Linda Schlegel holds a BA in Liberal Arts from the University College Maastricht (NL) and an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London (UK).  Her main topics of interest are radicalization, the role of identity in extremism, and societal resilience.  She can be found on Twitter at @LiSchlegel.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Lone Wolf Terrorist Concept

Date Originally Written:  November 12, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  December 11, 2017.

Summary:  The label “lone wolf” is attached easily to an individual attacker by politicians and the media, but must be used with care.  These actors do not perceive themselves as acting alone, but as part of a group.  This group is increasingly found in the virtual realm, begging the question of whether traditional notions of membership in terrorist groups is still a valid indication of whether an attack was perpetrated by a lone wolf or not.

Text:  In recent years, the phenomenon of so-called lone wolf terrorism has increased with more and more attacks perpetrated by single actors.  Lone wolf attacks occur in the context of multiple ideological frameworks and are not confined to a single group or system of belief.  The Islamist attack in Nice, France, in 2016 was just as much the work of a lone actor as the atrocities perpetrated by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011.  While governments and the media are quick to attach the label lone wolf to a single perpetrator, one needs to ask what this concept actually entails.  Individuals do not exist in a vacuum and one should not make the mistake of equating the reference to lone action to objective isolation or disengagement from society at large.  It needs to be discussed what the label actually says about the perpetrator, how the perpetrator views himself, and whether there can be lone wolves in the age of global connectivity through social media.

Politically, the concept lone wolf is used to reassure the public and communicate that the danger is no longer immanent.  Academically as well as practically, the concept entails more than this reassurance[1].  Following ideas put forward by Ramon Spaaje in 2010, a lone wolf terrorist can be defined as a person who “operates individually, does not belong to an organized terrorist group or network and whose modi operandi are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or hierarchy[2].”  Therefore, there are two conditions which need to be fulfilled in order to classify someone as a lone wolf.  Firstly, the individual perpetrating an attack cannot have formal membership in a terrorist organization or be part of a network of terrorists.  This does not mean that the lone actor needs to be completely innovative in his ideology or actions.  In fact, radicalization is often driven by organizations disseminating propaganda and terrorists learn from each other even if they belong to very different ideological backgrounds.  Breivik, for instance, took inspiration from Al-Qaeda for his attacks[3].  But lone wolves cannot be recognized members of organizations and take action on behalf of this group.  Secondly, the individual must have planned, prepared and executed the attack without operational support from others and without direct orders to do so.  While seemingly straightforward, these criteria are increasingly difficult to apply in today’s circumstances.

Sociologist Max Weber postulated in his writings that in order to understand a social phenomenon, it is not enough to judge it from the outside, one must put oneself in the shoes of the social actor.  Do lone wolves view themselves as lone wolves?  Most of the time, the answer is no.  Terrorists are rarely motivated by nihilism, they are motivated by altruism[4] and take action on behalf of a group.  Islamist terrorists often claim to act in defense of the ummah, the global community of Muslims, and right-wing extremists on behalf of the white race, the nation or, as Breivik, on a self-composed category such as “Nordic Europeans.”  Lone wolves do not view themselves as lone wolves; precisely the contrary holds true.  Lone wolves often perceive themselves as part of a heroic avant-garde seeking to protect a larger group of people.  It is important to understand that lone wolf is a label attached to an individual by external forces not the actor himself.  One could argue that this by itself does not render the above-mentioned criteria invalid, as objectively the individual was acting alone, regardless of whether he or she believes to belong to an organization or take action on behalf of a group or not.  Membership in groups and “acting alone,” however, are concepts increasingly difficult to apply in a world where terrorist organizations increasingly organize virtually through social media.

What does it mean to “belong to an organized terrorist group or network[5]” when groups of all ideological backgrounds are increasingly organizing in the virtual sphere[6]?  Online, thousands of people access, view, read, comment on and engage with extremist content disseminated by terrorist groups.  Individuals can feel strongly about the virtual community and construct their individual identity in relation to the collective online movement[7].  A network can now refer to a virtual social network spanning the globe with various degrees of real-life and virtual involvement with the organization.  In the age of clicktivism, the notion of membership in a terrorist organization is increasingly less straightforward.  Is it feasible to consider somebody to be a lone wolf if this person was an active member of an online network run by an organized group even if he or she perpetrated the attack alone?  Facilitating lone actor attacks has become part of deliberate strategies of extremist organizations[8] and attacks sometimes represent hybrids between lone actor and “normal” terrorist action.  For example, during the recent attacks in Germany, the attacker was continuously in contact with members of the so-called Islamic State through instant messaging applications[9], including receiving encouragement and practical hints.  Can a case like this still be considered lone wolf terrorism?

Terrorism is constantly evolving and the concept of lone wolf terrorism is not as unambiguous as it might have seemed previously.  Social media has changed the way membership in violent organizations can be conceptualized and calls into question how alone lone wolves really are in the age of instant virtual communication. The lone wolf concept needs to be reevaluated and adapted to changed circumstances.  Should these actors be regarded as peripheral members of terrorist organizations?  How can we conceptualize those that followed general calls for action, but executed attacks individually?  Can we understand some individuals as “remote-controlled” by official members of terrorist organizations?  Currently, there are more questions than answers on the content and validity of the lone wolf concept, but we should be alert and aware that the external conditions have changed, and old responses may not be appropriate anymore to present-day lone actor terrorism.


[1] For an overview see Ellis, C., Pantucci, R., de Roy van Zuijdewijn, J., Bakker, E., Gomis, B., Palombi, S. and Smith, M. (2016). Lone-Actor Terrorism: Final Report. Royal United Service Institute: London

[2] Appleton, C. (2014). Lone wolf terrorism in Norway. The International Journal of Human Rights. Vol. 18 (2), pp.127-142
See also Spaaij, R. (2010). The Enigma of Lone Wolf Terrorism: An Assessment. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Vol. 33 (9), pp. 854-870

[3] Borchgrevink, A. (2012). A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utoya. Cambridge: Polity Press

[4] Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the enemy: Violent Extremism, sacred values, and what it means to be human. Penguin Books: London

[5] Appleton, C. (2014). Lone wolf terrorism in Norway. The International Journal of Human Rights. Vol. 18 (2), pp.127-142

[6] Garcia, F. (9/3/16). White nationalist movement growing much faster than ISIS on Twitter, study finds. The Independent.

[7] Berntzen, L.E. and Sandberg, S. (2014). The Collective Nature of Lone Wolf Terrorism: Anders Behring Breivik and the Anti-Islamic Social Movement. Terrorism and Political Violence. Vol 26 (5)., pp.759-779

[8] Burke, J. (6/15/16). Islamist terror has evolved toward lone actors- and it’s brutally effective. The Guardian.

[9] Joscelyn, T. (2016). Terror Plots in Germany, France Were ‘remote-Controlled’ by Islamic State Operatives. FDD’s Long War Journal. Retrieved from: