What Can Be Done About the Lone Wolf Terrorist Threat?

As President Donald Trump and his administration formulate their plans to combat terrorism, they will discover that dealing with the threat of lone wolf terrorism will prove to be the most difficult and frustrating part of any counterterrorism policy. Traditional counterterrorism measures—such as military, economic, and diplomatic actions—will not work against the individual terrorist. Neither will travel bans from various countries, since lone wolf attacks are equally likely to originate from individuals already residing in the United States as they are to originate from recent immigrants. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security draft document found that more than half of the eighty-two individuals inspired by a foreign terrorist group to perpetrate or attempt a terrorist attack in the United States were American citizens born in the States. A lone wolf does not have to be inspired by a foreign terrorist group. Any policy regarding lone wolves that focuses exclusively on the threat of Islamic extremists or the influence of the Islamic State or al Qaeda is misguided. Lone wolf terrorism cuts across the entire political and religious spectrum. There are Islamic extremist lone wolves and white supremacist lone wolves. There are “single issue” lone wolves who act in the name of a particular issue, such as anti-abortion, environmental and animal rights, and so forth. There is also the “wild card” lone wolf, namely the idiosyncratic lone wolf who uses ideology, real or self-created, in order to justify their actions.

What makes lone wolves so difficult to deal with is that they are not burdened by any group decision-making process or inter-group dynamics that can sometimes stifle creativity in formulating plans and operations. Therefore, lone wolves are free to think up any scenario and act upon it since they are accountable only to themselves. This freedom to think outside the box is why lone wolves are responsible for introducing several new terrorist tactics in the United States. These include the first vehicle bombing (1920), major midair plane bombing (1955), hijacking (1961), product contamination (1982), and anthrax letter attacks (2001).

Furthermore, because lone wolves are not part of a group, they may not be concerned, as some terrorist groups are, about alienating supporters, using weapons of mass destruction, or attacking the wrong type of target. Unlike traditional terrorist organizations, lone wolves are less worried about a potential government and law enforcement crackdown or elimination following a lone wolf attack. This makes lone wolves particularly dangerous as they can perpetrate an attack without worrying about the repercussions. Lone wolves are also dangerous because they are unlikely to be discovered by law enforcement or intelligence agencies prior to an attack—particularly because working alone means there is little to no communications to intercept between members of a group, nor are there any members of a group to arrest or from which to gain further intelligence. A final factor that adds to the danger of lone wolves is that they are sometimes mentally unstable, but highly intelligent and effective in their attacks. This was the case for Theodore Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber who sent package bombs by mail to various victims over a seventeen-year period beginning in 1978.

All of these characteristics lead to a somber conclusion: we cannot prevent lone wolf terrorism. There are too many opportunities and targets available for a determined individual who wants to perpetrate an attack. Yet, while the international community cannot eliminate the threat, we can, through a combination of strategies, reduce their potential for success. Most importantly, effective counterterrorist policies aimed at lone wolves must focus on these individuals’ use of the internet. The internet is a double-edged sword for lone wolves: it provides them with information on potential targets, tactics, and weapons, while also allowing them to access and be influenced by terrorist groups’ websites and social media activity.

However, the internet can also provide authorities opportunities to discover the identity and intentions of potential terrorists. Lone wolves love to talk a lot—and they do much of their talking on the Internet. For example, Anders Breivik, the anti-Islamic lone wolf who massacred scores of youths at a summer camp in Norway in 2011, posted a manifesto on the Internet shortly before embarking on his violent rampage. He wrote, “Once you decide to strike it is better to kill too many than not enough, or you risk reducing the desired ideological impact of the strike.” In addition, Joseph Stack, who flew a plane into a building containing IRS offices in Austin, Texas in 2010, wrote in his online manifesto shortly before his suicide attack that “violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.”

The challenge in monitoring internet activity is how to do it while protecting American civil liberties and privacy rights. There is also the challenge of distinguishing between those individuals who may be just venting or fantasizing on the internet from those who are likely to follow through with an attack. Because the internet acts as a platform for people to express all types of ideas and opinions, we can’t assume that what somebody writes on the internet reflects their true intentions. However, as technology and web analytics improve, it may become possible to determine if a post, blog, tweet, or other Internet activity foreshadows an actual attack.

Uncovering the early warning signs of potential lone wolf activity is another important part of any counterterrorist strategy. One example of a lone wolf who exhibited erratic behavior prior to striking was Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist working for the U.S. Army who committed suicide just as charges were about to be brought against him for the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. Ivins had a history of mental problems that, according to a panel of behavioral scientists, should have prevented him from attaining a security clearance and being allowed to work with biological warfare agents. Another case was Major Nidal Malik Hasan who shot and killed thirteen people at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009. Hasan displayed abnormal behavior for an employee of the U.S. Army, including telling a supervisor that she would be “ripped to shreds” and “burn in hell” for being an infidel. A colleague also described him prior to the attack as a “ticking time bomb.”

Advancements in closed-circuit television cameras also hold promise for reducing the risk of lone wolf attacks. Research is being conducted to determine if camera systems can identify an individual who may be hiding a bomb by the way he or she is walking and by using tiny sensors that can detect chemicals used to make an improvised explosive device. Had that technology been available and used at the Boston Marathon in 2013, then perhaps CCTV cameras could have signaled to authorities that the Tsarnaev brothers were not carrying running gear in their backpacks, but rather bombs.

Yet, despite all the measures, there is still, unfortunately, going to be lone wolf terrorism. There is no single-lone wolf profile, they are hard to track, and they are hard to stop. Learning how to live with this threat and not overreact after each incident may be one of the biggest challenges we face in the coming years.