In the long roll call of ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks, few countries have been spared. From Australia to Azerbaijan, Finland to France, Norway to The Netherlands, Xinjiang to the United States, solitary gunmen down the decades have opened fire on the innocent in pursuit of specific goals.
The latest awful incident of multiple murders by an individual occurred last week in America, when 40-year-old army veteran Wade Michael Page (pictured) killed six people inside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and was then shot to death himself by the police.
Authorities described the incident as an “act of domestic terrorism” and said Page had been linked to white supremacist groups.
At La Trobe University in Melbourne, sociologist Dr Ramon Spaaij has been researching terrorism for 10 years and for the past five has focused on terrorists who act alone – the so-called lone wolves. He summarises his findings in a new book Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global patterns, motivations and prevention – the first in-depth analysis of such terrorism worldwide over the past four decades.
Spaaij is a senior research fellow in the school of social sciences at La Trobe and at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research. His latest book follows on from research he and colleagues conducted between 2006 and 2009, for the European Commission, on transnational terrorism.
This was a large-scale, US$1 million project covering terrorist acts in 10 European countries, as well as in Australia, Britain, Canada, Russia and the United States between 1968 – when the first international records of terrorism incidents began to be compiled – and 2010.
Few studies done on lone terrorists
During his research, Spaaij realised that almost no studies had been done on lone terrorists.
Then came the tragedy that unfolded in Norway on the afternoon of 22 July last year, when Anders Breivik detonated a bomb that killed eight people in the centre of Oslo and later, disguised as a police officer, gunned down 69 young people attending a Labour Party youth camp. This event led to American publisher Springer asking Spaaij to write a book that would explain why such solitary killers acted the way they did.
“I started the research with information drawn from global terrorism databases and used that to identify likely examples of lone wolf terrorists,” he says.
“I checked these for corroborating evidence and found cases in Russia and Germany where the perpetrators were individuals but who I then discovered were connected to groups such as neo-Nazi gangs so they were excluded.”
Among other sources, Spaaij used the Global Terrorism Database which, since 2008, has been hosted by the national consortium for the study of terrorism research centre at the University of Maryland, alongside the Terrorism Knowledge Base.
The two databases collectively contain 11,235 terrorist incidents, including failed attempts, between 1968 and 2010. Among these are 198 incidents by 88 ‘solo-actor’ terrorists, in which 123 people were killed across 15 Western countries – including the US, home of the radical right-wing lone wolf.
The ‘lone wolf’ phenomenon
In the book, Spaaij examines the key trends, features and dimensions of lone wolf terrorism, explores what drives the lone wolf to commit mass violence and discusses how this might be effectively countered.
The two criteria he uses to define a lone wolf are that the terrorist act must be aimed at attaining an ideological, political or religious outcome, and that there must be evidence of an intention to convey a message to a larger audience than the immediate victims.
America, of course, stands out not only because of the sheer number of individuals who have gone on murderous rampages but also because well over half the attacks by lone wolf terrorists over the past 40 years also occurred in that country.
To that extent, lone wolf terrorism seems to be very much a far-right American phenomenon, and is almost certainly linked to the easy availability of weapons in the US.
Spaaij had completed his PhD on violence in sport and he used the analytical techniques he developed then for his research into lone wolf terrorism. He says this enabled him to draw some quantitative analyses and then to undertake case studies of particular individuals, looking at their motivations, backgrounds and the processes of radicalisation.
His book ends with an appendix of 14 pages listing the nearly 200 cases of lone wolf terrorism committed over the past 40 years.
Russia, which has a far higher number of terrorism incidents than America, has only one lone wolf listed: a man in 1983 driving a car with a bomb who tried to ram the British Embassy in Moscow.
“Media coverage of terrorism in countries such as Russia, those in the former Soviet Union and in South America, is very restricted because their governments do not want this sort of information to come out, indicating a degree of under-reporting,” Spaaij says.
“It took weeks to go through the thousands of Russian incidents of terrorism and almost all of them could be traced back to terrorist organisations or freedom fighters.”
The most lethal sole terrorist act of the past 40 years was that by the Norwegian killer Breivik, who meticulously planned the bombing and killings and set out his beliefs in a lengthy manifesto. But Spaaij says such incidents should not generate widespread public fear that they could happen any time, anywhere.
“If you look analytically at the data, the overall number of fatalities is very low and a lot of the attempts by lone wolf terrorists fail because they are poorly executed.
“At the same time, lone wolf attacks have been on the rise: up by 45% globally and by 412% in America between the 1970s and the 2000s,” he says, adding that international security agencies, including the FBI and CIA, now consider terrorism carried out by individuals among the most likely forms of terrorist attack, given how technology can more easily track the behaviour of terrorist groups.
Although the number of casualties caused by lone wolves might be low, Spaaij says this is not necessarily a good indicator of the impact their attacks have on the general public: “From the terrorist perspective, the immediate target is usually of secondary import to the broader audience in which he or she seeks to instil fear.
“The mantra of the terrorist typically is ‘Kill one, frighten 10,000’ – a phrase often attributed to the Chinese war theorist Sun Tzu. In the modern information age, the axiom might even be ‘Kill one, frighten 10 million...’”
A ‘lone wolf’ personality type?
But is there a type of person who might be prone to act as a lone wolf? Spaaij says no: that each terrorist has unique characteristics and no single profile would fit.
But lone wolves often combine what he calls “the broad structures of a more extreme ideology with their own personal grievances”, while the rate of psychiatric disturbance among them appears to be significantly high.
He says this factor might need to be taken more seriously by authorities when trying to ensure large-scale disruption is avoided to events, such as the Olympics, that might be targeted for political or activist ends.
But more research is needed into the background of lone wolf terrorists, Spaaij says, and although he had hoped to interview those who had been held in prison, he found gaining access was extremely difficult.
He has, however, been contacted by officials at the US Department of Justice, which is organising a big study with researchers at Indiana State University, and they wondered if he might be interested.
“If you had the backing of the department it would make it a lot easier to conduct interviews with the lone wolves,” Spaaij says.
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