Is there such a thing as "lone wolf" terrorism?

How we define terrorism impacts how we respond to it. Many "lone wolf" attacks probably do not qualify as terrorism. A definition free of value judgments is key.

What is terrorism? It sounds like a simple question, and yet there are constant debates any time the label is used. Accusations of racism, imperialism, or other form of privileged bias often surface during such debates. The reason is that the word "terrorism" is very often used to refer to an illegitimate form of violence. A definition of terrorism that includes the types of people targeted (e.g. civilians, the targeting of which is illegitimate) or attackers (militant groups, etc., who are not sanctioned by governments and therefore seen by many as "illegitimate") will always carry a negative moral assessment with it. This matters because such a definition can never be universal and is also nearly meaningless (meaning only "violence we don't accept as legitimate"). A so-called "strategic" definition is therefore desirable. This sees terrorism as a logical tactic within a wider strategy. This definition includes three elements:

  1. It causes fear (terror).
  2. Its targets are mostly symbolic rather than strategically important, meaning it is primarily a psychological form of warfare rather than something that directly threatens the targeted state or group's survival or ability to fight.
  3. It has a political intention: Attackers want a government or group to adopt (or abandon) a certain policy or policies.

When talking about so-called "lone wolf" terrorists (terrorists acting on their own as opposed to as part of a larger terrorist group), the first two elements from the definition pose no problems: Lone wolf attacks cause fear and their targets are usually mostly symbolic. The third part suggests many lone wolf attacks may not be terrorism. Terrorism as a tactic implies a larger strategy for effecting change beyond mere revenge or the desire to die in a blaze of glory. Lone wolves may have political intentions, but the fact that they are alone means that their attacks bleed into hate crimes or “senseless” attacks by “mad men.” They very often do not amount to planned-out attacks used as part of a wider strategy. This makes calling a lone wolf attack "terrorism" questionable and what name we give to such attacks is important because responding to terrorism should be different from responding to random acts of violence.

Some ostensibly "lone" attacks may be more than that, however. Just who is a lone wolf? True lone wolves, especially if they plan or expect to die while carrying out their attacks, cannot reasonably see their attacks as part of a wider strategy. At most, they may hope that others will take up their cause and execute further attacks, but this is not a real strategy and calling their attacks “tactical” is quite dubious--which means calling them "terrorism" is inappropriate. Lone wolves may, however, act at the direction or suggestion of larger groups or militant leaders. Al-Baghdadi, head of Islamic State, has called for his followers to carry out attacks in Europe, particularly in France. Lone wolves deciding to do so would be executing attacks in the knowledge that this is indeed part of a wider plan. There are therefore good reasons for considering such attackers to be terrorists rather than just deranged. They are acting alone, but are not true lone wolves in that they are part of what are potentially a series of attacks, albeit ones that are only loosely coordinated.

In practice, of course, it may often be difficult to determine if a lone attacker believed him/herself to be acting as part of a wider campaign or simply on his/her own initiative. The implications for counterterrorism are significant. Lone attacks that are not part of a broader campaign may need little response beyond discussions of the cause of the attacker's deranged mental state. There is little else that can be done but, luckily, little that must be done.

Lone attacks that are part of a broader campaign are just as difficult to combat directly as true lone wolves are because the attacker(s) is(are) not directly associated with a larger group and will thus be hard to find. Efforts can still be directed at the instigating authority, however, and attention should also be paid to factors that may have caused the attackers to be attracted to the specific cause.

The only bright spot is that lone individuals and small groups are likely to be shorter-lived and less deadly than their larger counterparts, even though they may be harder to track down. This is simply because they will almost certainly lack the human and financial resources to sustain a devastating campaign over the longer term. A foreign policy centered on combating the instigating group (and encouraging its state sponsors, if any, to do the same) and, if possible, ameliorating factors pushing people to join terrorists, coupled with good police and community service work at home, can address such attacks.


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