Cooler heads shall prevail, aided by facts and figures and increased vigilance. In providing heaps of statistics and a keenly quantitative assessment, Spaaij commendably reminds us - at least in terms of lone-wolf terrorism - that "there have been relatively few successful attacks, and even fewer attacks cause significant destruction and loss of life". Simply put, terrorism is far less dangerous than driving, if far more frightening. As a political tactic, it remains hard to do and easy to stop. Yet its threat can only ever be minimised, of course, and never completely eliminated from modern society - however many fingernails Samuel L. Jackson removes in Hollywood blockbusters.

Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention

By Ramón Spaaij

Springer, 119pp, £44.99

ISBN 9789400729803

Published 9 December 2011

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