As a rule, terrorist attacks can be divided into two types: “personal
initiative” attacks, and “organized terrorism.”
In organized terrorism, a
terrorist organization is involved in one, some, or all of the stages of a
terrorist attack: initiation, planning, preparation, perpetration. A terrorist
organization may initiate an attack that is ultimately perpetrated by others
unaffiliated with it. Or one organization may help another organization or group
conduct a terrorist attack by passing on intelligence, supplying weapons,
training the attackers, or providing funding.
organization may initiate, plan and prepare an attack so that others can execute
it. All of these scenarios constitute “indirect organized terrorism.” On the
other hand, in “direct organized terrorism,” a terrorist organization may be
involved in all stages of the initiation and preparation of an attack, and then
in fact send its own operatives to perpetrate it.
terrorism may be implemented by one of a terrorist organization’s local cells,
sleeper cells, or individual activists.
In contrast, a personal
initiative terrorist attack is one in which no terrorist organization has played
any part. No organization initiated it, no organization planned it, no
organization prepared it, and its perpetrators were not members of any terrorist
organization. In some cases, a terrorist organization may inspire or incite a
local terrorist network or “lone wolf” to perpetrate an attack, even without
taking any active part in the specific attack.
A personal initiative
begins and ends in the febrile mind of an individual, or in the dark discussions
of a local group which, for whatever reason, has decided to launch a terrorist
attack. When a personal initiative attack is carried out by an individual who is
neither affiliated with nor sent by a terrorist organization, we say he or she
has acted as a “lone wolf.” His or her motives may be personal-psychological,
allied with the motives of a local group, or derived from global political
The psychologically-driven lone wolf may be responding to an
internal imperative born of a past traumatic incident (however, if this incident
and the response to it are not political, then the lone wolf’s attack is a
crime, and not terrorism, and constitutes murder or attempted murder). The lone
wolf impelled by local imperatives may be responding to a local political
situation – that is, to the statements, events, processes or decisions of his
municipal, state, or even federal government (e.g., recent efforts to increase
gun control in the United States).
The lone wolf inspired by global
political considerations usually decides to carry out a terrorist attack after
protracted exposure to nationalistic, religious, ethnic or socio-economic
indoctrination and incitement, which have reached him obliquely, through the
media or the Internet – (blogs, Web sites, chat rooms, Facebook and other social
networking sites) – or directly, through his immediate social circle –
(spiritual mentors or leaders, teachers, relatives, peers).
politically motivated lone wolf may attack in response to a concrete event, his
decision to do so is usually not a momentary caprice; rather, it is most often
the culmination of a process of radicalization, involving continuous exposure to
agitation and encouragement.
It is worth noting that organized terrorism
is usually more sophisticated and complex than personal initiative terrorism,
and therefore often causes many more casualties.
This is unsurprising,
given that terrorist organizations have greater capability, resources and
experience than does any individual attacker.
organizations may fall prey to infiltration by intelligence agents.
multiplicity of people involved in the clandestine initiation, planning,
preparation and execution of an organized terrorist attack creates a risk that
information will leak out to security personnel, who may try to preempt the
In contrast, personal initiative attacks are usually less
complex. The lone terrorist uses primitive means: “cold” weapons such as a knife
or gun; vehicular attack, homemade, improvised explosive devices. While the
number of casualties a lone attacker can cause is therefore more limited, the
likelihood of thwarting his attack is also smaller.
initiative attacks are perpetrated after an individual has made a very personal
decision – one he has most likely not shared with even those closest to him – it
is almost impossible to obtain early intelligence regarding his
Those who are now tasked with investigating the terrorist
attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon must determine just what sort of attack it
was. Was it an instance of organized terrorism, carried out by a local group or
cell sent on a mission by an organization headquartered outside the US? Or was
it the personal initiative of a lone wolf or a local network unaffiliated in any
way with – even if influenced by – a particular terrorist organization? It is
too soon to know.
However, if we assess the slivers of information
already available, it appears the attack was conducted using small, improvised
explosive devices, and that the two devices that exploded were placed very close
to one another. We may therefore hazard a calculated guess that this terrible
attack was the personal initiative of a local group or a lone wolf who, in this
case, succeeded in fulfilling the dream of modern terrorists everywhere: to
perpetrate an attack among a condensed crowd of people in the presence of a
large media contingent.
The chosen target – the finish line of the Boston
Marathon – provided both of these key variables.
despite the immense importance of this event to sports enthusiasts from around
the world, the Boston Marathon is a local event. The residents of other US
states and other countries may barely be aware of this marathon. It is not an
international event commensurate with, say, the Olympics. It did not take place
at a famous, symbolic site like the World Trade Center or the Empire State
Building in New York, or the Pentagon in Washington, DC. This also suggests that
the initiative was local, whether the attack itself was perpetrated by a lone
wolf, by a limited network not tied to an established terrorist organization, or
even by an independent sleeper cell affiliated with a local or international
A more decisive answer to these questions and,
primarily, swift and precise identification of the specific nature and plan of
this attack will promote an efficient investigation that will lead to the
apprehension of all those involved. Clarification of the type and nature of this
attack will also facilitate an examination of the functioning of security forces
and the derivation of lessons whose implementation may reduce, or preclude, harm
from similar terrorist events in the future.The author is the Ronald
Lauder Chair for Counter Terrorism, founder and executive director of The
International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and deputy dean of
the Lauder School of Government at The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.