Dan Byman

writes that Lone Wolves are having a real, indeed a strategic, impact today by helping change the politics in the United States and Europe and, in so doing, are shattering the good relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities so vital to counterterrorism and to liberal democracy in general. The year 2016 was the year of the Lone Wolf terrorist. In the United States, Omar Mateen, a loser who pledged himself to the Islamic State as he attacked a gay nightclub in Florida, killed 49 people in the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks. Europe too saw numerous attacks that involved individuals or small groups with only loose connections to the Islamic State.


Daniel L. Byman

Senior Fellow – Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

The Lone Wolf threat is hardly new. Islamist groups, right-wing white supremacists, abortion foes, and separatists of various stripes have all used this tactic with varying degrees of success. Over a century ago, lone anarchists killed presidents and prime ministers in their campaign to overturn what they saw as oppressive governments and bourgeois society. The deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil before 9/11 occurred in 1995, when white supremacists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In 2009, another right-wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, killed 77 people in Norway. Lone Wolves, however, seem to be growing in number. The scholar Ramon Spaaij found that although absolute numbers remain low, the numbers of attacks since the 1970s grew almost 50 percent in the United States and by over 400 percent in the other countries he surveyed.

[I]t is the rare Lone Wolf who is truly alone.

Precise numbers are difficult to come by, as it is often unclear how lonely Lone Wolves really are. A Lone Wolf is traditionally described as someone who operates on their own and is not part of a group, network, or directed by an outside organization. However, it is the rare Lone Wolf who is truly alone: the San Bernardino killers were married, and the Nice cargo truck driver was in contact with a range of radicals. An excellent New York Times report revealed that the Islamic State leaders operating remotely from Syria often exercise various degrees of influence and direction of many attackers at first thought to be acting alone. Think of them really as lone-ish wolves—wolves who are either acting alone or in very small packs.

The Lone Wolf logic is tied to the terrorists’ weakness, not its strength, which is why so many diverse groups have embraced it over the years. In 1983, white supremacist Louis Beam pushed for “leaderless resistance,” arguing that the federal government was too strong for any citizens’ movement to oppose it directly and that like-minded groups should operate independently without central coordination. “The concept of Leaderless Resistance is nothing less than a fundamental departure in theories of organization,” Beam wrote, using bold font to emphasize his point. Traditional groups with tight command and control “are easy prey for government infiltration, entrapment, and destruction of the personnel involved.” He admitted that “Leaderless Resistance is a child of necessity” but one that can create “an intelligence nightmare.”

Despite these many advantages, most terrorist groups have shied away from using Lone Wolves—at least most of the time. Mateen’s high death tolls is rare—indeed off the charts—compared with the vast majority of Lone Wolves, who usually kill only a small number, if any before being killed or arrested themselves. In comparing plots involving individuals who had fought as foreign fighters and thus had some training with those who had not, the terrorism scholar Thomas Hegghammer finds that the presence of a veteran from a foreign jihad both dramatically increases the chance that a terrorist plot will succeed and makes the overall lethality higher. Professionalism matters.

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