Killing alone: the 'Lone Wolf' terrorist phenomena

Killing alone: the 'Lone Wolf' terrorist phenomena
Lone wolves or 'leaderless Jihadis' are a phenomenon that has roots in the19th Century. Dalia Ghanem-Yazebeck looks at these terrorists and how they operate.
7 min read
26 Jul, 2016
Lone wolves threat is a growing phenomenon that poses significant threat to all [Getty]
The recent attacks in Orlando, USA and Nice, France in the past two weeks were perpetrated by Islamic State group-aligned lone attackers, or what is commonly referred to as "lone wolves". Even if there is no clear definition of "lone wolves", several designations share some common points. This includes the absence of direction from the wider organisation (even if there are some forms of loose connections) and the control of the attack by the perpetrator was without any direct outside command. Lone wolves are thus terrorists who carry out attacks alone and independently from the established organisation.

These kinds of attacks are nothing new. Their equivalents can be traced to the 19th Century anarchist movement. The "propaganda by the deed" seems to have been revived by white supremacists and jihadists among others. In 2003, al-Qaeda, for example, called for its members to perform attacks without waiting for directions in 2003, via a forum Sada al-Jihad ["The echo of jihad"]. In 2006, an article entitled "How to fight alone" was released by the organisation and confirming their promotion of lone wolves attacks. These solo attacks were encouraged and one can find a reference to their actions in January 2011 edition of al-Qaeda magazine Inspire. In that issue, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly - responsible for the 2010 Stockholm bombing - and Roshonara Choudhry - who attempted in May 2010 to kill British MP Stephen Timms - were presented as "followers of the borderless loyalty", in other words examples of the strategy for global jihadism.

The Islamic State group has since the announcement of the formation of its "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria in June 2014 called its followers and sympathisers unable to reach the territories [it calls a hijra or migration] to attack the West and the "unbelievers" there. The organisation stated in its English-language Dabiq magazine "every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader, and kill him. It is important that the killing becomes attributed to patrons of the Islamic State [group] who have obeyed its leadership". In September 2014, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani wrote: "If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him. Do not lack. Do not be contemptible. Let your slogan be, 'May I not be saved if the cross worshipper and taghut (ruler ruling by manmade laws) patron survives’. If you are unable to do so, then burn his home, car, or business”.

In several other issues of the magazine, the “soldiers of the caliphate” and shouhada [martyrs] who followed the call such as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau (Canada), Numan Haider and Man Haron Monis (Australia) have been praised for their sacrifice. More recently Amedy Coulibaly, Laroussi Aballa and Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel (France) as well as Omar Mateen (USA) were all celebrated by the organization that endorsed their actions a few hours after their attacks.  

The threat of lone wolf terrorists is a growing phenomenon and it represents a significant threat for all countries because of the difficulty, not to say the impossibility to profile such actors, hence to design proper counterterrorism methods to protect against them. As the Swedish security expert Joel Brynielsson succintly put it: “[…] a lone wolf terrorist can in theory come in any size, any shape, and any ethnicity, as well as representing any ideology”.

Yet, it is possible to find some commonalities between lone wolves: in fact IS lone wolves who committed attacks are in their mid-twenties or thirties, they were all male, they had for many been convicted or even arrested, some were even suspected of “terrorist links” and had a “S card”[i] for the French cases (Sid ahmed ghlam, Yassine Salhi and Ayoub Al Khazzani). They had all modest socio-economic backgrounds and many were unemployed for a certain period of time or had “small jobs”.

It is clear that the lack of prospects and relative deprivation contributed to their radicalization and are motivational factors. Mental illness and psychopathology underlie the histories of several of IS lone wolves (Mateen, Abballa and Lahouaiej Bouhlel are three such examples). It is hard though to know to which extent it played a role in their decision process, yet, studies showed that lone actors tends to suffer from mental illness more than the general population and the terrorists who are in groups.

This doesn’t mean that they had no rationality. Actually to organize an attack they needed a high level of rationality. As for ideology, it is very hard to assess their level of conviction in IS ideology, but it is more likely that they either used it as a justification to hide other psychological, social, economic or personal issues or there was a combination of personal grievances and ideology.

In addition, it should be noted that they are not as “lone” as what we think and this is why I prefer to call them “leaderless jihadists”. They do not have a leader in the sense that they are not under the direct command of IS and do not have connections (maybe loose ones) with the established organization. But this does not make them as “lone” as one would imagine. We do know that the internet played an important role in their access to ideology, making them part of a “virtual community”. The internet was their way of “socializing” with the group, its members, sympathizers, ideas, goals and methods. IS’s great skills in using social media to disseminate their propaganda, made it very easy for them to have an access to IS ideology and have virtual connections especially via Twitter, chat rooms and forums. Through these they could meet with like-minded people, exchange a great deal of information (i.e. on the place of the attack and the target selection) and instructions and have moral support and encouragements to act out. In addition, IS provide them with “experts” in these virtual spaces who could help them find answers to their questions and offer guidance both on the technical and spiritual level.

As the Islamic State does not seem to devote their resources to a major operation in the west, they are more likely to continue to praise and encourage the lone-wolves model, which represents a real and long-lasting threat. This strategy is very effective as showed by the recent attacks in both Europe and the US. In the US because of the free access weaponry it is more likely that weapons and pistols will continue to be the modus operandi for leaderless jihadists. As for Europe, It is no longer necessary to have a primary knowledge or high capacities in building an explosive device or even to know how to use a weapon. Indeed, simple objects of daily life such as knives and vehicles are enough to carry a low scale/high impact attack and this modus is easier and safer than a volatile explosive device. By contrast with a cell, leaderless jihadists can easily avoid being detected and as they have freedom of operations and do not have command, they are more creative and imaginative, in short they do think “outside the box”. This represents them a major difficulty for counterterrorism. The danger is greater as leaderless attackers inspire others. as explained by Petter Nesser: "terrorists tend to emulate each other’s operational methods. There is a mimetic comportment. Globalization and Internet-based mass media and social media accelerate and intensify such processes".

Finally, the impact of leaderless jihadists can be as big as that of large terrorist organizations at least psychologically. They stroke and instill fear because the thought is that 'they can be anyone among us' and because it is harder for counterterrorism to do anything against them. At a practical level, it is very hard to prevent their attacks and we are more likely to witness more of these kinds of assaults.

[i] It is an indicator that law enforcement use to signal a person considered to be a threat for national security. The S is an abbreviation for State Security.

Dr Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck is an Algerian researcher based at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. She is an expert on extremist violence, Jihadism, the radicalisation process and violence perpetrated by women, with a focus on Algeria. Follow her on Twitter: @DaliaGhanemYazb

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.