Unique Dangers Posed by Lone-Wolf Terrorists

So-called “lone-wolf” terrorists have proved time and again that they can initiate attacks that match and even surpass the death toll and destruction wrought by large, better known, and much better financed terrorist organizations. In Norway, for example, Anders Breivik set off a bomb in Oslo on 22 July 2011 that killed eight innocent people, then traveled to Norway’s Utoya Island and massacred 69 more, many of them teenagers attending a political summer camp.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is accused of opening fire at Fort Hood, Texas, on 5 November 2009 – killing 13 people and wounding 32 others in the worst terrorist attack ever to take place on a U.S. domestic military installation. More than three years later, he is still awaiting trial (which is scheduled to begin this May).

Not quite eight years earlier, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, an anonymous attacker (believed by some to be a government microbiologist at Fort Detrick, Maryland, who later committed suicide) sent letters filled with anthrax spores to several Congressional offices and media news rooms, creating a new crisis atmosphere about the potential threat of a bioterrorism attack.

Creative, Empowered & Elusive Predators

Despite their usual anonymity and lack of “partners,” lone-wolf terrorists share a number of typical characteristics – the first and perhaps most dangerous of which is that, because there is no group decision-making process involved that might stifle individual creativity, lone wolves are free to carry out any type of attack they might think of, with little or no fear of the likely consequences. This independence has led to some of the most innovative attacks in terrorism history. For example, lone wolves were responsible for the first U.S.:

  • Vehicle bombing – a horse-drawn wagon filled with dynamite was detonated in New York City in 1920, killing more than 30 and injuring several hundred others;
  • Major midair plane bombing – a bomb that was packed in a passenger’s luggage exploded over Colorado in 1955, killing 44;
  • Airplane hijacking – a National Airlines plane was hijacked and diverted from Florida to Cuba in 1961 (the crew and passengers were not harmed); and
  • Anthrax letter attacks – mentioned earlier, killing five people and sickening 17 others.

A second “typical” characteristic about lone wolves is that they have little or no constraints limiting their level of violence. They are seldom if ever concerned about alienating supporters (as at least some terrorist groups might be), and they do not seem to fear a potential government crackdown following an attack. This latter trait makes them prime candidates to use weapons of mass destruction, specifically including biological or chemical agents, which usually are available on the open market.

A third generalization is that it is extremely difficult to identify and/or capture lone wolves. There are usually no communications to intercept and/or members of a group to arrest and interrogate about potential plots. This can be seen most obviously in the case of Theodore Kaczynski, the infamous “Unabomber” who was responsible for 16 bombings that killed three people and injured 23 more – but was able to elude law enforcement for almost 18 years (1978-1996). He was finally captured in early April of 1996 and is now serving a life sentence without parole.

A Carefully Planned Attack

Lone wolves can also be quite devious in planning a terrorist operation. A prime example is Eric Rudolph, an antiabortion lone wolf who set off a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, that killed one person and injured more than 100 others (a cameraman also died from a heart attack as he ran to cover the incident). He later bombed two abortion clinics, killing one person and, in an alleged attempt to kill homosexuals – a lesbian nightclub. At the scene of some of his attacks, he also planted second bombs that were set to explode after police and other emergency responders had arrived to deal with the initial explosions. In one case, police discovered the second bomb and defused it, but in another case the second bomb went off as planned, injuring several people, including police officers. Rudolph was finally arrested in 2003 and is now serving a life sentence without parole.

Breivik, the Norwegian anti-Islamic lone-wolf terrorist, apparently set off the bomb in Oslo primarily to divert the attention of law enforcement personnel so he could then travel to Utoya and kill as many as possible of the young people attending the summer camp there. He wore a policeman’s uniform and told camp officials – who had already heard the news about the Oslo bombing – that he was there to protect the campers. Breivik then walked to the area where the campers’ tents were located and began shooting as many people as he could find.

Following the Norway shootings, one police official stated that Breivik “just came out of nowhere.” Another claimed that there had been “no warning lights” that Breivik was a terrorist. Their statements seem to imply that there is little if anything that can be done to prevent lone-wolf terrorist attacks. That is not quite the case, though. On the contrary, Breivik had actually made his presence known by using the Internet to purchase large quantities of ammonium nitrate fertilizer – which he later used to build the car bomb that he set off in Oslo. Norwegian authorities were initially suspicious of Breivik’s online purchase, but erroneously concluded that the fertilizer was in fact intended for agricultural use on a farm that Breivik had rented.

Breivik also advocated violence a number of times in a 1,500-page “manifesto” that he posted online shortly before his murderous attacks. “Once you decide to strike,” he wrote, “it is better to kill too many than not enough, or you risk reducing the desired ideological impact of the strike.” Like many other lone wolves, Breivik therefore did not, as suggested, simply “come out of nowhere.”

Preventive Strategies

Through a mix of creative and innovative strategies, it is in fact possible to reduce the likelihood of a lone wolf succeeding in an attack. Such strategies include: (a) improving detection devices in post offices and other facilities to help identify, in advance, package bombs or letters containing anthrax spores; (b) expanding the number and use of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public buildings and other settings; (c) accelerating the further development of computer technology that can recognize “suspicious” behavior in public places – and instantly forward the information to a control center where the decision whether or not to notify the police would be made; (d) further advances in biometrics, including the use of gait analysis to determine the speed, stride, and other characteristics of a person’s walk to determine if that person may be carrying a bomb or other weapon; and (e) the analysis of facial expressions to predict hostile intent (an obviously difficult task).

Another potentially important strategy for identifying lone wolves before they strike is to monitor the Internet – but without violating the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens – to identify those who are visiting extremist chat rooms, purchasing bomb-making materials and/or other suspicious items online, or posting ominous threats and manifestos.

In short, the lone-wolf threat seems likely to grow in the coming years. The current age of terrorism is one in which any number of people can become knowledgeable, empowered, and radicalized via the Internet and other means. Today there is also the possibility that at least some of the insurgents from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might later take their expertise to other regions and launch individual attacks. It is therefore important that governments and societies be as committed to dealing with the lone-wolf terrorist threat as they have been to the threat posed by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

Jeffrey D. Simon

Jeffrey D. Simon is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, and consultant on terrorism and political violence. He is president of Political Risk Assessment Company Inc., and a visiting lecturer in the Department of Political Science at UCLA. His most recent book, Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, was published in 2013. A former RAND analyst, he has conducted research and analysis on terrorism for more than 25 years. His writings on terrorism, political violence, and political risk have appeared in many publications, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, Foreign Policy, and the New York Times. His website can be found at http://www.futureterrorism.com. He earned a B.A. in History from the University of California at Berkeley, an M.A. in Political Science from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Southern California.



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