Assessment of the How the Media Overstates the Threat Posed by the Erroneously Called ‘Lone-Wolves’

Cristina Ariza holds a master’s degree from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where she focused on radicalisation and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE.)  She is a freelance analyst, currently researching on Spanish jihadist networks and the role of families in CVE.  She can be found on Twitter @CrisAriza_C.  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 How the Media Overstates the Threat Posed by the Erroneously Called ‘Lone-Wolves’

Date Originally Written:  January 23, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  April 16, 2018.

Summary:  Media outlets, commentators, and prosecutors continue to use the ‘lone wolf’ typology to refer to any kind of individual attacker, which overlooks how the majority of these perpetrators have radicalised in contact with other like-minded individuals. As a result, the threat arising from supposedly ‘undetectable terrorists’ has been markedly overstated, to the point of sowing unnecessary fear.

Text:  A quick Google search of the term ‘lone wolf terrorism’ throws about 459,000 results, which is a striking number given how misleading this concept actually is. Initially, the concept of ‘lone wolf’ was supposed to represent the threat coming from individuals who radicalised in isolation and went on to commit an attack alone. Since they were not receiving instructions from a terrorist command nor they were in contact with other extremists, lone wolves were undetectable threats that could strike at any given time. However, as shown by the media frenzy that arises every time there is an attack, this category has lost all meaning. Now, every attack committed by one individual is automatically labelled as a ‘lone wolf’ attack, regardless of whether said individual actually fits the criteria. Thus, the discourse shifts onto a meaningless debate that contributes nothing to explaining how individuals are actually driven to commit attacks.

The first stumbling block we come across when examining ‘lone wolves’ is conceptual. There seems to be a certain consensus in the literature that in order to be designated as such, ‘lone wolves’ need to be detached operationally and institutionally from larger networks. In his study on Islamist lone attackers, Raffaello Pantucci differentiated between loners, lone wolves, lone wolf packs, and lone attackers. However, only the ‘loners’ had radicalised in total isolation and proceeded to attack alone. The rest of the categories included individuals who did not formally belong to a hierarchical command but had some online or offline contact with extremists, and individuals who committed an attack in small groups[1]. Strictly speaking, only the ‘loners’ could fit the criteria of self-radicalised ‘lone wolves,’ which is why compiling all these categories under the same typology ends up being problematic. For starters, this compiling overlooks the significant differences that exist between self-radicalisation and group radicalisation. As Bart Schuurman et al correctly point out, ‘peer pressure, leader-follower interactions, group polarization and other social-psychological processes by definition rule out including even the smallest „packs‟ under the heading of lone-actor terrorism[2].’

While, in spite of disagreements, literature discussions on ‘lone wolf’ terrorism tend to be very nuanced, this meticulousness appears to be absent in other contexts. In media and public usage, every attack that is committed by an individual perpetrator is at first designated as a ‘lone wolf’ attack, which risks overestimating the threat coming from self-radicalised and independently operating individuals. In 2016, the Nice and Berlin attackers were first wrongly identified as ‘lone-wolves’, even though it later emerged that both perpetrators had radicalised in contact with like-minded individuals. Jason Burke, in his piece entitled ‘The Myth of the Lone-Wolf Terrorist’ compellingly argues that ‘this lazy term [lone wolf] obscures the real nature of the threat against us[3].’

Furthermore, there seems to be a correlation between the modus operandi of an attack and the decision to designate an individual (or even individuals) as ‘lone-wolves.’ A perfect example of this correlation is a Daily Mail headline that claimed: ‘ISIS has abandoned large-scale terror atrocities to focus on ‘lone wolf’ attacks like Nice and Berlin, government report says[4].’ The government report quoted in this article, whose authenticity could not be independently verified, referred more generally to ‘lone actors’ and ‘small groups’, which in sensational media jargon translates as ‘lone wolves.’ Despite the fact that neither the Berlin nor the Nice attacker could actually be categorised as lone-wolves, the article audaciously equated low-cost attacks with lone-wolves, as if tactics had any bearing on radicalisation. While the Daily Mail is not particularly known for its credibility, a journalist from the much more reliable British newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ also suggested that the Westminster 2017 attack and the murder of Lee Rigsby were examples of how lone-wolf attacks did not require sophisticated weapons[5].’ Whereas one could forgive a premature—and ultimately mistaken— analysis on whether Khalid Masood was a lone wolf, both perpetrators in the Lee Rigsby case were linked to Al Muhajiroun, one of the United Kingdom’s largest jihadist recruitment networks. Therefore, the apparent correlation between low-cost weapons and lone wolves—or even ‘pack of wolves’— is not immediately clear. While it stands to reason that individuals who formally belong to terrorist organisations and have planned to commit large-scale attacks might resort to more sophisticated weapons —the Paris and Brussels attackers chose to use suicide vests and bombs—, the decision to strike with a low-cost weapon does not say much about how one individual might become radicalised. Granted, true lone wolves would likely resort to low-cost weapons, but so did the London Bridge attackers or the Magnaville perpetrator. Referring to low-cost attacks as ‘lone wolf attacks’ only contributes to adding another layer of confusion to an already problematic concept.

A more recent trial case in the United Kingdom showed how prosecution has also adopted this terminology. According to The Guardian, Munir Mohammed had ‘resolved upon a lone wolf attack[6].’ Yet he had enlisted the help of his girlfriend to buy the ingredients for a chemical attack. Both had met online and frequently shared extremist content with each other. If this was not reason enough to determine that Munir Mohammed did not radicalise in total isolation, as a so-called ‘lone-wolf’ is supposed to do, the article also showed that Munir Mohammed was in contact with an Islamic State commander and that he was waiting for instructions to attack. The evidence clearly shows that the dynamics of radicalization that led Munir Mohammed to try to commit an attack were diametrically different to the mechanisms of self-radicalisation. Unfortunately, the persistent use of the ‘lone wolf typology’ prevents us from noticing these nuances and communicating them to the general public.

The inaccurate understanding of the lone wolf concept is consistently being applied to terrorism cases that fail to meet the necessary criteria, which only contributes to creating preventable fear amongst the population. It is precisely in a climate of exaggerated fear where terrorists thrive, which is why the ‘lone wolf’ categorisation is no longer adequate to analyse and understand the current terrorist threat.


Endnotes:

[1] Pantucci, R. (2011, March). A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists. ICSR. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/1302002992ICSRPaper_ATypologyofLoneWolves_Pantucci.pdf

[2] Schuurman, B., Lindekilde, L., Malthaner, S., O’Connor, F., Gill, P., & Bouhana, N. (2017). End of the Lone Wolf: The Typology that Should Not Have Been. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1057610X.2017.1419554

[3] Burke, J. (2017, March 30). The Myth of the Lone Wolf Terrorist. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/western-europe/2016-07-26/myth-lone-wolf-terrorism

[4] Boyle, D. (2017, January 5). ISIS has abandoned large-scale terror atrocities to focus on ‘lone wolf’ attacks like Nice and Berlin, government report says. Daily Mail. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4091844/ISIS-abandoned-large-scale-terror-atrocities-focus-lone-wolf-attacks-like-Nice-Berlin-government-report-says.html#ixzz5518Phdcs 

[5] Coughlin, C (2017, March 22). London attack was simply a question of time: This was the lone wolf Britain has long been fearing. The Telegraph. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/22/simply-question-time-lone-wolf-attack-britain-has-long-fearing/

[6] Grierson, J. (2018, January 8). UK couple found guilty of plotting Christmas terror attack. The Guardian. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jan/08/uk-couple-found-guilty-of-plotting-christmas-terror-attack

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