Moving Away From A Lone-Wolf Mindset

The challenge of “Lone Offender” terrorism is a serious one for law enforcement and security services around the world. Though the tactic has been used for hundreds of years, the rising number -in some countries- and diversity of “lone” attacks is increasingly troublesome.

Though a variety of terms have been used to describe individual terrorism, the general term “Lone Offender” offers a preferable alternative to “Lone Wolf” – a term that might glorify or imbue an image of power to attackers who are otherwise powerless and often ineffectual.

Drawing on the European Union’s definition of terrorism , InstituutvoorVeiligheids-en Crisismanagement (COT) in the Netherlands regards acts of lone operator terrorism as “intentional acts committed by persons:

• who operate individually;
• who do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network;
• who act without the direct influence of a leader or hierarchy;
• whose tactics and methods are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or direction.”

As examples of Lone Offender Terrorism, various analysts have drawn upon a rather wide range of cases. Consider just two of those commonly included:

• First, the “Unabomber” (Ted Kaczynski) who is not believed to have had any exchanges with other known militant extremists, who did not participate in any extremist group training or indoctrination, who chose targets, created and deployed his explosive devices with no outside assistance .

• Second, the so-called “Underwear Bomber” (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) who had extensive contact with known militants over several years, was trained in an al-Qa’ida training camp, whose explosive device was built by others, and who reportedly claimed – upon arrest – to have been directed by al-Qa’ida .

The challenges and opportunities for investigators or security professionals seeking to identify, disrupt and prevent each of those cases may be quite different. One way to manage the diversity of lone offender terrorism is to create a typology . An alternative, however, would be to examine several dimensions of lone offender behavior along a continuum and attempt to link each dimension to a key facet of the attack. My colleagues and I have proposed three dimensions–loneness, direction, and motivation – that weave a common thread through a range of Lone Offender definitions and attempt to illustrate how these dimensions are linked to key investigative questions as a potential attacker proceeds on a pathway from idea to action.

Loneness: Loneness describes the extent to which the offender/attacker initiated, planned, prepared for and executed the attack without assistance from any other person. This might include an appraisal of the nature and degree of a suspect’s contacts with other extremists or accomplices, as well as potential support for the suspect’s ideas or the attack itself. The support may be material (involving goods or services) or expressive, involving social or emotional transactions that facilitate or amplify a permissive environment for the suspect. That might include agreement with justifications or mandates for violence or glorifying of violent acts done to further a cause.

Direction: Direction refers to nature and extent of the attacker’s independence and autonomy in all decisions across the spectrum of attack related activity from idea to action. On the autonomous or non-directed end of the continuum is the offender who neither seeks nor receives any personal instruction or guidance concerning whether to attack, which targets to select, or which means to use from any known member of an extremist group. With less autonomy and more direction is the offender who receives personal instruction or guidance concerning whether to attack, which targets to select or which means to use from an extremist group or a representative of some collective. Significant variation is also likely in the nature and extent to which a Lone Offender might seek direction. The issue of direction can be fuzzy and complicated because interpersonal influence may be broad and inspirational, but it can also be specific and tactical.

Motivation: Motivation is the third proposed dimension. At the non-ideological end of the continuum lies the offender who does not communicate – and it is at least unclear – that the attack is significantly motivated by a political, social, or ideologically based grievance, not solely by revenge or some other personal motive. Conversely, at the other (ideological) end is the offender for whom the attack is motivated solely by a political, social, or ideologically based grievance, with neither revenge nor any other personal motive being a significant factor. Operationally, the motivation dimension is of interest, in part because a subject’s motives for an attack are usually related to target selection. Some lone attackers consider multiple targets during the course of their planning; that is, their “directions of interest” may shift over time. Motivation is possibly the most difficult of the three dimensions to discern because people are complicated. Offenders may, publicly, only make testament to a “cause” or principle (and the degree of autonomy and volition in public declarations is often questionable). Stated motivations, however, may or may not correspond to actual motivations.

We suggest it might be more useful to view the dimensions and constructs of individual terrorism along a continuum, instead of creating false dichotomies. By doing so, drawing distinctions between cases becomes more than an academic exercise. The objective would be to discern the behaviors or actions that Lone Offenders engage in before their offenses and what implications those behaviors might have in thwarting or preventing future attacks.

[1] According to the Council of the European Union, terrorism refers to “intentional acts that are committed with the aim of seriously intimidating a population, or unduly compelling a Government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act, or seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organization.”  Council of the European Union (2002) Council Framework Decision of 13 June 2002 on Combating Terrorism (2002/475/JHA), Brussels.

[2] COT (ed.) (July, 2007). Lone-Wolf Terrorism. Case study for Work Package 3 ‘Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society’, TTSRL, Retrieved from: publications/Lone-Wolf%20Terrorism.pdf

[3] COT, Lone-Wolf Terrorism.

[4] Chase, A. (2000) Harvard and the making of the Unabomber. Atlantic Monthly, 285 (6), 41-65. URL:

[5] Harry Siegel & Carol E. Lee. ‘High explosive’ – U.S. charges Abdulmutallab. Politico, December 25, 2009.  Available at:

[6] Marc Sageman, paraphrasing comments made at the House of Commons in response to a question, July 13, 2010.  Cited in Pantucci, R. March 2011). A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists.  International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), London, UK.: 5.

[7] Artiga, V. (n.d.) Lone Wolf Terrorism:  What We Need to Know and What We Need to Do.  Homeland Security News.  Tak Response.  Available at

Adapted from: Borum, R., Fein, R. & Vossekuil, B. (2012). Dimensions of Lone Offender Terrorism. Aggression & Violent Behavior: A Review Journal.

This entry was posted in Analysis and tagged , . Territories: , , , . : . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. Jason
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Instead of spending your time trying to develop an elaborate quantitative model to identify alienated, angry and desperate individuals who may, at some point, commit a violent act, why don’t you instead look at what might cause an individual in our society to become so alienated and desperate. Could it be that he feels such animosity because his house was foreclosed on due to fraudulent lending practices and he won’t be getting it back anytime soon because the government bailed out big banks so they can continue their criminal activity instead of setting up a fund to settle people back into their homes. That he is a public sector worker who has lost his job due to neoliberal policies and a corporate-driven attack on public and social services? Maybe it’s that his son or daughter was killed in Afghanistan, or he himself suffers from PTSD from serving in Afghanistan, and he is so angry because he can’t find a good reason for the US to be at war there. It’s the system, not the individual, stupid.

  • Navigate to regional portals

    North America Middle East South Asia Europe
  • Latest analysis from our experts

    Paul Kamolnick
    Paul Kamolnick · United States
  • Get our Extremism Tracker Email

    * indicates required