Lone wolf: The mindset of 45 terrorists

A unique research project reveals what makes lone wolves tick – and what could discourage future recruits.

PALESTINIAN PRESENTER Raji Al-Hams (right) listens to Hamas official Salah al-Bardweel at the studio of Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV in Gaza City in 2015. The studio is decorated with slogans praising the ‘Knife Intifada.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
PALESTINIAN PRESENTER Raji Al-Hams (right) listens to Hamas official Salah al-Bardweel at the studio of Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV in Gaza City in 2015. The studio is decorated with slogans praising the ‘Knife Intifada.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s simple math. Operational capability plus motive equals a terror attack.
In this simple formula, IDC Herzliya International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) director and Lauder School dean Boaz Ganor summarizes his 35 years of dealing with terrorism.
“If a group has a motive, no matter what it is, and if they have an operational capability, there will be terror operations. There is also a multiplying factor between these variables. On the other hand, if one of the variables is zero, then there will be nothing,” said Ganor.
This explains why Ganor ran a unique project – which was revealed exclusively for the first time by The Jerusalem Post – in which a team he assembled interviewed 45 lone wolf terrorists serving time in Israeli jails.
In a rare mix of government support for the project and interest by the lone wolves to tell their stories, all but one of 46 interviewees who ICT requested participated in the program.
The team was led by Ganor and senior ICT researcher and the former chair of Tel Aviv University’s Psychology Department, Prof. Ariel Merari.
It also included a team of five psychologists and five sociologists.
With special unprecedented approvals from the Israeli government, ICT interviewed and completed a study of 45 lone wolf terrorists in Israeli prisons.
All of the interviewers were native Arabic speakers to ensure exact translation.
All of the interviewees took around half-a-dozen psychological tests, including the Rorschach test, among others.
The sociologists asked a range of questions relating to the frequency and manner of the lone wolves’ usage of social media, their income as well as their personal and family problems. They also discussed motivations for attacking and what kinds of things, prior to an attack, could have influenced them to hold back.
ICT created a massive database of lone wolf attacks, and reviewed the media in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Around a decade ago, Ganor and Merari conducted a similar study on suicide bombers, although this lone wolf project is clearly unique. At the end of the process, ICT’s team consulted with around 25 experts about the lone wolf phenomenon and ways to mitigate it.
WHY IS GANOR’S project so important to understanding and combating the lone wolf phenomenon and future potential terror trends?
Going back to his formula, he said, “You need to learn how to be effective in the war on terror. You need to deal with both of these two factors. At first glance, you can deal with one and try to get it to zero, but I argue that dealing with one only temporarily reduces terror,” he said.
The reason is, “As long as there is either motivation or operational capability, it is only a matter of time until the other factor increases again.”
Ganor argues that Israel and the West have done a much better job fighting capability and a poorer job of discouraging motivation. He said this is why the lone wolf phenomenon has left all of us more vulnerable.
If traditionally, intelligence services could thwart terror attacks by tracking the movement of terror financing, weapons, communications and planning activities, all of this is irrelevant with lone wolves.
“Anything is a weapon. A kitchen knife. Keys to start a car. Anything. So there is only motivation for stopping them. This means understanding their motivations is even more important,” he said.
Taking apart the “Knife Intifada” of October 2015-December 2017, there were 700 attackers and 560 attacks.
Some 85% of the attackers were men and 15% were women. Around 77% of the attackers came from the West Bank, while 17% came from east Jerusalem.
During the first stage of the Knife Intifada, October 2015-March 2016, the attacks had around a 50% “success” rate, meaning they succeeded in at least wounding one Israeli victim.
From April 2016-December 2017, the “success” rate dropped significantly to around 25%.
How did Israel succeed in getting the rate of attacks to drop and eventually to fizzle out to a more standard rate? The new capabilities in artificial intelligence and big data collection with the increased use of social media as well as the increased online presence by lone wolf attackers all helped contribute to this fact.
Ganor said that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and other security agencies did an expert job at utilizing these new capabilities along with traditional communications and human intelligence.
Various geopolitical tensions also eventually wound down. Along with relative success by the government at getting social media giants to police terrorists’ posts, this meant that the overall atmosphere of incitement was reduced.
But all of this was on the operational side.
Ganor maintains that Israel and much of the West have been much weaker in countering terrorists’ motivations.
Although many observers understand that countering terrorists’ motivations is a synonym for political and territorial concessions to the Palestinians, Ganor said that he wants to reduce motivations without having to enter a controversial political debate.
WHAT NEW lessons did Ganor’s team learn about lone wolves’ motivations from the direct interviews?
What do these lessons say about whether past efforts improved the fight against lone wolves during the Knife Intifada?
Ganor said he learned a crucial lesson by his interactions with an imprisoned senior Hamas terrorist.
He asked the Hamas man how long he had been in Israeli prison.
The man replied over 10 years, adding, “You [Israelis] put me in to your jail because I am a freedom fighter.”
At this point, Ganor interjected that this terrorist and many others have been confused by the stock phrase that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Ganor said that “this is a deceptive sentence,” because freedom is a goal and terror is a means.
In other words, terror uses violence against civilians as a means to achieve some kind of goal.
According to Ganor, this means that someone could claim to be a freedom fighter, but “if you deliberately attack civilians, you are definitely a terrorist.”
Returning to his exchange with the Hamas man, he asked him if he were still free and able to fight, “Is there any kind of violence that you would not carry out because it would go against your value system and criteria?”
The Hamas man responded saying, “I know where you are going. You want to say that it is prohibited for me to kill civilians. But in Israel there are no civilians because everyone, even all your kids, become soldiers or pilots who drop bombs on us.”
Not one to give up easily, Ganor added, “I understand what you are arguing. But I ask you again, is there any target that you would not attack because it is against your values?”
Finally, Ganor said that the Hamas commander answered: “Yes. It’s forbidden to intentionally kill children under this value system.”
Hamas does sometimes perpetrate violence against children. But the answer “was good news because the fact that there is an internal struggle means that there is a debate about distinguishing between freedom fighters and terrorists even in their [own] communities.”
Ganor was not saying that we must respect the Hamas commander’s value system. He was saying that there was something to work with – however divorced from Western values – and that counter-terror strategy must tap into anything it can use to reduce terrorists’ motivation.
What did these unique 45 interviews yield regarding lone wolves’ motivation for perpetrating terror? If there were two brothers in similar familial and economic circumstances and influenced by the same general environment of incitement, what made one brother into a killer while one stayed within the mainstream?
There were three categories of motivations: 1) ideological: whether nationalistic, religious or political 2) personal: which covered economic problems, domestic disputes between spouses and other family stresses and 3) psychological: this covered people with a death wish to be killed through “suicide by [attacking a] cop,” a mental disorder or some other psychological instability.
Two-thirds of the 45 lone wolves suffered from some form of mental disease or psychosis and had suicidal tendencies. A staggering 54% would have preferred to die during their attack, rather than live.
Along with Merari, Ganor said that ICT has founded and greatly expanded the study of psychology and terrorism. This is one of the reasons he believes that ICT was the first non-American non-government institution where US military fellows were sent to study – a program which has now been running for several years.
Variables that overlapped the three categories and could alter the overall balance included perceived violations of Palestinian honor and the level of tension or incitement against Israel at a given moment.
In analyzing the dynamic between the different motivations of lone wolves to commit acts of terror to their environment, Ganor gave the metaphor of a bath tub.
He said one must assume that the liquid inside the bath tub represents the volatile mix of motives and the wall of the tub represents the strength or weakness of one’s environment in inhibiting people from perpetrating terror.
In that case, the critical question is how to keep the bath water from overflowing.
The wall may be lower, and it may take less water to overflow during times of high tension. Examples of high tension periods include the Knife Intifada at its peak, conflicts over the Temple Mount or after the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
But generally, if motivations can be reduced, if the plug is pulled to empty some of the water from the tub, there is always a minimum wall of inhibitions that will hold individuals not linked to an organization back from committing lone wolf acts of terror.
WHAT ARE some practical suggestions Ganor and his team arrived at to reduce the motivation of lone wolves?
One is “not to play into the hands of terrorists by letting them commit suicide by cop – meaning, to avoid killing attackers where possible.”
This idea is again based on the finding that two-thirds of lone wolf terrorists are psychologically unstable, and a mind-blowing 54% have a death wish as much as they may be angry at Israeli soldiers.
So if they see running at an Israeli soldier with a kitchen knife as a way to die and gain fame, many of them will be turned on to the idea.
In contrast, if potential lone wolves read again and again that single attackers are being arrested and spending their lives humiliated, miserable and bored in jail, they may think twice.
If their true desire is a death wish, they may even decide to quietly commit suicide alone at home as a “safer” bet, which means that they will not hurt others.
This would completely alter their incentive structure.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman persistently opposes capital punishment as a sentence for Palestinian terrorists.
Argaman orders aggressive action against terrorists all the time and is not a light-weight.
But having studied lone wolves’ motives, he believes that messages to the Palestinian public about getting caught when perpetrating terror could lead to “martyrdom” by capital punishment, and could actually increase – as opposed to deter – lone wolf terror.
Beyond that, Ganor said that the variable of dignity as a motivation can be reduced.
He said that if Israel or other Western countries make a systematic and public effort to treat religious and cultural symbols and sensitivities with dignity, such as physical copies of the Koran and the modesty of Muslim women, many escalations can be avoided.
Violating Muslim dignity publicly has already been shown to potentially ignite waves of violence. Ganor has brought this message all over the world, as over the years more and more countries realize it is a global problem.
ONE AREA where Ganor wishes the global fight on terror could advance would be in arriving at a joint definition of terror.
In recent years, when governments have campaigned to get Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to remove terror-related posts, one challenge has been that different governments have different definitions. This has allowed the social media giants more room to maneuver than if there was an agreed-upon working definition accepted by all or most Western states, even if it was not universally accepted.
Ganor said he was a realist and understood that some countries, like Russia, China and others, might have an interest in keeping an official terrorism definition vague.
But he said an agreement of such a definition that Russia, China and others could swallow, or abstain from actively opposing, could reap big dividends.
He thought the most realistic definition would state “the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilians by non-state actors in order to achieve political ends.” He commented that although his definition was short, it was objective and to the point.
By using the qualifier non-state actors, this definition can avoid a direct confrontation with top powerful states who sponsor terror, while honing in on those who sponsor terrorism. Another area of ICT expertise looks forward to predict what the next paradigm of terror attacks might be.
ICT excels more than others in the counter-terror arena in predicting future threats, to the extent that foreign governments and intelligence services have them run mock-terror attack scenarios to see how they will cope. It won two grants lasting three years for a project with various EU countries. ICT has been part of a consortium with law enforcement and companies to understand and plan for potential terror acts from a range of groups, including: Islamists, the extreme Left or Right, animal rights and environmental activists.
One thing ICT does is try to create a counter-narrative for those groups to promote countering terrorists’ public narrative to try to attract recruits and followers. ICT decided to plan a simulated attack on a train in an EU country and presented the relevant authorities with a process, which imitated the decision-making and operations process of relevant terror groups. Ganor’s group used open-source intelligence to select potentially softer and more vulnerable targets to mimic the likely approach of an ISIS or al-Qaeda cell and created an action plan for carrying out the attack.
Ganor said that while intelligence agencies are trying to create similar simulations to prepare for terrorist attacks, they cannot always invest as much energy into the process since they are preoccupied by their day-to-day duty of protecting against terrorism.
In contrast, ICT’s team, “can sit down and look at the big picture from different angles” and give them multiple scenarios and results, which may lead them to discovering more loopholes that terrorists might exploit and governments must plug.
Exploring multiple possibilities for an attack on an EU country, Ganor’s team looked at a drone attack on a bus and a bomb on a train, but eventually settled on mapping out a train track derailer device. Ganor said that a derailer can be bought at a low cost online with no security checks in order to cause a high-speed train to crash or land in the water, when the conductor may think he or she is still on the correct track. He added that the device only takes around five minutes to install and that his team found an ideal spot where terrorists could place the derailer.
The report was never made public so there was no way that terror groups could have learned about the idea from Ganor’s team, and yet, one year later, Al-Qaeda’s Inspire Magazine devoted an entire issue to educating lone wolves into how to use a derailer on a train.
“One year before al-Qaeda thought about the process, we were able to already anticipate it because we are the closest thing to a terrorist organization that is not a terrorist organization,” and help governments prepare for new future threats, he said. He added that because “counter-terrorism is a puzzle,” even the best intelligence agencies are sometimes missing pieces but his red-teaming exercise can help them find those pieces.
WITH HIS luck predicting al-Qaeda’s interest in a derailer attack, what does Ganor foresee as the next major terror threat?
“No doubt we are at the end of the current wave of lone wolves” in Israel, “but very soon there will be a new wave. The question is whether it will still be lone wolves or a new invention. The other side is always moving on a learning curve. So we cannot be satisfied simply with understanding and [with the] knowledge about a terrorist’s current decision-making processes and capabilities,” he stated.
He noted that terror waves over the last few decades have evolved from airline hijackings to attempts to suicide bombings to kidnappings and now to lone wolf attacks.
Counter-terror experts must, “be looking all the time at new technology on the shelf for potential threats…and preparing new doctrines” to combat them, he stated.
Questioned about drones and why they have not already been used more effectively by terrorists for attacks, he said that it was “just a matter of time,” adding that even though the problem is known and the private sector is working” on solutions, “it is much easier to be a terrorist than a counter-terrorist.”
Ganor concluded, “Terrorists need only find one soft belly and attack it. Counter-terror experts defend an endless number of targets facing an almost endless number of modus operandi – it is expensive and hard. You need to always be looking beyond the current wave of terror and get ready for the next wave.”