Lone wolf (terrorism)

A lone actor, lone-actor terrorist, or lone wolf is someone who prepares and commits violent acts alone, outside of any command structure and without material assistance from any group. They may be influenced or motivated by the ideology and beliefs of an external group and may act in support of such a group. In its original sense, a "lone wolf" is an animal or person that generally lives or spends time alone instead of with a group.[1]

Observers note that lone wolf attacks are a relatively rare type of terrorist attack but have been increasing in number,[2] and that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether an actor has received outside help and what appears to be a lone wolf attack may actually have been carefully orchestrated from outside.[3][4]

Origins of the term

The term "lone wolf" was popularized by white supremacists Louis Beam, and Tom Metzger in the 1990s; and then later by Alex Curtis .

Metzger advocated individual or small-cell underground activity, as opposed to above-ground membership organizations, envisaging "warriors acting alone or in small groups who attacked the government or other targets in 'daily, anonymous acts.'"[5][6]

Beam and Metzger credit the idea of small-cell structures to avoid detection to anticommunist theoretician Ulius Louis Amoss who in 1953 sought to protect the identity of US agents encouraging resistance to Soviet repression in Eastern Europe.

Terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation prefers the term stray dog to lone wolf. According to Jenkins, most individuals involved in such attacks "skulk about, sniffing at violence, vocally aggressive but skittish without backup".[7] Though these individuals seem to be acting alone, there are often ties between lone wolves and terrorist organisations for example, terrorist backed online content.[8]

Current usage

The term "lone wolf" is used by US law enforcement agencies and the media to refer to individuals undertaking violent acts of terrorism outside a command structure. The FBI and San Diego Police's investigation into the activities of a self-professed white supremacist, Alex Curtis, was named Operation Lone Wolf,[9] "largely due to Curtis' encouragement of other white supremacists to follow what Curtis refers to as 'lone wolf' activism".[10]

The term lone wolf is used to distinguish terrorist actions carried out by individuals from those coordinated by large groups.[11] Terrorist attacks that are carried out by small cells are not classified as lone wolf attacks. Lone wolf attacks are far more rare than attacks carried out by groups. Since 1940, there have only been around 100 successful lone wolf attacks in the United States.[12] The number of attacks is increasing, however, and has grown each year since 2000. As compared to those on the far right, lone wolf attackers who become inspired by al-Qaeda and ISIS tend to be younger and better educated. According to studies, lone wolves have more in common with mass murderers than they do with members of the organized terrorist groups that often inspire them.

While the lone wolf acts to advance the ideological or philosophical beliefs of an extremist group, they act on their own, without any outside command or direction. The lone wolf's tactics and methods are conceived and directed solely on their own; in many cases, such as the tactics described by Curtis, the lone wolf never has personal contact with the group they identify with. As such, it is considerably more difficult for counter-terrorism officials to gather intelligence on lone wolves, since they may not come into contact with routine counter-terrorist surveillance.[13]

Recent scholarship and news reports have used the terms stochastic terrorism and scripted violence to describe how Lone Wolf Terrorism functions as a way to mobilize an attack with no direct connection between the rhetorical call to action and the date or time of the act of terrorism.

A 2013 analysis by Sarah Teich, a research assistant at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, found five emerging trends in Islamist lone wolf terrorism in North America and western Europe between 1990 and 2013:

  • An increase in the number of countries targeted by lone wolves from the 1990s to the 2000s.
  • An increase in the number of people injured and killed by lone wolves.
  • Increased effectiveness of law enforcement and counter-terrorism.
  • Consistency in the distribution of attacks by "actor types" (loners, lone wolves, and lone wolf packs).
  • An increase in the number of attacks against military personnel.[14]

In the United States, lone wolves may present a greater threat than organized groups, and terrorists have not been limited to Muslims.[15]

According to the Financial Times, counter-terrorism officials refer to "lone individuals known to authorities but not considered important enough to escalate investigations" as "known wolves".[16]

Some groups actively advocate lone wolf actions. Anti-abortion militant terrorist group The Army of God uses "leaderless resistance" as its organizing principle.[17] According to The New York Times, in news analysis of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Al-Qaeda activist Samir Khan, publishing in Inspire, advocated individual terrorist actions directed at Americans and published detailed recipes online.[18]


Lone Wolf terrorists may sympathize with and consider themselves part of larger groups, but they are not active participants.[19] Often, the attacks are attributed to people who have a mixture of political and personal grievances. However, Lone Wolf terrorists have no actual affiliation to the group that claims them, but instead become radicalized online and through external media outlets.[20]

A large number of terrorists initially claimed by authorities and reporters to have been Lone Wolf attacks inspired by ISIS and/or its ideology, were later found to have been recruited, trained and directed remotely by ISIL to carry out the attacks. This would mean they were technically not "Lone Wolves."[21]

Mental health factors

Lone wolf terrorists are highly likely to be afflicted by a mental illness. Studies have found that more than 40% of lone wolf terrorists have been diagnosed at some point in their life with a mental illness.[12] This puts lone wolves as being 13.5 times more likely to suffer from a mental illness than a member of an organized terrorist group, such as al-Qaeda or ISIS.[22]

Mental health challenges are thought to make some individuals among the many who suffer from certain "psychological disturbances," vulnerable to being inspired by extremist ideologies to commit acts of lone wolf terrorism.[23][24]

There are however new studies to dispute common claims and stigma about mental illness on the topic. Indicating that people with mental illness are more likely to harm themselves, or be victims of a crime. This would suggest that claims of mental health are used to deflect criticism of commonly associated extremist ideology. A lot of legal systems also incentivise mental illness diagnoses as a legal defense.[25]

Forms of indirect incitement

The terms "narratives of insecurity" and "scripted violence" and "stochastic terrorism" are linked in an indirect chain "cause <:::> effect" relationship. Public use of "narratives of insecurity" can prompt the rhetoric of "scripted violence" which can result in an act of "stochastic terrorism."

Narratives of insecurity

"Mass violence is not the product of religion or culture. It is born of narratives of insecurity," writes professor Abdelwahab El-Affendi. It is the "effect of narrative framing" that "holds the key to understanding instances of mass violence." He has collected a set of essays in the book Genocidal Nightmares: Narratives of Insecurity and the Logic of Mass Atrocities.

Responding to a question about a series mass shootings in the United States that involved "two young men who carried out the mass shootings on August 3 in El Paso, Texas and August 4 in Dayton, Ohio, Abdelwahab El-Affendi said these perpetrators of violence "were acting in a different movie from the one we are all watching. In their story, they were not opening fire on 'innocent people', but heroically responding to 'an existential threat."


Scripted violence

The phrase "scripted violence" has been used in social science since at least 2002.[27]

Author David Neiwert, who wrote the book Alt-America, told Salon interviewer Chauncey Devega:

Scripted violence is where a person who has a national platform describes the kind of violence that they want to be carried out. He identifies the targets and leaves it up to the listeners to carry out this violence. It is a form of terrorism. It is an act and a social phenomenon where there is an agreement to inflict massive violence on a whole segment of society. Again, this violence is led by people in high-profile positions in the media and the government. They’re the ones who do the scripting, and it is ordinary people who carry it out.

Think of it like Charles Manson and his followers. Manson wrote the script; he didn’t commit any of those murders. He just had his followers carry them out.[28]

Stochastic terrorism

The first mention of the term "stochastic terrorism" appears to be in a 2002 article written by Gordon Woo entitled “Quantitative Terrorism Risk Assessment,” Journal of Risk Finance, volume 4, number 1 (2002), p. 7.[29] The term was used to suggest that a quantifiable relationship may exist between seemingly random acts of terror and their intended goal of "perpetuating a reign of fear" via a manipulation of Mass Media and its capacity for "instant global news communication." For example, careful timing and placement of just a few moderately explosive devices could have the same intended effect as numerous random attacks or the use of more powerful explosives if they were shrewdly devised to elicit the maximum response from media organizations. Thus, it was theorized by Dr Woo that "the absolute number of attacks within a year, i.e. the rhythm of terror, might ultimately be determined as much by publicity goals and the political anniversary calendar as by the size of the terrorist ranks."

A derivation of Dr Woo's stochastic terrorism model was proffered by an anonymous blogger posting on Daily Kos in 2011[30] to describe public speech that can be expected to incite terrorism without a direct organizational link between the inciter and the perpetrator. The term "stochastic" is used in this instance to describe the random, probabilistic nature of its effect: whether or not an attack actually takes place. And, although the actual perpetrator of a planned attack and its timing is not under the control of the stochastic terrorist, their actions nevertheless serve to increase the probability that a terrorist attack will occur.[31] The stochastic terrorist in this context does not direct the actions of any particular individual or members of a group. Rather, the stochastic terrorist gives voice to a specific ideology via mass media with the aim of optimizing its dissemination.[31]

It is by dint of this ideology that the stochastic terrorist is alleged to randomly incite individuals predisposed to acts of violence. And, it is because the stochastic terrorist does not specifically target and incite individual perpetrators of terror with their message that the perpetrator may be labeled a lone wolf by law enforcement while the inciter avoids legal culpability.[31][32] The term has mostly been applied to domestic American incidents of violence.

In their 2017 book, Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism,[31] criminologist Mark S. Hamm and sociologist Ramón Spaaij discuss stochastic terrorism as a form of "indirect enabling" of terrorists. They write that "stochastic terrorism is the method of international recruitment used by ISIS", and they refer to Anwar al-Awlaki and Alex Jones as stochastic terrorists.[31]:157

Hamm and Spaaij discuss two instances of violence. In the 2010 Oakland freeway shootout, Byron Williams was said to be en route to offices of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Tides Foundation, planning to commit mass murder, "indirectly enabled by the conspiracy theories"[31] of Glenn Beck and Alex Jones. As a left-wing example, they cite the 2012 shooting incident at the headquarters of the Family Research Council.

The stochastic terrorism model is a stochastic process, a random, model of those terror attacks intended by the random nature of their timing and targets to excite a generalized fear.[33] Nonetheless, lone wolf terrorists are "indirectly enabled by the conspiracy theories"[31] circulated in the mass media, especially by high status political or religious leaders.

See also


  1. "Lone wolf - Define Lone wolf at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 14 April 2015.
  2. "Lone Wolf Attacks Are Becoming More Common -- And More Deadly". FRONTLINE. 14 July 2016. Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  3. Callimachi, Rukmini (4 February 2017). "Not 'Lone Wolves' After All: How ISIS Guides World's Terror Plots From Afar". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  4. Gartenstein-Ross, Daveed; Barr, Nathaniel (26 July 2016). "The Myth of Lone-Wolf Terrorism". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  5. "Tom Metzger and White Aryan Resistance (WAR) – Extremism in America". Adl.org. Archived from the original on 25 September 2012. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
  6. Kimmel, Michael (2013). Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Avalon. pp. 228–9. ISBN 978-1568585130.
  7. Siegel, Jacob (24 October 2014). "Lone Wolves, Terrorist Runts, and the Stray Dogs of ISIS". Daily Beast. Archived from the original on 7 November 2014. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
  8. http://doi.org/10.15664/jtr.405
  9. "Operation Lone Wolf" (Press release). FBI.
  10. "Operation Lone Wolf". FBI. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
  11. Spaaij, Ramon. Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention. p. 16.
  12. "Lone Wolf Attacks Are Becoming More Common And More Deadly".
  13. Jan Leenaars; Dr. Alastair Reed (2 May 2016). "Understanding Lone Wolves: Towards a Theoretical Framework for Comparative Analysis". The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT). Retrieved 7 September 2016.
  14. Teich, Sarah (October 2013). "Trends and Developments in Lone Wolf Terrorism in the Western World". International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  15. "Lone wolves pose explosive terror threat". Csmonitor.com. 27 May 2003. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
  16. Jones, Sam (24 March 2017). "'Known wolf' attackers force intelligence rethink". Financial Times. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  17. Gonnerman, Jennifer (10 November 1998). "Villagvoice.com". Villagevoice.com. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
  18. Scott Shane (5 May 2013). "A Homemade Style of Terror: Jihadists Push New Tactics". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 May 2013.
  19. Spaaij, Ramon. Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention. p. 18.
  20. Borum, Randy. "OPINION What Drives Lone Offenders?". IndraStra. ISSN 2381-3652.
  21. "Not 'Lone Wolves' After All: How ISIS Guides World's Terror Plots From Afar". New York Times. 14 February 2017. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  22. "Lone Wolf Terrorism".
  23. "Mental Illness: A Key Factor in "Terror"". Bridge Initiative Team. Johns Hopkins University. 8 August 2016. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  24. Alfaro-Gonzalez, Lydia (27 July 2015). Report: Lone Wolf Terrorism (PDF). Security Studies Program, National Security Critical Issue Task Force. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  25. Leyton, M. (2018). "Are people with psychiatric disorders violent?". Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. 43 (4): 220–222. doi:10.1503/jpn.180058. PMC 6019348. PMID 29947604.
  26. Affendi, Abdelwahab, El (2015). Genocidal Nightmares: Narratives of Insecurity and the Logic of Mass Atrocities. London: Bloomsbury. p. 247. ISBN 978-1-5013-2023-1.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  27. Hamamoto, Darrell Y. (2002). "Empire of Death: Militarized Society and the Rise of Serial Killing and Mass Murder". New Political Science. 24 (1): 105–120. doi:10.1080/07393140220122662.
  28. DeVega, Chauncey (1 November 2018). "Author David Neiwert on the outbreak of political violence". Salon. Retrieved 13 December 2018.
  30. "Stochastic Terrorism: Triggering the shooters". Daily Kos. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  31. Hamm, Mark S.; Spaaij, Ramón (2017). The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 84–89. ISBN 978-0-231-54377-4. LCCN 2016050672.
  32. Cohen, David S. "Trump's Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 4 June 2017.
  33. Woo, Gordon (2002). "Quantitative terrorism risk assessment". Journal of Risk Finance. 4 (1): 7–14. doi:10.1108/eb022949.

Further reading

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