Report: Lone Wolf Terrorism by the Security Studies Program National Security Critical Issue Task Force, Georgetown University
The United States (US) is the primary target among western states for lone wolf terrorist (LWT) attacks, and the frequency of attacks continues to increase. Even though LWT attacks remain less common and precipitate fewer casualties than terrorist attacks conducted by organizations, the US must continue to focus counterterrorism resources and encourage further research to combat this threat to national security. In this assessment, the Georgetown National Security Critical Issue Task Force (NSCITF) hopes to inform key stakeholders about the most critical lone wolf terrorism issues and spark new policy discussions on how to address the problem.
The NSCITF articulates eight findings that inform the collective understanding of lone wolf terrorism and offers three actionable recommendations to address those findings. First, the NSCITF finds that no single USG definition on lone wolf terrorism exists. Second, the NSCITF identifies the following four current trends in domestic LWT attacks, each of which highlight multiple issues that US policymakers must consider when drafting counterterrorism policies directed at LWTs:
1) Increased targeting of law enforcement (LE) and military personnel;
2) Overwhelming use firearms to conduct attacks, compared to LWTs in other western countries who rely on hijackings or bombs;
3) Increased radicalization via the Internet, extremist media, and the civilian workplace; and,
4) Proclamation of an individual ideology instead of claiming affinity to specific, organized extremist groups.
Third, despite the presence of overarching trends among domestic LWTs, the NSCITF determines that profiling fails to target potential LWTs effectively. Consequently, in the fourth finding, the NSCITF provides a framework to understand how an individual becomes a LWT and to identify possible intervention points. Fifth, the NSCITF develops a typology that organizes lone wolves in terms of their ideological autonomy and social competence to explicate why lone wolves operate alone, a key gap in the extant literature on terrorism.
The final three findings address US federal and local law enforcement policies to prevent LWT attacks. In the sixth finding, the NSCITF identifies the challenges of using traditional law 7 enforcement tactics to identify and stop LWTs. Specifically, the NSCITF highlights how the expansion of the Internet and social media offers individuals an ability to become radicalized without physically interacting with others and research various attack methodologies undetected. The seventh finding demonstrates that aggressive law enforcement tactics—namely, surveillance and monitoring of targeted individuals—risk community mistrust because of perceived infringements on civil liberties and privacy rights. In the final finding, the NSCITF notes that the US lacks a comprehensive, “whole of government” approach that coherently and systematically organizes the federal, local, and state efforts to combat lone wolf terrorism.
Based on the above findings, the NSCITF offers three recommendations. First, the USG should adopt a standard definition of lone wolf terrorism. Second, the USG should appoint clear leadership over the problem of lone wolf terrorism to streamline future policy responses and improve governmental coordination at the federal, state, and local levels. Finally, the USG should emphasize the prevention and short-circuiting of the radicalization process. Each recommendation will help the USG streamline future policy responses and improve governmental coordination at the federal, state, and local levels to prevent future LWT attacks.
Methodology and Scope
The NSCITF developed the findings and recommendations outlined in this report through substantial research into the existing open source literature on LWTs. The NSCITF supplemented this research by conducting interviews with subject matter experts, USG policymakers, attorneys, and academics.
This assessment relies extensively on two datasets (Spaaij 2012 and Hamm & Spaaij 2015) to analyze the scope of the problem and the trends in domestic attacks. The authors in both datasets require that an individual threaten or commit violence alone to constitute “lone wolf terrorism,” as opposed to violence committed by pairs or trios. Thus, the datasets remain consistent with the NSCITF’s definition of lone wolf terrorism.
In addition, although recent academic literature and open source reports have addressed the possible threat of lone wolf cyber terrorists, this assessment will not address the use of computer network attacks as a methodology for terrorist attacks.1 The NSCITF believes that the most immediate and concerning method used by LWTs as it relates to US national security is the use of violence targeting human lives and property; currently, there are no examples of domestic lone wolf terrorists launching cyber terrorist attacks that precipitate casualties or property destruction. However, the definition does not exclude the possibility that lone wolf cyber attacks could constitute terrorism, and the potential of lone wolf cyber terrorism warrants future study.