The term “lone wolf” has become part of our common vocabulary, as the terror threat has evolved from large-scale attacks to individuals seemingly radicalized in relative isolation. But, a new report claims that the lone wolf typology is highly misleading and can even be counterproductive in the fight against terror.
There have been dozens of attacks across the globe in recent years, carried out by individuals. They include: the March 2017 Islamist-inspired vehicle and knife attack on Westminster Bridge in London; three months later, a far-right supporter drove his van into worshippers outside a mosque in the same city; in October 2017, Stephen Paddock opened fire on crowds at a Las Vegas music festival, killing 58 people; weeks later, a man drove his van into cyclists in New York, killing eight people.
These are just examples of the higher profile attacks that have come to define the modern security environment. All were described by politicians and media as lone wolf terrorism.
The term is unhelpful, argues terror expert Paul Gill of University College London, who has worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on the profiling of such attacks.
Gill co-authored a recent study that looked at more than 100 recent terror incidents around the globe.
WATCH: ‘Lone Wolf’ Moniker Counterproductive in Fighting Terror, Researchers Say
“Radicalization rarely happens in a vacuum. It’s usually done or facilitated by interactions with other people, be it face-to-face or be it in online environments. Around about 60 percent of them tell people — friends, family members — what their plans are.”
Police say that description fits Manchester suicide bomber Salman Ramadan Abedi, who carried out an attack on a concert arena in May of last year. He acted alone but told others of his plans.
Gill argues the wolf moniker is also wrong, as it … “kind of gives them this image of being these crafty, ‘living by their wits’ things that should be feared. Whereas really the vast majority of them are quite inept; they make a lot of operational mistakes. Many of them have histories of criminality, engagement in violence; many of them have a history of mental health problems.”
That allows intelligence services to detect and stop many attacks. Those that aren’t intercepted make the news headlines, where the use of the lone wolf label drives the radicalization trajectory, Gill argues.
“For many of them, they’re seeking a status, an identity, to be seen as a big man, to be seen as a tough man, for their image to get remembered for a long period of time and to be idolized by other people,” Gill said. “So in fact when the media starts inflating their image afterwards, it’s doing the job that they’re looking for.”
Gill says with much radicalization and communication taking place online, social media companies must be quicker in taking down material like bomb-making videos that aid radicalized individuals in carrying out attacks.