Predator Without a Pack

Predator Without a Pack

The Rise of Lone Wolf Terrorism and How To Counter It.
Samuel Zinkgraf

Lone wolf terror attacks are on the rise in the United States and around the globe; because terror organizations have been encouraging these attacks, the United States must take a different approach to counter this type of extremism. Rather than coming closer to countering these attacks in recent years, the United States and the rest of the world has faced an increase in lone wolf terrorism. Research funded by the Department of Justice found that since 2010 there have been more successful lone wolf attacks in the United States than in any prior decade going back to the 1950s.[1] Between 2009 and 2015, 74% of all domestic terrorism in the United States was perpetrated by lone wolf attackers.[2] Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray called lone wolves the FBI’s “highest counterterrorism priority at the moment,” stating that there were currently 1,000 open investigations on suspected lone wolf terrorists within the 50 states.[3] The trend of increasing attacks is not isolated. The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), warned that even more lone wolf terror attacks are “very likely” to happen in the European Union.[4] In response to these rising attacks, the United States should take a number of preventative measures including a new counterextremism measure which emphasizes working within the communities most at risk of creating lone wolf attackers.

Lone wolves may act alone, but they are rarely lonely. In fact, only 1 in 5 lone wolf attackers are socially isolated.[5] A lone wolf, also sometimes referred to as a lone actor, is defined as “The threat or use of violence by a single perpetrator (or small cell), not acting out of purely personal-material reasons, with the aim of influencing a wider audience.”[6] These individuals can act alone but often work closely with a small cell, usually consisting of one to two people, such as their spouse or close confidants. These people are influenced by outside groups, such as terror organizations, but do not receive direct material support from those groups.
Using lone actors can be beneficial to the organizations promoting them both politically and financially. In the political arena, the use of lone wolves allows groups to deny responsibility if the attack does not go the direction they anticipated or desired. Additionally, there is a perception that lone wolves are not directly associated with particular groups, hence the name lone wolf. As a result, the group is less likely to bring down the full force of an enemy government upon them if people believe that the lone wolf did indeed act alone. In economic terms, groups that are not strong enough, lack resources, or wish to preserve the resources they do have, are more likely to engage in radicalization techniques in an attempt to spark lone wolf attacks because they do not have to provide financial support to a lone wolf attacker. This makes any attempts by the United States to attribute the attack to a group particularly difficult because there is no exchange of financial resources that can be traced. [17]

Contrary to widespread societal perception, the origins of lone wolf terror attacks are older than the modern jihadi movement. Lone wolf terrorism is often thought of in terms of the broader “War on Terror” that the US is waging against terrorist groups in the Middle East. While some lone wolf attacks are carried out by Islamic radicals, lone wolf terrorism is not exclusively a religious endeavor. Col. Ulius Louis Amoss published an essay in the 1950s on what he termed “Leaderless Resistance.” Col. Amos feared a communist takeover and advocated for resistance groups and other subversive tactics to defeat a newly established communist government. In 1983, an anti-government Ku Klux Klan leader named Louis Beam, using Col. Amoss’ ideas, said those same tactics should be used against the federal government. In an essay, Beam wrote that “No one need issue an order to anyone. Those idealist truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them.”[7] Timothy McVeigh, Tom Metzger, Dylann Roof, Omar Mateen, and Stephen Paddock can all be classified as lone wolf attackers. These individuals were radicalized by different groups, from white supremacy, to right wing extremists, and more recently to Islamic radicals.

In recent years, religiously motivated attacks have comprised 40% of all lone wolf attacks.[5] The majority of the religiously motivated attacks can be attributed to jihadist views.[5] Al Qaeda member and Muslim theorist Abu Musab al-Suri wrote a 1600-page book entitled Call to Global Islamic Resistance, in which he identifies lone wolf attacks as one phase of jihad. Other major groups that radicalize their followers to carry out lone wolf attacks are right-wing groups such as Neo -Nazis and anti-immigrant groups. The issue of lone wolf terror goes beyond religion but is predominantly a religious issue.[5]

Lone wolf terror attacks have led to an increase in Islamophobia, creating burdens for the Muslim community and problems for law enforcement. After the San Bernardino lone wolf attack there was a spike in attacks on Mosques and against people who appeared to be Muslim.[11] As a result of these backlashes, the Muslim community has tended to withdraw into itself and “[t]he collateral and collective guilt has become a central component of the modern Muslim American experience.”[12] With the Muslim community drawing in on itself, law enforcement is less likely to receive actionable intelligence through which lone wolf attackers could be stopped.
The rapid development of the internet has made self-radicalization easy and accessible. The internet provides a vast forum for groups to disseminate information to their followers. Online sermons, internet forums, and social media have all been used for the purpose of radicalization. This large amount of readily available information makes selfplanning easier for individuals plotting an attack. With building plans and event plans online, the location for an attack can be ascertained. Internet forums allow for the exchange of weapons designs such as explosive devices, and there are places to buy firearms both legally and illegally online.[8]

The Islamic State has redefined the lone wolf threat, causing an uptick of jihadist lone wolf attacks across the globe.[8] Instead of attempting to create large sleeper cells like some other terror organizations, the Islamic State encourages lone wolf attacks through fatwahs and online propaganda. Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the propaganda chief and spokesperson for ISIS, issued a fatwah which encouraged lone wolf attacks. The statement called for the use of any means necessary to kill the Americans and their allies, including stabbing and hitting them with cars. This statement can be linked to three different lone wolf attacks in Ottawa, New York City, and Sydney. Since the emergence of ISIS there has been roughly a 100% increase in successful lone wolf attacks across the United States and Europe.[9] Even with the decline of ISIS in the past year, the risk for lone wolf attack “remained potent despite the decline in Isil’s power in Iraq and Syria.”[4]
The majority of lone wolf attackers in Denmark, Australia, Canada, and the US were killed in the execution of their plots making it hard to gain an accurate psychological profile of lone wolf attackers. [10] Without the ability to interview the majority of these individuals, such a profile cannot be built. That is why a group of researchers concluded that “there is no consistent profile for a lone-actor terrorist.”[6] The ability to gain an accurate psychological profile would help law enforcement understand the way these individuals think and what drives them to act.

Lone actors are not all “terribly bright,” giving law enforcement several ways to stay ahead and counter possible attacks. [13] There are four ways in which the normal lone actor makes mistakes that allow law enforcement to break up their plans. First, lone actors are not interested in or do not know operational security. Second, most lone wolves will tell someone of their convictions or plans. 86% of lone wolves share their radical or extremist ideas with others online, something the Israeli Defense Force has exploited by monitoring social media activity to disrupt attacks. [14, 18] Third, most have social ties that help them develop their ideas and plans. Fourth, attacks are generally planned far in advance which means that law enforcement does not have to be reactive but “can engage in the early detection, interruption, and prevention of lone actor violence.”[14] While a particular lone wolf may not commit all four of these mistakes, each factor gives law enforcement a window to apprehend them before they strike.
Social media platforms are actively monitoring and removing extremist content from their sites. In the past two years alone, Twitter has removed 935,000 accounts linked to terror activity.[15] This “significantly diminished” the ability of terror groups to create and maintain online relationships or communities.[20] Other internet and social media giants have recognized this problem as well, creating the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism in June 2017 in an effort to disrupt terrorist activity. These giants rely heavily on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to flag possible terrorist content. YouTube, for example, announced that 98% of the videos it removed for extremist content were flagged by AI.[16] Developments such as this should be encouraged in an effort to reduce the amount of extremist information available.

Spreading disinformation through cyberattacks often leads to extremist groups taking down their own content. Terror groups are wary of infiltration attempts. The Brookings Institution reported that groups often choose to “alter the sites so that they pass on false contact information, present distorted propaganda, or otherwise sow confusion, or they could simply take the sites down.”[17] Ideally, each platform should take down extremist content, but a targeted approach against those that are missed would be an additional step towards countering lone wolves. PhotoDNA, developed by Microsoft, identifies images of exploited children online.[21] This program has been adapted into eGLYPH, which identifies extremist content on social media platforms.[22] Programs such as these can be improved upon to enhance effort of companies to remove extremist content from their platforms.

United States law enforcement should work to develop strong ties with the Muslim community in an effort to gain intelligence. The Department of Homeland Security has advertised the slogan ‘If You See Something, Say Something.’ It is hard, however, for communities that feel marginalized to come forward and say something. Attempts should be made to make in-roads into the Muslim community because “[i]f societies and in particular religious communities are educated and feel supported by their governments, this may encourage more people to come forward and report concerning behaviors.”[10] To remedy this, the federal government should focus on improving communities rather than using them only as intelligence sources, provide funding to local law enforcement agencies for programs that build relationships, no longer call community outreach “Countering Violent Extremism” but use warmer terminology such as “COMPLETE Public Safety (COMmunity Partnerships with Law Enforcement To Enhance Public Safety).”[19]

Because it is unlikely that the number of lone wolf attacks will decline in the near future, the United States should focus on measures to counter the threat of lone wolf terrorists. Specifically, emphasis should be placed on (1) Restoring and building trust between law enforcement and Muslim communities. (2) Monitoring internet traffic for indications of one of the four common mistakes made by lone wolf terrorists. (3) Creating a psychological profile on lone wolf attackers to better know how to counter their actions. (4) Encouraging the shutdown of extremist activity online. (5) Actively spreading disinformation within extremist activity online.▪

  1. Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaj, “Lone Wolf Terrorism in America: Using Knowledge of Radicalization Pathways to Forge Prevention Strategies,” Indiana State University, February 2015, grants/248691.pdf
  2. Ryan Lenz and Mark Potok, “Age of the Wolf: A Study of the Rise of Lone Wolf and Leaderless Resistance Terrorism,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 12 February 2015, https:// d6_legacy_files/downloads/publication/ lone_wolf_special_report_0.pdf
  3. Mark Hosenball, “U.S. has more than 2,000 probes into potential or suspected terrorists: FBI Director,” Reuters, 16 May 2018, https://
  4. James Crisp, “More lone wolf terror attacks ‘very likely’ warns Europol crime agency,” Telegraph, 20 June 2018, https:// lone-wolf-terror-attacks-likely-warns-europolcrime-agency/
  5. Marieke Liem, Jelle van Buuren, Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn, Hanneke Schönberger, and Edwin Bakker, “European Lone Actor Terrorists Versus “Common” Homicide Offenders: An Empirical Analysis,” Leiden University, 2018, pdf/10.1177/1088767917736797
  6. Clare Ellis, Raffaello Pantucci, Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn, Edwin Bakker, Benoît Gomis, Simon Palombi and Melanie Smith, “Lone-Actor Terrorism Analysis Paper,” Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, February 2016, https:// publications/research/2016-02-29-lone-actorterrorism-analysis-paper-rusi.pdf
  7. Louis Beam, “Leaderless Resistance,” The Seditionist, 1983, LeaderlessResistance.htm
  8. Lasse Lindekilde, Francis O’Connor and Bart Schuurman, “Radicalization patterns and modes of attack planning and preparation among lone-actor terrorists: an exploratory analysis,” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 05 September 2017, full/10.1080/19434472.2017.1407814
  9. Daniel Byman, “Can lone wolves be stopped?,” Brookings Institution, 15 March 2017, markaz/2017/03/15/can-lone-wolves-bestopped/
  10. Lewis Dickson, “Lone Wolf Terrorism A Case Study: The Radicalization Process of a Continually Investigated & Islamic State Inspired Lone Wolf Terrorist,” Malmö University, 2015, handle/2043/19258/Lone%20Wolf%
    20Terrorism%20-%20Masters%20Thesis%20-% 20Lewis%20W.Dickson.pdf?sequence=2
  11. “Islamophobia in 2015: The Good, the Bad, and the Hopeful,” The Bridge Initiative, 21 December 2015, islamophobia-in-2015-the-good-the-bad-andthe-hopeful/
  12. Khaled A. Beydoun, “Lone Wolf Terrorism: Types, Stripes, and Double Standards,” Northwestern University Law Review Online, 22 February 2018, https:// viewcontent.cgi?article=1333&context=nulr
  13. Brian Jenkins qtd. in Curtis Tate, “Latest NYC terror attack shows how tough it is to stop a lone wolf,” USA Today, 11 December 2017, -now/2017/12/11/lone-wolf-terrorattacks/942750001/
  14. Dr. Bart Schuurman, Dr. Edwin Bakker, Dr. Paul Gill, Dr. Noémie Bouhana, “Lone Actor Terrorist Attack Planning and Preparation: A Data‐Driven Analysis,” Journal of Forensic Sciences, 23 October 2017, https://
  15. Sara Ashley O’Brien, “Twitter has shut down nearly 1 million terrorist accounts in two years,” CNN Tech, 19 September 2017, https:// business/twitter-transparency-report/ index.html
  16. YouTube, “Expanding our work against abuse of our platform,” 04 December 2017 expanding-our-work-against-abuse-of-our.html
  17. Daniel Byman, “How to hunt a lone wolf: Countering terrorists who act on their own,” Brookings Institution, 14 February 2017, -on-their-own/
  18. The Economist, “How Israel spots lone-wolf attackers: Algorithms monitor social-media posts of Palestinians,” 08 June 2017, https:// international/2017/06/08/how-israel-spotslone-wolf-attackers
  19. David Schanzer, Charles Kurzman, Jessica Toliver, Elizabeth Miller, “The Challenge and
    Promise of Using Community Policing Strategies to Prevent Violent Extremism: A Call for Community Partnerships with Law Enforcement to Enhance Public Safety,” Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, January 2016, nij/grants/249674.pdf
  20. Maura Conway, Moign Khawaja, Suraj Lakhani, Jeremy Reffin, Andrew Robertson, David Weir, “Disrupting Daesh: measuring takedown of online terrorist material and it’s impacts,” Vox-Pol, 2017, http://
  21. Microsoft, “PhotoDNA,” 2018, https://
  22. Counter Extremism Project, “How eGLYPH Technology Works,” 2018, https://

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