Although I’ll discuss it here, I generally tend to try not to use the phrase ‘lone wolf’ too much for terrorists because it can valorise or glamorise them. We call them something like ‘solo actor’ or ‘self-directing’. But whatever we call it, it’s a phenomenon that has been associated with Far Right terrorism for 30 years.
There are various reasons for this, but essentially solo-actor terrorism is perfectly built for Far Right ideology. These are not people who trust other people easily. Becoming a lone wolf chimes with Far Right ideology – these terrorists often see themselves as agents of change, taking the law into their own hands like some kind of Nietzschean superman.
The first lone wolf terrorists, 120 years ago, were anarchists targeting people like the King of Italy and the Russian royal family, but the phenomenon as we know it today has roots in a race murderer called Joseph Paul Franklin. Acting alone, he killed mixed race couples in America in the 1970s [and also crippled Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for publishing a mixed race pornographic shoot].
Franklin’s actions were picked up by a 1978 book that has been called the Bible of the racist Right. It was called The Turner Diaries and was written under the pseudonym of Andrew Macdonald but the author, William Pierce, was the founder of a US neo-Nazi group called National Alliance. He dedicated the book to Franklin and it was a story about a white supremacist, Earl Turner, who channeled neo-fascist ideology into self-directed acts of violence. It ended with nuclear bombs falling on Israel and Turner flying a nuclear bomb into the Pentagon on a suicide mission.
“Beam’s theory of ‘leaderless resistance’ was that traditional pyramidal structures are easily penetrated. He began thinking in terms of what he called ‘small cells’: single actors.”
The Turner Diaries was very influential in Far Right circles but the point where lone wolf terrorism changed from a sub-culture to reality came in the early 1990s with a guy called Louis Beam. Beam was a Ku Klux Klansman and the head of an Aryan Nation compound and he came up with the concept of ‘leaderless resistance’. Beam’s theory was that traditional pyramidal organisational structures, whether in a legit business or an underground Far Right movement, are easily penetrated. It only takes one or two infiltrators to break up the whole group. So he began thinking in terms of what he called ‘small cells’: single actors.
Beam had a platform and a voice, he was respected on the Far Right scene, and sometimes that is all it takes: for one charismatic person to come up with a new idea and say, “OK, this is what we’re going to do now.” Everybody just says, “Ah – this is what we’ve been waiting for!”
The classic image of the lone wolf terrorist, at least in the US, is probably Theodore Kaczynski, who was the Unabomber. He holed up in a cabin in the woods in Montana, didn’t speak to anybody for years and posted bombs to his victims. Yet it would be misleading to think that all lone wolf terrorists have to be like him.
Terrorism is promiscuous and there is no one archetype for solo-actor terrorists. It was a woman, Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed Stephen Timms MP at his surgery in 2010. James von Brunn was 89 years old when he killed a security guard and shot up the US Holocaust Museum in 2009.
However, most lone wolf terrorists tend to be white males between 15-50. They are often socially marginalised, loners, and may have maladjustments such as alcoholism or are facing challenges such as unemployment. There are often mental health issues, but their IQs tend not to be unusual – they are neither evil geniuses nor idiots.
Kaczynski, the Unabomber, radicalised himself before the internet but that wouldn’t happen now. I would go so far as to say that it is impossible today to be a lone wolf in western Europe or the US without some degree of internet radicalisation. That has been the game-changer, because even if solo actors are socially isolated in a practical, real-world sense, they can still identify with wider tropes and ideologies online.
“It is impossible today to be a lone wolf in western Europe or the US without some degree of internet radicalisation.”
In my work I have to look at some pretty nasty websites. One is called White Revolution, and in 2011 they did a straw poll to ask their users: ‘What is your most preferred engagement with extreme-right ideas?’ Around 30% of the 300 people that responded said ‘Don’t know’ and about 20% said ‘Via an organized group’. The most popular option, with 47%, was ‘Lone wolf’.
It’s not like all those people are at home crafting bombs like the Unabomber – they just like what they see as the glamour of the idea, and most of them will just be keyboard warriors. But if you had asked the same question 20 years earlier, that answer would have scored 0%. It just wasn’t on the radar.
How can the security services stop lone wolf terrorists? It’s hard, because by definition they leave very small footprints. They may be able to detect patterns of radicalisation: a guy who goes from never being online to being online an hour a day but never posting, to posting for six hours a day. But not everybody does this.
As I said, lone wolf terrorism has historically been owned by the Far Right – Islamist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda tend to prefer big spectacular attacks like 9/11. But in the last year or two there have been four or five cases of self-directing Islamist terrorists driving trucks into crowds of people. Even in 2009/2010, [Yemeni imam and radical preacher] Anwar al-Awlaki was talking about ‘personal jihadi’, which isn’t too far from Louis Beam’s ‘leaderless resistance’. I think we are going to see a lot more of that from jihadi terrorists.
In 2010 I worked on the case of Ian Davison, who was an unemployed milkman from the northeast who used just his credit card and his wi-fi and made a weapon of mass destruction in his garage. He was preparing lethal doses of ricin and he was the first person in Britain to be convicted under the Chemical Weapons Act.
Davison hadn’t got as far as dispersing or weaponising the ricin before he got interdicted by the security services, but what he could have done with a dirty bomb is terrifying. That’s why I think lone wolf and self-directed terrorism is very much going to be with us in the 21st century. We invaded a sovereign country in 2003 looking for WMDs and now you can make them in your basement with a credit card and a computer.
Yet even though there is this new reality of bomb-making techies, the worst act of right-wing terrorism – except for the Bologna bomb – in Europe since 1945 was carried out by one guy with a gun: Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. Most of the victims were children and most of them were shot execution-style from six inches away.
“Anders Breivik typified the thinking of the Far Right lone wolf terrorist. They think, ‘I’m the one who can bring about change’.”
Breivik wrote a manifesto that he called 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, in which he made it clear that he was a solo actor because he knew that the more people there were in a cell, the greater chance there was of being intercepted and arrested. He reckoned working in a cell of five people meant a 95% chance of being caught before the act of terrorism. Working alone brought it down to 30%.
The figures may be back-of-the-envelope calculations by a mass murderer but Breivik knew that he had more chance of success working alone – and he also typified something of the thinking of the Far Right lone wolf terrorist. At some level, they think, “You know what? I’m the one who can bring about change.”