In the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda showed just how much destruction a well-organized terrorist network could wreak through coordinated strikes. In June 2016, a gunman killed 49 people in a Florida nightclub, illustrating a different kind of threat that the West is increasingly facing: individuals acting on their own with little or no connection to militant Islamic groups except in their own minds. These so-called lone-wolf terrorists are especially difficult to detect in advance, and thus to stop. Their violence is fueling debates in the U.S. and Europe over issues including gun control, online privacy and immigration from Muslim countries.
Lone-wolf terrorists are generally defined as acting alone or with one or two others, without specific instructions, with a political motivation but no formal ties to an organization. Attacks by lone wolves, at least until recently, were relatively rare, accounting for 1.8 percent of terrorist attacks in the U.S. and 14 other industrialized countries between 1968 and 2010. Yet officials in the U.S. and many states within the European Union say the risk of attacks by independent jihadists is rising. Sociologists and criminologists say lone wolves tend to harbor both personal and political grievances. More often than not, they display signs of mental instability, which may help explain their attraction to extreme causes and their inability to function within a larger group. One study found that lone wolves are 13.5 times more likely to have a mental illness than a terrorist acting within an organization. Lone-wolf attacks often inspire copycats.
The term "lone wolf" stems from American white supremacists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger, who in the 1990s encouraged fellow believers to commit violent acts independently to evade detection. White supremacy, Islamic militancy and opposition to abortion were the most common motivations for lone-wolf attacks in the U.S. from 1968 to 2007, according to one study, while nationalism and white supremacy topped the list in 14 other countries. Increasingly, jihadist groups have encouraged such assaults. As its base of operation in Afghanistan came under assault after the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda began calling on supporters to strike enemies whenever, wherever and however they could. With its staging grounds in Iraq and Syria challenged in recent years, the rival group Islamic State similarly began using social media to convey the same message. French scholars Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy have engaged in a vigorous debate over whether jihadists homegrown in Europe are symptoms of the radicalization of Islam (Kepel's view) or the Islamization of radicalism. Roy argues that they are modern-day nihilists who have glommed onto militant Islam to justify their rebellion against society.
Because lone wolves don’t belong to organizations that can be infiltrated and monitored, they are difficult to combat. Some critics of existing countermeasures say law-enforcement agencies should have more leeway to conduct surveillance and act on it. A number of individual jihadists had drawn the attention of authorities at some point before their attacks. Other proposals include putting more pressure on social-media companies to block terrorist propaganda and, in the U.S., strengthening gun regulations. Some politicians, notably U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, advocate restricting Muslim immigration. Each of those measures draws objections. Critics of boosting surveillance argue it could alienate and even radicalize Muslim communities, as could limiting immigration. Policing social media, skeptics warn, could lead to too much government control. Opponents of gun restrictions in the U.S. say they would violate a constitutional right to bear arms. Scholars who study lone-wolf terrorists suggest that a better understanding of them could help others spot them before it's too late. One study of such attackers found that most broadcast their violent intentions in advance, in statements to associates, on social media or in various forms of protest.
- The American Civil Liberties Union argues against sacrificing civil liberties in an effort to prevent lone-wolf attacks.
- A Foreign Affairs article posits that those who label terrorists lone wolves often fail to appreciate the scope of jihadist networks in the West.
- A study of lone-wolf terrorism in the U.S. funded by the Department of Justice.
- A study on the connection between mental illness and lone-actor terrorism.
- An article comparing lone wolves with assassins and school attackers.
First published Sept. 23, 2016
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