The Danger of the Lone-Wolf Terrorist

  • Share
  • Read Later
Handout / Getty Images

Army Major Nidal Hasan has been charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009.

Some say that a new era in terrorism is emerging, with the “lone wolf” terrorist front and center. From Anders Breivik in Norway, who murdered scores of young people in a bombing and mass-shooting attack, to Nidal Malik Hasan in the United States, who killed many of his fellow soldiers after opening fire at a military base, lone wolves have recently demonstrated that they can be as dangerous as organized terrorist groups.

Is this a new threat the nation and the world should fret over? Jeffrey D. Simon is a terror expert with 25 years’ experience in the field, including a stint at the Rand Corp. He addresses the issue in his new book, Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat. Battleland conducted this email chat with him Monday.

What’s the most important take-away from Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat?

That lone wolves are a force to be reckoned with, since they can be as dangerous as the larger terrorist groups and cells that exist throughout the world.

When we think about terrorism, the first thing that usually comes to mind is al Qaeda or similar types of groups. Yet the individual terrorist has proven to be among the most innovative, creative, and dangerous in terrorism history.

For example, it was lone wolves who were responsible for the first major midair plane bombing, vehicle bombing, hijackings, product contamination, and anthrax attacks in the United States.

Lone wolves think “outside the box” because that is where they always are; namely, outside the box. They are loners who have to operate by themselves. That means there is no group decision-making process or group pressure that might stifle creativity.

This allows lone wolves to act upon any scenario they might think up. Furthermore, lone wolves have little or no constraints on their level of violence. They are not concerned with alienating supporters (as would some terrorist groups), nor are they concerned with a potential government crackdown following an attack.

And since they work alone, they are much harder to identify than groups or even cells since there are no group members to arrest and learn about potential plots.


What evidence is there that this threat is growing?

We only have to look around the world to see how this threat has grown in recent years. In Norway, for example, an anti-Islamic lone wolf, Anders Breivik, set off a bomb in Oslo and then traveled to an island to massacre scores of youths attending a summer camp. Seventy-seven people died from his two attacks.

In the United States, Maj. Nidal Maljik Hasan is accused of shooting fellow soldiers and others at Fort Hood, Texas in protest to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Britain, (and the U.S), neo-Nazis and white supremacists have been involved in several incidents and plots. We’ve seen lone-wolf attacks throughout the world, perpetrated by individuals from all parts of the political and religious spectrum.

The reason why the threat is growing can be traced to the impact of the Internet.

While there were significant lone wolves before the age of the Internet, the cyber-world has undoubtedly been a godsend for the individual terrorist. It has led to a proliferation of lone wolves and allowed for anybody with a laptop or smart phone to quickly become knowledgeable about terrorist tactics, targets, and weapons.

It also provides them with a venue to become radicalized by reading terrorist groups’ websites and participating in online forums, extremist chat rooms and other social media.

What is the most surprising thing you learned in researching and writing this book?

There are actually two things. The first is that lone wolves love to talk a lot.

I didn’t expect that when I first began researching this topic. After all, one of the advantages that lone wolves have over groups and cells is that there are no communications among members for the authorities to intercept that can lead to the identification and arrest or capture of the terrorists.

Yet most of the lone wolves I studied could not resist the temptation to let others know about their extremist beliefs, and sometimes even their intentions to commit a violent attack.

And they do their talking through the Internet. For example, Anders Breivik, the Norwegian lone wolf who massacred scores of youths at a summer camp, posted a manifesto on the Internet shortly before embarking on his violent rampage.

He wrote: “Once you decide to strike it is better to kill too many than not enough, or you risk reducing the desired ideological impact of the strike.”

Joseph Stack, who flew a plane into a building containing IRS offices in Austin, Texas, wrote in his online manifesto shortly before his suicide attack: “…violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.”

Several other lone wolves, including Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, exchanged emails with extremists prior to their attacks.

That is why I refer to the Internet in my book as a “double-edged sword” for lone wolves. While on the one hand it gives them access to information on tactics, targets and weapons, ideology, causes, and so forth, it can also allow the authorities to learn their identity through the monitoring of their Internet activity.

In fact, I’m convinced that had the Internet been accessible during Theodore Kaczynski’s, (the Unabomber’s) reign of terror between 1978 an 1995, he would have been caught a lot earlier than he actually was.

Kaczynski desperately sought an outlet for the dissemination of his anti-technology, anti-industrial-society views. That’s why he demanded that newspapers publish his manifesto. He very likely would have used the Internet instead to post his manifesto online early in his terrorist career (despite his distaste for technology).

The same scenario that played out years later, when his brother turned him in after reading the manifesto in a newspaper, would have likely occurred once his brother read it online. Subsequent attacks may have therefore been prevented.

The second surprising thing I learned in researching and writing my book is the relative absence of women among lone wolves. I did not expect that.

That is why I titled one of my chapters, Where are the Women?

We’ve seen many women as members of terrorist groups and in some cases actually the leaders of the group. Why, then, are women less likely than men to venture on their own and commit a terrorist attack?

The answer lies in the sociological and psychological differences between men and women.

Lone-wolf terrorism requires an individual to act alone, take many risks, and have no guilt or remorse in killing innocent victims. Studies have found, however, that women are less likely than men to take risks, women place a higher value on social interactions and belonging to a group than do men, women are less likely than men to develop antisocial personality disorders, women are less likely to kill a stranger than men, and women tend to kill more on impulse and emotion than on premeditation.

There have been some recent cases, however, of females venturing into the world of lone-wolf terrorism. In one case, a woman who called herself “Jihad Jane” attempted to form her own terrorist network over the Internet. In another case, an honor student in Britain became radicalized after downloading 100 video sermons by an Islamic extremist cleric and then attempted to assassinate a British member of Parliament.


Prometheus Books

Jeffrey D. Simon

How much of this challenge is police work, and how much is military?

A major portion of the task in trying to prevent and respond to lone-wolf attacks falls upon the law enforcement communities, both in the Unites States and in other countries.

However, we’ve also seen how the lone wolf poses a threat to the military, as in the case of the Fort Hood shooting, an attack on an American military bus at a Frankfurt airport in March 2011, and other incidents. There have also been attacks by lone individuals against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

International cooperation among both law enforcement and military agencies is important in meeting the challenge of the lone-wolf terrorist.

One of the myths about lone wolves that I try to dispel in my book is that there is little that can be done to prevent their attacks since they work alone and often “fly under the radar.”

However, through a combination of innovative strategies I believe it is possible to reduce the risk of lone-wolf attacks. Among these strategies are improved detection devices to identify package bombs or letters containing anthrax spores; expansion of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public settings; further advances in biometrics, including the use of gait analysis which assesses how somebody is walking to determine if that person may be carrying a bomb or other weapon; and of course monitoring the Internet (without violating law abiding individual’s civil liberties) for those people who are visiting extremist chat rooms, purchasing bomb making materials and other suspicious items online, or posting ominous threats and manifestos.

Aren’t most lone wolves pretty dumb and anti-social?

Anti-social, yes; dumb, no.

There have been some brilliant, but mentally unstable lone wolves such as Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Bruce Ivins, the Fort Detrick microbiologist whom the Justice Department concluded was responsible for sending several letters filled with anthrax spores to several members of Congress and the media in 2001.

Kaczynski had a Ph.D. in mathematics and was a young assistant professor at Berkeley in the late 1960s, before he quit unexpectedly and eventually moved to Montana where he lived the life of a recluse and sent package bombs throughout the country. Ivins was one of the world’s foremost authorities on anthrax vaccines. One of the motivations for his attack was to increase funding for his research.

I mentioned earlier how lone wolves have been among the most creative terrorists in history, inventing new forms of violence such as vehicle and plane bombings, hijackings, product contamination, and anthrax attacks. While it may be true that some lone wolves combine personal grievances and problems with a political or religious cause in order to justify their violence, many of them are no less dedicated to the issues for which they are fighting for than the “regular” terrorists. It would be a mistake to view them as dumb or inept.

What are some of the future tactics and targets of lone-wolf terrorists?

One thing that hasn’t happened yet on a major scale is a lone-wolf cyber-terrorist attack. We’ve had numerous lone-wolf hackers, but thus far we haven’t had the worst-case scenario many people fear, such as the sabotaging of critical infrastructures through computer and information systems attacks.

It may just be a matter of time, however, before a creative, smart, and dangerous individual motivated by anything — ranging from political, social, and religious issues to criminal or mischievous intent — succeeds in perpetrating the first major cyber-terrorist attack. It certainly seems like a tactic that is tailor-made for lone wolves since they would not even have to leave their homes to launch such a computer-driven attack.

Another innovative lone-wolf tactic in the coming years may involve bioterrorism. I mentioned the anthrax-letters attack, but that is not really considered a “major” attack since the casualty total was relatively low (five people killed).

The next time a lone wolf uses bioweapons, however, we may not be as lucky. Among the potential attacks by a lone wolf that can cause large numbers of casualties are lone wolves dispersing anthrax spores from a low-flying airplane or crop duster over a populated area, releasing a biological agent from the ground in an aerosol device such as a spray can, or placing ricin (a biotoxin) in the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning system of a building.

While perpetrating such attacks requires some degree of technical expertise, such as in dispersal techniques, these technological barriers are not insurmountable. As former secretary of the Navy, Richard Danzig noted, “these hurdles are being lowered by the dissemination of knowledge, techniques, and equipment.”

Experts like you are invested in hyping the terror threat, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have a job. How do you convince the public you’re serious about the lone-wolf threat and not just crying wolf?

The public has every right to be skeptical of anybody who writes that the terrorist threat is “growing” or “increasing” in any shape or form.

Haven’t we had enough warnings about terrorism over the years, often fueled by self-interested politicians, government officials, terrorism experts, and others?

The Department of Homeland Security’s ill-conceived “color-coded alert” system is still fresh in many minds, and its only effect was scaring people about terrorist threats that never materialized.

However, I truly believe that we have underestimated the dangers of the individual terrorist for too long. There is a tendency for many people, including terrorism experts, to think about terrorism only in terms of groups or cells, dismissing the capabilities and effect of the lone wolf.

We’re living in a technological age of terrorism where there is basically nothing holding back an individual who wants to learn how to perfect his or her skills in perpetrating a terrorist attack. Many individuals are also becoming self-radicalized via the Internet and other means.

It would be a mistake to ignore this threat when lone wolves have already demonstrated what they are capable of accomplishing in a variety of attacks throughout the world.