A Profile of the “Lone Wolf” Terrorist

Terrorist attacks perpetrated by people acting alone come seemingly out of nowhere, but they have the potential to cause devastating loss.

Recently, a group of researchers from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom analyzed 55 cases of terrorist attacks committed by lone attackers, looking to see what these attacks had in common. In their paper, published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, the researchers discuss what defines the typical lone actor terrorist.

As it turns out, one of the hallmarks of the “lone actor” terrorist may be incompetence. This could come as a surprise, since the examples of lone actor attacks we hear about tend to be the deadly exceptions to this rule that gain widespread media attention.

On average, though, the typical lone actor is neither very skilled at executing an attack, nor very good at keeping their plans secret. In fact, the researchers found that most lone actors reveal both their ability to commit an attack and their underlying motivations in advance – sometimes by months, other times even by years.

The researchers also found that besides being generally incompetent, the lone wolf tends not to be so “lone” either. They found that most lone actors have social ties that they rely on in planning attacks. Moreover, the people who surround lone actors often play an instrumental role in forming and maintaining the motivation for the attack.

Taken together, these findings suggest that the idea of the lone wolf terrorist is probably something of an oversimplification. It appears that most lone actors tend, at least to some extent, to reveal both their desire and their ability to commit an attack in advance. Moreover, these attackers tend to rely on other people in maintaining their desire and in building up their ability to commit an attack. According to the authors of the study, then, improving our ability to prevent these attacks may require ‘a re-evaluation of the “one actor” concept.’

Image: Flickr/andrew