Lone wolf terrorism is an emerging topic in terrorism studies and has become more prevalent in the literature from 2010 onwards. In 2014, the journal Terrorism and Political Violence dedicated an issue to the topic with great emphasis on theory and case studies to support. In 2015, the Royal United Services Institute [RUSI], in conjunction with the European Union [EU], created a project dedicated to understanding the phenomenon and to provide guidance to mental health and security practitioners in identifying potential lone wolves.
Yet, lone wolf terrorism is not a new phenomenon in terrorism. Rapoport recognised four phases (waves) of terrorism throughout history that started with the Anarchists of Russia in 1880, proceeded by the Anti-colonial wave perpetuated by nationalist-separatist terrorists after the First World War, then The New Left wave which was mostly anti-fascist and anti-capitalist movements during and after the Vietnam War, then finally the Religious Extremist wave. This final wave has dominated the field of terrorism in the early 21st century with great emphasis on Islamic extremism. The statistics on terrorism reflect this representation with the majority of terrorist attacks in the 2000s being identified as Islam inspired or Jihadist.
However, Post argues that lone wolf terrorism is the next emerging phase of terrorism. Lone wolf terrorism, unlike the previous waves of terrorism, is not fixed in a definitive political or ideological dogma (Pantucci et al. 2015). The lone wolf is difficult to detect due to their social isolation and relative lack of communication (Spaaij, 2010). The social psychological explanations of group terrorism do not apply to the lone wolf, they can self-radicalise and even act in complete social isolation — like Ted Kaczynski (The Unabomber).
Radicalisation is a key theme within lone wolf terrorism, the development of social media and the Internet has led to the increase in propaganda created and distributed by terrorist and extremist groups (Weimann, 2012). Due to this, these groups can radicalise and coerce marginalised individuals into committing domestic acts of terrorism without ever having a physical relation with them (Spaaij and Hamm 2015). The anonymity afforded by the Internet allows the lone wolf to access extremist content and feel a part of a community of like-minded individuals without the need to travel (Torok, 2013).
From this presentation, it seems extremely difficult to detect the lone wolf before they are able to commit to their plans and it would be reasonable to come to that conclusion. But, the key component in the lone wolf’s arsenal, the Internet, is also the tool used to detect them (Pantucci et al. 2015). Lone wolves are usually not as alone as once conceived, there is typically some evidence of communication or co-ordination with other extremists in lone wolf terrorism cases. Interception of the communications between the lone wolf and the wider organisation may be an avenue for detection (Ellis and Pantucci, 2016). Alternatively, the people closest to the lone wolf (e.g. friends, family, work colleagues) may pick up on extremist indicators which authorities may not be able to identify themselves (Ellis and Pantucci, 2016). Still, the widespread production of effective extremist propaganda has created a “virtual community of hatred” that will continue to appeal to those on the fringes of society. Whether the IC can stay on top of this trend is up for debate.
To conclude, the emerging threat of the lone wolf terrorist is gaining increasing attention from academics and the IC alike. Though it is not a new phenomenon, social media and the Internet has provided a platform for the widespread radicalisation of marginalised individuals which is arguably driving this trend. The difficulty in detecting and preventing this phenomenon should be of concern to security practitioners. Can the IC effectively respond to this emerging threat? The increase in research on the topic will help develop the understanding needed to combat this form of terrorism.
I decided to refrain from entering the complexity of the definitional concepts of lone wolf terrorism as I think it would take focus away from the prevailing analysis. I also did not go into the literature on the psychology and typology of the lone wolf. I wanted to present a rounded non-specific overview of the issue that I feel would have been diluted by the presentation of these arguments. I will be writing more on this topic and these arguments will be explored in more detail. Not only this, but I am currently writing my Masters dissertation on this very topic. As my understanding develops so will my ability to convey the arguments prevalent in the literature.