Lone Wolf Terrorism

Cover Lone Wolf Terrorism


When the Irish Republican Army failed in an attempt to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984, the terrorist group issued the following chilling statement: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once.  You will have to be lucky always.”  In those brief words, the IRA got to the heart of the problem of combating terrorism.  No government or society can realistically expect to always be “lucky” against terrorists since the targets of terrorists are limitless and their strategies and tactics are always evolving.

And that is where the lone wolf terrorist comes into play.  As difficult as it is to try to prevent terrorist groups and cells from perpetrating a major attack, it is even more difficult to prevent a lone wolf from doing so.  In my new book, Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, I try to unravel some of the unique aspects of the lone wolf threat and outline some steps that can be taken to try to reduce the risk of attacks.

I first became interested in lone wolf terrorism when I conducted a case study of an individual (Muharem Kurbegovic) who had terrorized Los Angeles in the 1970s.  Known as the “Alphabet Bomber” he single-handedly brought the city to a standstill and caused widespread fear by his actions and threats, which included a deadly bombing at Los Angeles International Airport and threats to unleash nerve gas over populated areas.  It was then that I realized that the lone wolf could be a powerful actor in the world of terrorism.  In fact, lone wolves have proven to be as dangerous, and have as much of an impact upon governments and societies as the better-trained and organized terrorist groups and cells.

Recent years have witnessed several major attacks by individual terrorists, ranging from Anders Breivik’s massacre of scores of youths on an island in Norway shortly after setting off a bomb in Oslo to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan who is accused of killing thirteen fellow soldiers and others at Fort Hood, Texas.  The fact that Breivik is an anti-Islamic extremist and Hasan is an Islamic extremist, underscores the diversity in the growing lone wolf terrorist threat.  Lone wolves come from all parts of the political and religious spectrum.  There have also been terrorist incidents and plots by neo-Nazis, white Supremacists, and “single-issue” extremists.

One of the factors that distinguish lone wolf terrorists from those who are members of a group or cell is their freedom to act upon any scenario they might think up.  There is no group decision-making process or group pressure to stifle creativity.  This has resulted in some of the most innovative terrorist attacks in history.  For example, lone wolves were responsible for the first vehicle bombing (1920), major midair plane bombing (1955), hijacking (1961), product tampering (1982) and anthrax letters attack (2001) in the United States.  Lone wolves think outside the box, which is an advantage in trying to come up with new ideas for terrorist attacks.

Lone wolves are also dangerous because the have little or no constraints on their level of violence.  They are not concerned with alienating supporters (as would many terrorist groups) nor are they concerned with a potential government crackdown following an attack.  That is why they are potential candidates to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  There has already been a bioterrorist attack (the anthrax letters) committed by a lone wolf in the U.S.  Lone wolves have no supporters or financial and political backers who might be alienated by a WMD attack and no headquarters or training camps that could be hit in retaliatory raids.  A lone wolf might also believe that committing a conventional terrorist attack similar to those occurring regularly around the world would not yield as much publicity and notoriety as an attack with a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon.

Lone wolves are also more difficult to identify and capture since they work alone.  There are usually no communications to intercept or members of a group to arrest and learn about potential plots.  They can also sometimes by mentally unstable, yet still very effective, such as Theodore Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber, who sent package bombs throughout the United States from 1978 to 1995.

Although lone wolves have been active in the past, we are witnessing a new wave of attacks due to the revolutionary impact of the Internet.  The Internet is at the center of what I label as the Technological Wave of terrorism.  Technology is there for all to take advantage of, including lone wolves.  If the Internet did not exist, lone wolves would probably have had to invent it.  They use the Internet for a variety of purposes.  This includes conducting online research for targets, tactics and weapons; becoming self-radicalized by visiting terrorist websites and/or engaging in extremist chat rooms; and posting blogs and manifestos online, sometimes announcing to the world what they intended to do.  For example, Anders Breivik, the Norwegian lone wolf, posted a 1500-page manifesto shortly before his attack where he extolled the virtues of killing large numbers of people for maximum publicity.  In another case, an American woman, Coleen LaRose, who identified herself as “Jihad Jane” in her online postings, used the Internet in an attempt to form her own terrorist network.

It is this desire to communicate through the Internet that provides one of the best opportunities to identify potential lone wolves before they strike.  Through the monitoring of the Internet (without violating law abiding individuals’ civil liberties) much can be learned about who the lone wolves are.  This includes the identification of individuals who, as noted above, are visiting extremist chat rooms, purchasing bomb making materials and other suspicious items online, or posting threatening blogs or manifestos.  Additional strategies that may prove helpful in preventing lone wolf attacks are the expansion closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public settings, improved detection devices in post offices and other facilities to identify package bombs or letters containing anthrax spores, and further advances in biometrics, including the use of gait analysis which assesses how somebody is walking to determine if a person may be carrying a bomb or other weapon.  Increased public awareness is another important strategy, such as the reporting of unattended packages in airports, bus terminals, shopping malls, and other potential targets for a terrorist attack.

The lone wolf is forcing us to rethink some of our basic concepts about terrorism.  No longer can we view terrorism as emanating solely from organized or decentralized groups and cells.  The lone wolf has proven to be a formidable foe in the battle against terrorism.  This is likely to continue in the years ahead.


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(http://www.prometheusbooks.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=57_66&products_id=2155).  A former RAND analyst, Dr. Simon has conducted research and analysis on terrorism for more than twenty-five 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 www.futureterrorism.com.