Trapping lone wolves

A new study sheds light on the growing threat of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism and what is behind it.

Women light candles for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack last month (photo credit: REUTERS)
Women light candles for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack last month
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After the recent attack in Manchester, bombing experts speculated that the killer, Salman Abedi, was a “lone wolf” terrorist. It later emerged that he was known to the authorities, who had been warned about his radicalization. So how did he slip through the net? A new study seeks to shed light on cases like this.
Mark S. Hamm is a professor at Indiana State University who has written about terrorism and prisoner radicalization, spanning the period from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to today. Ramon Spaaij is a sociologist from Victoria University in Melbourne and has studied diverse subjects from football hooliganism to lone wolf terrorism.
What they seek to bring to the study of terrorism is data and a long-term view looking back decades. In The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism, Hamm and Spaaij focus on the United States, but their conclusions are applicable to trends that also affect Europe and the rest of the world.
So what do we know? Lone wolves are mostly single and male, like serial killers.
They are motivated by a variety of grievances.
Around 40% of them have suffered from mental illness. Many of them copy other lone wolves. The Internet inspires them, particularly jihadists.
The authors work off a data set compiled from 1940 to 2016 that includes 123 terrorist attacks in the US. They note that while there are some 1,600 published reports on terrorism in general, only 10 specifically address lone wolves. Yet numerous attacks in the West, especially after Islamic State began encouraging lone-wolf attacks, are carried out by single men, not complex cells of terrorists the way al-Qaida planned 9/11.
This means that, whereas lone-wolf terrorism in the US up to the present was often carried out by those from the extreme Left – targeting law enforcement, for instance – or the extreme Right – targeting abortion clinics – in recent years it has been increasingly dominated by Islamist extremism. The first ISIS-inspired attack, the authors note, was on September 26, 2014, when Alton Nolen beheaded a co-worker in Oklahoma.
“A prison convert to Islam whose digital fingerprint involved ISIS propaganda, Nolen was stopped from beheading his second victim when a co-worker shot him with a rifle,” the book notes.
Lone wolves are often educated. Post- 9/11, around 26% of them were radicalized on the Internet. Some also are radicalized in prison or within their families.
They are often enabled by some far-right Islamist figure, such as Anwar al-Awlaki or Osama bin Laden, whom they listen to or even correspond with.
The authors argue that lone wolves come to terrorist acts through a “triggering event.” In a sense they may be in an toxic environment or reading jihadist pamphlets online, but something comes along which makes them act.
They analyze the case of Jared Lee Loughner, who attempted to murder Rep.
Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona in 2011.
They point to a “robocall” during an election campaign that allegedly triggered the assassin, who had already stocked up on guns and planned to kill her.
Another case is Carlos Bledsoe, who was reportedly “triggered” by a news report in 2009 that US soldiers had urinated on the Koran. He, too, was already radicalized. With 562 rounds of ammo, he set off on what authors describe as a “jihad.”
He went to the home of a rabbi in Nashville, Tennessee and threw a firebomb at the house, which failed to ignite. The next day he attacked an army recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and wounding another.
The Hamm and Spaaij study is interesting, but it suffers from some problems.
The authors clearly want to provide numerous case studies, what they call “paradigmatic” studies of certain types of lone wolves and their trajectories. These are interesting reading, and both writers are good storytellers, but it isn’t clear what lesson one can learn to prevent these attacks.
The book also seeks to show a cautionary tale of how law enforcement has sometimes entrapped men who were not necessarily terrorists. A case in point is that of Sami Hassoun, revealed in a shocking chapter about how he was seemingly lured into almost committing a terrorist act by law enforcement.
They claim this is the “FBI’s mythmaking machine.” In reality, lone wolves act alone. Trying to cultivate one, and providing him means and opportunity, may result in a conviction, but it isn’t clear that it “prevents” anything.
The positive part of this study is that it accurately depicts the Islamist terrorists as being motivated by hatred and not the product of some kind of real grievance, such as poverty or mental illness or criminality.
Primarily lone wolves, like serial killers, are motivated by their own radicalization and their own obsession with violence and hate. How one can stop them is unclear in an age where they have instant access to the Internet and where groups like ISIS encourage killers to use cars, knives and anything at hand to murder people.