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What can we learn from the life histories of lone wolves?



This briefing was one of six delivered as part of a special event 'What have we learned about radicalisation?' organised by Professor Kim Knott and Dr Matthew Francis as part of a RCUK Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research (PACCS) fellowship. The full list of briefings, available as text and audio-podcasts are available here. The event brought together leading researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to discuss the latest research on radicalisation.

Recent terrorist attacks and interrupted plots have pushed the threat of lone actor terrorism to the forefront of national security across the world. Like most terrorist tactics or strategies, lone actor terrorism diffused easily across ideological domains with many different ideological movements espousing the strategic need for operatives to act alone. The main adherents of lone-actor actions within the right-wing and anti-abortion movements actively acknowledged that group-based operations were doomed to failure because of pervasive state powers. These calls occurred during the 1990s. Since then, we have witnessed an exponential growth in the ability of states to track, monitor and store communications (evidenced by the Edward Snowden leaks). Facing a far greater asymmetric situation, the al-Qaeda and ISIS movements have not admitted that their turn toward promoting lone actors is due, in large part, because of the constraints they face and the on-going successes of counter-terrorism practitioners.

So what makes these individuals such a threat? First, some lone actors have caused a lot of fatalities. Anders Breivik killed 77. Timothy McVeigh killed 168. Second (and in much more practical terms) it is difficult to discern lone actors with violent intent from lone actors with radical beliefs. Third, because they are supposedly alone, the usual counter-terrorism tools of tracing communications and contacts are therefore supposedly not applicable here. These factors make catching the individuals ahead of time a high priority whilst also highlighting the inherent difficulty of doing so in a proportionate manner.

So what can be done? Profiling won’t work for a start. I’ve been conducting research on lone-actor terrorists for the past five years, building the richest behavioural dataset of its type in the literature (see Gill at al, 2014; Gill, 2015). These individuals ranged in age, spanned a wide spectrum of educational achievements, employment histories, social backgrounds and marital statuses. Simply, there was no profile. Even if there was, the utility of a profile is questionable because it will most likely pinpoint a far greater number of people that never hold a political grievance let alone want to act violently upon it. We are better off looking at what they do, rather than who they are.

What motivates them? Trying to understand motivation in the absence of first-hand interviews is very difficult. On a very shallow level, we may aggregate motivation to some form of political ideology. For example, we could just take at face value the ideology the individual espouses as being the true motivation. We’ve seen lone actors emerge from a wide range of ideological backgrounds including the extreme right-wing, Islamic extremism, anti-abortionism, environmentalism and a collection of miscellaneous idiosyncratic endeavours.

These aggregate measures hide a lot of intricacies however and only really provide a sense of what ideologies have inspired the turn toward lone action rather than getting to the heart of what really motivates the individual. We need to move away from the simplistic reductionist search for golden-bullet type answers to this question. No its never just ideology. No its never just mental illness. No it's never just online radicalization. The reality is far more complicated and typically involves a crystallization (or perfect storm) of features and behaviours. Lone actor terrorism is usually the culmination of a complex mix of personal, political and social drivers that crystalize at the same time to drive the individual down the path of violent action. Whether the violence comes to fruition is usually a combination of the availability and vulnerability of suitable targets that suit the heady mix of personal and political grievances and the individual’s capability to engage in an attack from both a psychological and technical capability standpoint.

Most lone-actor terrorists share a mixture of unfortunate personal life circumstances coupled with an intensification of beliefs that later developed into the idea to engage in violence. What differed was how these influences were sequenced. Sometimes personal problems led to a susceptibility to ideological influences. Sometimes long-held ideological influences became intensified after the experience of personal problems. This is why we should be wary of mono-causal master narratives. The truth is usually far more complex. An understanding of this complexity and the multiplicity of potential factors could help inform how risk assessments of particular lone actors should be carried out.

Risk also needs to be viewed dynamically. Given a set of circumstances and conditions an individual may appear to be no or low risk. However, small changes in their life-course, personal circumstances or opportunity to offend can have a force-multiplier effect and propel the individual into a higher category of risk. Yes, individuals may have been on the radar of the intelligence services for a number of years but these agencies are reliant on these fragments of information which can depict these would-be offenders as higher or lower risks.

One of the most surprising findings in our study was the extent to which the sample tended to leak information to significant others regarding their attack plan. More than half of the lone actors made verbal statements to others about specific parts of their attack plan. Studies of similar actors have however found similar results. A study of adolescent mass murderers in North America illustrated by Meloy and colleagues found that 44% of the sample discussed the act of murder with at least one other person prior to the event itself. Also, 58% had made threatening statements alluding to mass murder prior to the event and this was usually to a third-party audience. In 81% of Vossekuil and colleagues’ sample of U.S.-based school shooters, at least one other individual had known of the offender’s intentions or specific plans for the school attack. In 59% of the cases, more than one non-attack related person had prior knowledge.

Some leaked intent because they were trying to recruit others but many leaked intent because they wanted to avoid the pitfall of “messageless resistance”. Terrorism, by its very nature, is a form of political communication. The violence targets not those directly involved in the incident but instead the wider unharmed public. Politically violent acts intend to demonstrate the vulnerability of the state, to communicate to organizational sympathizers, to provoke repressive counter-measures and to highlight the heroism of the perpetrators. Without the corresponding political message or justification for the violence, it is not terrorism. It is messageless and easily framed as the actions of a mad man. This leaking of information, if relayed to the media, helps frame the individual as a rationally oriented actor propelled to action by an overriding ideology rather than a desperate individual acting as a response to a personal grievance. During day two of his trial, Anders Breivik argued the necessity of outlining his ideology during the trial itself. The main purpose was to counter the messages proffered in the media as to his motivation. Without it, he felt that the “massive sickening demonization of my character is going to continue.” On this note, I have argued that we should stop calling them lone wolves as it only serves to frame them as cunning, beguiling and difficult to stop, which is often quite different from reality as many lone actor terrorists fail in their preferred plans, falling back on simpler, relatively lower-profile attacks.

This finding highlights a major contradiction between the empirical reality and those assertions that nothing can be done to counter the threat. The latter posit that it is the very ‘loneness’ of the offender that makes it such a threat because the lack of communication between co-offenders works around the sophisticated tools of the state. The former suggests however that even the most intimate of details regarding the plot are leaked to others. The leaking of intent is therefore a key indicator to keep in mind with regards to countering lone-actor terrorism. However, this information can not be acted upon if the recipient of the leaked information does not pass this up to the relevant authorities. Of course, not all of the instances in which information is received about verbalized intent are viable threats or risks so instead of acting straight away, the logical next step is to engage in a risk assessment and look at the rest of the individual’s behaviours with regard to their situation, capability, motivation and opportunity to act.

Detection however still remains a difficult job. It therefore might be better to instead guard against future self-starter terrorists by making the actual undertaking of a terrorist attack more difficult. For example, it might be easier and more cost-efficient to deter a budding lone-actor terrorist by making it more difficult to acquire the necessary bomb-making materials than by convincing him/her of counter-narratives.

In the past few months there has been a spate of lone-actor attacks hitting the headlines. Some were right-wing inspired (e.g. Dylan Roof) whilst many others were said to be Islamic extremists inspired by the ISIS-movement’s call for ‘lone wolf’ operations a month earlier (and in the case of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, direction from AQAP). Many will laud ISIS’ online activities as being key but for me a different dynamic is at play. The killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich managed to effectively bridge the gap between engaging in low key attacks but gaining personal infamy at the same time. By using such a simple attack method in such a public setting in a discriminate way, the Woolwich attackers managed to effectively overcome the critical dilemmas lone-actor terrorists face. How can I bypass effective counter-terrorism protocols, engage in a successful attack, and still claim the infamy, social status and public renown that goes with it? The Woolwich attackers knew the area, efficiently carried out the attack, and relayed a (most definitely rehearsed) speech to passersby who recorded it. Television stations couldn’t beam the images quick enough. Michael Adebolajo’s blood-stained hands was an evocative image that will unfortunately live long in infamy. On that day in London, two attackers showed a multitude of budding lone actors how to fall in line with the strategist’s calls and still be remembered and eulogized by co-ideologues. The scary thought shouldn’t be about ISIS’ communication strategies, it should be about how to contain the problem of lone-actor terrorism now that one of the most difficult dilemmas to overcome has been made redundant.

Dr Paul Gill is a lecturer in Security and Crime Science. Previous to joining UCL, Dr Gill was a postdoctoral research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University. His research examines terrorism: its causes, patterns and the actors that perpetrate terrorist attacks. His currently published research demonstrates the heterogeneous profiles of terrorists, their developmental pathways into terrorism, the behaviours that precede and underpin a terrorist attack, how terrorists fit into a wider structure and how particular group influences condition individuals to engage in acts of violence. His book on lone-actor terrorists was recently published by Routledge.

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