Assessing the Impact of Defining Lone Actor Terrorism in the U.S.

Jessa Hauck is a graduate of Suffolk University and an experienced analyst.  She has a passion for studying terrorism both at home and abroad.  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:  Assessing the Impact of Defining Lone Actor Terrorism in the U.S.

Date Originally Written:  July 8, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  September 4, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes a whole-of-society approach is needed to disrupt the rise of domestic terrorism.

Summary:  Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Government (USG) has used substantial resources for overseas counterterrorism. With the rise of domestic terrorism, the USG has an opportunity to define Lone Actor Terrorism in law or policy. This definition would enable better recognition of behavior patterns related to the online radicalization process and enable the development of effective detection and prevention strategies.

Text:  Billions of dollars, material resources, and research have been dedicated to the overseas counterterrorism effort since 9/11. As a result, potential attacks were thwarted, terrorists were detained and tried, and Congress passed the Patriot Act of 2001 which provided law enforcement with tools to investigate terrorists, increased penalties for convicted terrorists, and addressed the lack of information sharing and coordination between government agencies. Yet, despite this success, domestic terrorism, in particular lone actor, has grown in significance. Some experts have suggested that prior mass killings committed by Jared Loughner, Dylann Roof and others should have, but were not labeled as Lone Actor Terrorism. As a consequence, standard detection and prevention strategies to combat future lone actor attacks have not received adequate attention from policymakers and law enforcement. However part of the problem is the lack of an established definition for the term.

Hamm and Spaaji’s 2015 research study defined Lone Actor Terrorism as “political violence perpetrated by individuals who act alone; who do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network; who act without the direct influence of a leader or hierarchy; and whose tactics and methods are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or direction[1].” This definition is a good starting point but individuals with no terrorism tendencies could also fit this description.

Without a standard definition detection efforts are diffused. Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn and Edwin Bakker studied lone actors using character traits such as age, mental health disposition, employment status and education level to create a behavior profile. However their results showed no specific traits emerged significantly enough to establish a pattern[2]. Graduate students from the Georgetown National Security Critical Task Force also confirmed in their study that profiling potential actors was ineffective since most lone actors seem to fit a broad pattern of traits such as white, single male with a criminal record[3]. Georgetown did however, concur with Hamm and Spaaji’s 2015 study which focused more on lone actor behavior patterns. Hamm and Spaaji created a group of categories that accurately reflect a lone actor’s inability to fit into an already established network: lone soldiers, lone vanguard, loners and lone followers. Lone soldiers are supported by a terrorist network but act alone; lone vanguard acts alone to advance individual ideology and is not tied to a terrorist organization; a loner is an individual who acts alone to advance goals and is not accepted by network; and the lone followers who align with the ideology of a group, but aren’t socially competent enough for acceptance. These distinct categories provide a better methodology in which to bin behavior patterns. Alternatively, Bart Schuurman and colleagues advocated for a re-evaluation of the “lone wolf” terminology arguing its connotation was inaccurate. They concluded that individual actors were not socially alone but held some ties to networks and made their intent to attack publicly known early in the process[4]. Re-evaluation of the term is not widely discussed and perhaps it should be in order to develop a more complete picture.

Prevention of online radicalization and effective community outreach and engagement are key to disrupting the radicalization cycle. With the increased use of online resources, and isolated online social networks, lone actors have endless ways to be radicalized and discuss their intent to carry out an attack. Law enforcement, in coordination with social media companies have developed ways to identify these potential threats. However, not enough is being done with the resources available. Melanie Smith, Sabine Barton and Jonathan Birdwell argue that social media companies need to do a better job of reporting high risk behavior on their platforms to law enforcement and suggest they develop a coordinated approach to monitoring extremist groups and potential recruits[5]. Alternatively, Alison Smith suggests focusing on the radicalization process itself and cites work done by the New York City Police Department to do just that. She indicates there are four stages to radicalization including pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination and jihadization[6]. The key stage in this model is self-identification or the introduction and acceptance of extremist views, but if potential lone actors are not identified at this stage, looking out for intent declarations is a solid second avenue. Emmet Halm in his review of prevention procedures focused on breaking the radicalization cycle and explained that since 9/11 76% of lone actors clearly communicated their intent in letters, manifestos and proclamations[7]. Although posting statements of intent are helpful to identify potential individuals at risk, law enforcement must be vigilant in determining where an individual is in their development since posting intentions can simply be an exercise in practicing their right to free speech.

Prevention of online radicalization has the potential to be incredibly effective in identifying at risk individuals, but community outreach and engagement cannot be forgotten[8]. Jeffrey Simon suggests it’s imperative that law enforcement not only learn and educate themselves about lone actor behavior patterns, they must educate the community as well. Many lone actors make their views and intentions to attack known to family members, friends, and other members of their unique communities, however most indications are never reported or are brushed aside.

Hampered by the lack of a standard definition, no universally acknowledged profile or behavior pattern, and prevention tactics that are not effectively enforced or discussed, Lone Actor Terrorism has the potential to become a major threat within the U.S., particularly within the current political climate. Lone Actor Terrorism could be defined in law, or policy, and provide a roadmap for government agencies, law enforcement and social media platforms on effective detection and prevention strategies to combat future attacks. Recent reports from both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security acknowledge the rise of lone actor attacks and address their respective agency roles and abilities in detection and prevention efforts. These reports provide a glimmer of hope that further government efforts will soon follow.


Endnotes:

[1] Hamm, Mark S. and Ramón Spaaij. Lone Wolf Terrorism in America: Using Knowledge of Radicalization Pathways to Forge Prevention Strategies. Terre Haute, IN: Indiana State University, 2015. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/248691.pdf

[2] Bakker, Edwin and Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn. Lone-Actor Terrorism: Policy Paper 1: Personal Characteristics of Lone-Actor Terrorists. Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism Series No. 5. Hague: International Centre for Counter Terrorism – The Hague, 2016. http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/201602_CLAT_Policy-Paper-1_v2.pdf

[3] Alfaro-Gonzales, Lydia, et al. Report: Lone Wolf Terrorism. Washington, DC: Georgetown University (2015)
https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/NCITF-Final-Paper.pdf

[4] Schuurman, Bart, et al. End of the Lone Wolf: The typology That Should Not Have Been: Journal Studies of Conflict and Terrorism Journal. Studies in Conflict &Terrorism. Volume 42, Issue 8, 2019. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1057610X.2017.1419554

[5] Smith, Melanie, Sabine Barton and Jonathan Birdwell. Lone Wolf Terrorism Policy Paper 3: Motivations, Political Engagement and Online Activity. Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism Series No. 7. London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2016. http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/CLAT-Series-7-Policy-Paper-3-ISD.pdf

[6] Smith, Alison G., Ph.D. National Institute of Justice. How Radicalization to Terrorism Occurs in the United States: What Research Sponsored by the National Institute of Justice Tells Us. June 2018. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/250171.pdf

[7] Halm, Emmet. Wolf Hunting: Unique Challenges and Solutions to Lone-Wolf Terrorism. Harvard Political Review. October 21, 2019. https://harvardpolitics.com/united-states/wolf-hunting

[8] Hunt, Leigh. Beware the Lone Wolf. Police. Police Magazine. October 17, 2013. https://www.policemag.com/341043/beware-the-lone-wolf

[9] National Center for the Analyses of Violent Crime. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Behavioral Threat Assessment Center. Behavioral Analysis Unit. Lone Offender: A Study of Lone OffenderTerrorism in the U.S. (1972-2015). November, 2019. https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/lone-offender-terrorism-report-111319.pdf/view

[10] DHS Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence. September, 2019. https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/19_0920_plcy_strategic-framework-countering-terrorism-targeted-violence.pdf

Assessment Papers Governing Documents Jessa Hauck United States Violent Extremism