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The emergence of lone wolf terrorism: Patterns of behavior and implications for intervention

Pathways to radicalisationRadicalisation

Terrorism and Counter Terrorism TodayChapter abstract

In this chapter, we examine several attributes of lone wolf terrorists and how their activities are temporally and geospatially patterned. In particular, we demonstrate how precursor behaviors and attack characteristics of lone wolves are similar and different compared to those of group-based terrorists.

Based on data drawn from the American Terrorism Study (ATS), we examine 268 federal terrorism “indictees” linked to 264 incidents. Three types of loners are identified based on group affiliations and levels of assistance in preparing for and executing terrorist attacks. A series of analyses comparatively examine loners who had no assistance and those actors that did.

The results of this study suggest that lone wolf terrorists are more educated and socially isolated than group-based actors. Lone wolves also engage in less precursor activities than group actors, but are willing to travel greater distances to prepare for and execute attacks. Explanations for why lone wolves are able to “survive” longer than terrorist groups by avoiding arrest may in part stem from their ability to temporally and geospatially position their planning and preparatory activities.

Studies on lone wolf terrorism remain few and many are plagued by methodological and conceptual limitations. The current study adds to this growing literature by relying on lone wolf terrorism data recently made available by the American Terrorism Study (ATS). Our findings are valuable for members of the law enforcement and intelligence communities responsible for the early detection and prevention of lone wolf terrorism in the United States.

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