TSG IntelBrief: The Lone Terrorist: Mystery vs. Reality
April 11, 2012

The Lone Terrorist: Mystery vs. Reality

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Several high-profile cases of lone wolf terrorism in the last year have captured worldwide attention on what some fear may be a growing and deeply troubling threat.

• Technology can be leveraged to provide many of the critical supporting systems ― to include expertise, training, and motivation ― that once was only available through a connection with a terrorist group

• Although lone wolf terrorism has been involved in less than 2% of terrorist events worldwide, it has accounted for over 40% of terrorism-related cases in the United States.

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As of early April 2012, governments around the world ― and the populations they have the responsibility for protecting ― are increasingly concerned about the threat posed by emergence of the lone wolf terrorist. This has been fueled by several events in less than a year that have captured global interest, including:

• Mohamed Merah, a 24-year old French citizen of Algerian descent, who murdered seven people in Toulouse;
• Amine El Khalifi, an illegal immigrant from Morocco, who was arrested before carrying out an alleged plan to bomb the U.S. Capitol building; and
• Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing Norwegian who bombed government buildings in Oslo before shooting 69 people at a youth camp.

These events have left many understandably fearful of yet another attack of this nature. Is this an overreaction to an activity that accounts for less than 2% of all terrorist events worldwide, or an appropriate response in the U.S. where it has been involved in more than 40% of all terrorism-related cases? To gain a more meaningful understanding of the phenomenon, it is helpful to begin with a better understanding of the context.

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Understanding the Complexities of Terrorism

Terrorism is not a movement, and while is commonly driven by political or religious objectives, it is not a singular expression of political or religious angst. Rather, terrorism fundamentally a tactic, a strategy for employing violence to achieve specific objectives in a manner that ignores conventional rules of engagement (such as the prohibition against targeting innocent non-combatants). As with any tactic, it has evolved over time in concert with changes in the geostrategic landscape. At the same time, the study of this tactic as also evolved, to include the development of a taxonomy to deconstruct a decidedly complex activity into smaller, more comprehensible dimensions. Two of these ― technology and psychology ― are of direct relevance to the study of the lone wolf terrorist. However, there is a third dimension, one that falls outside the common vernacular used in the formal study of terrorism, that may prove in the near-term to be of most importance to understanding the threat of lone wolf terrorism: mystery.

Technology, to use a military term, can be a force multiplier. For example, a man with a rock can cause damage, while a man with a bomb can cause horrific damage. But technology goes beyond just the means of producing violence; it also enables it with unprecedented channels of communication. The Internet, for example, can effectively provide the individual with not only the knowledge necessary to carry out an attack (e.g., how to construct an improvised explosive device from readily available materials), but also the rationale for doing so. Merah, for instance, was reportedly inspired by al Qaeda’s extremist narrative, and technology effectively bridged the substantial physical distance to the source of that narrative hundreds of miles away. These key building blocks of terrorism ― operational training and motivation ― formerly required some degree of physical connection with an extremist group. Today, virtual connections can provide this same support, which makes terrorism as an individual endeavor a far more viable option.

Technology also plays a role in the first of two critical aspects of the psychological dimension. When it comes to violence, mass media has essentially retired the concept of the isolated terrorist event. Breivik’s devastating attacks not only terrorized the citizens of Norway, they also terrorized the citizens of countries around the world. If it could happen there, the common logic suggested, it could happen anywhere. And the technology that ensured a terror attack would have a worldwide psychological effect also ensured the concept of a lone wolf attack would be simultaneously distributed worldwide. This is especially concerning given that there is evidence to suggest lone wolf terrorists suffer from psychological disorders at a substantially higher rate than their group-based counterparts. (Not coincidentally, Breivik was diagnosed by his court-appointed psychiatrists as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.)

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The Mystery of Lone Wolf Terrorism

Examining these cases (and others) through the conventional counterterrorism lens, the lone wolf phenomenon has all the attributes of an outlier event; that is, the data points emerging from such events profoundly diverge from the existing statistical analysis of group-based terrorism. Dr. John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at the Pennsylvania State University, and other researchers have described this form of terrorism as a collective activity founded upon the very specific building blocks of influential leadership, extensive training regimens, and in-group bonding. In contrast, the COT Institute for Safety Security and Crisis Management in the Netherlands describes lone wolf terrorism as acts committed by individuals who are self directed, do not belong to an organized group, and employ self-designed and implemented tactics.

This, in itself, makes it fundamentally difficult to not only understand the dynamics involved, but also to make reliable predications of future trends. In a very real sense, lone wolf terrorists remain something of a mystery.

That mystery, in turn, feeds the fundamental paradox that makes the lone wolf terrorist a deeply disturbing threat. The fundamental objective of terrorism is, as the term implies, to terrorize by striking fear into the hearts and minds of a target population. As a practical matter, a terrorist organization ― with access to more lethal weapons and better configured to launch not only larger attacks, but also a protracted series of attacks ― should, from a rational perspective, be a more credible, and therefore more fearsome threat. Fear, however, is not a response based on a rational calculus; rather, it is a reaction to what appears to be most forbidding. And few things seem to strike greater fear in the human mind than the unknown.

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Forecast

Near-Term:

• Without a major reversal of fortunes in the U.S. and global economies, an increase in lone wolf terrorist attacks is likely. Beyond lingering economic challenges, contributing factors include deepening political and religious divisiveness. The return home of military troops and foreign fighters from wars in the Middle East and Africa will set the stage for the potentially inflammatory combination of weapons training, combat experience, and the prospects of limited socio-economic opportunities.

Long-Term:

• Making a given population feel safe can be ― and often is ― a much different task than actually ensuring that population’s real safety. The former is relatively easy, albeit usually very expensive, while the latter is far more difficult, and requires the exquisitely difficult step of truly understanding the threat. Western governments will work toward implementing antiterrorism policies that specifically focus on the lone terrorist threat. Public access to government and corporate buildings, already limited after the major terrorist attacks of a decade ago, will be further reduced and more closely secured. Government-operated video surveillance of public places will become more prevalent and, ultimately, widely accepted as the price of security.

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