As the high-tech war against Islamic State and al Qaeda rages on with drones, air strikes and artillery in the Middle East and Africa, a disturbing low-tech front is flaring up in the West using Kalashnikovs, explosives and axes. A surge in violence against presumed enemies of Islam is underway in major Western cities: Boston, Paris, Copenhagen, Brussels, London, Ottawa and Sydney. What makes these public assaults so confounding is that they’re not executed by a card-carrying member of a militant group. They’re instead carried out by “lone wolves”— individuals with virtually no connection to any militant organization.
In New York City, two young men were arrested Wednesday for plotting to aid Islamic State’s cause, despite what appears to be essentially no contact with the group, deepening concern about independent actors. At a news conference after the arrests, New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton confirmed those worries: “This is real … This is the concern about the lone wolf.”
While lone-wolf actors can, and do, inflict casualties on communities, often the biggest and most lasting impact of their attacks is psychological. In Europe, the toll they’re taking is noticeable. French Jews, for example, who see themselves as the prime targets of such attacks, have been leaving the country in growing numbers. Across Europe, the growing fear of potential attacks has triggered powerful anti-immigrant movements.
This impact is further sustained by the myth of the lone wolf, which is both frightening and enigmatic. It is difficult enough to fathom why conventional militants commit the atrocities they do. But for most people, joining an organization, however cruel, is far more conceivable than concocting and executing a murderous plot on one’s own. Those who do violently lash out on their own, despite similar aims, do not fit a single mold; they have diverse backgrounds and varying personal characteristics.
A study published last year on 119 lone-actor militants found more than a third of them had been diagnosed with mental disorders. Many lived in social isolation; two-thirds lived alone or away from home, and 69 percent either had never married or had split from their spouse. Despite their social isolation, lone-wolf operators self-identify as members of groups on whose behalf they act. When U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire, killing 13 at Fort Hood military base in 2009, he acted alone, but believed he was delivering a blow on behalf of all Muslims. The “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, who spent nearly two decades carrying out letter bombings in the United States, was a self-appointed champion of the environmentalist movement. Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in an attack in Norway in 2011, created a virtual reality in which he was acting as leader of Knights Templar, a medieval military order that played a significant role in the Crusades.
Perpetrators of lone-wolf attacks share two psychological elements: motivation and capability. Consider motivation first. Lone wolves are often driven by a desire to make up for a personal sense of inadequacy and insignificance brought on by mental illness, social ineptness or isolation. When they see their shortcomings, failures and a gaping discrepancy between their desired station in life and the one actually occupied, they act out. Kaczynski, for example, was once considered a child prodigy. Yet social problems led to his growing bitterness about not being taken seriously and not getting the recognition he felt he deserved. Breivik unsuccessfuly attempted to launch a political career.
The theme of failure, rejection and humiliation that fuels desires for redemption pops up in nearly all known cases of lone-wolf militant killings. In some cases, lone wolves form “wolf packs” to carry out attacks, like the Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. The typical “wolf pack” attacker shares with the lone wolf a sense of profound insignificance, while feeling as if they were treated as inferior members of society.
The Copenhagen Brothers gang, whose member Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein carried out the recent café and synagogue attacks in the Danish capital, was dominated by embittered young men who felt unaccepted by society; a number of them traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamist fight. Cherif and Said Kouachi, authors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, were often unemployed and engaged in a life of petty crime and drugs before embracing radical Islam. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older, more influential of the Tsarnaev brothers, was rejected by the local state college and complained about not having a single American friend. His hopes of making the U.S. Olympic boxing team never materialized, and at the time of the bombing, he was an unemployed stay-at-home dad while his wife worked 70 hours a week.
To execute an independent act of violence, motivation isn’t enough, however. One needs the capability of carrying it out, which requires skill with guns and explosives. Research suggests that lone-wolf attackers are more likely to have military experience than other militants. Another way of getting needed experience is affiliation with a gang, which imparts criminal skills and connects members to networks for acquiring weapons. Lone-wolf attackers who work in packs often have a criminal background and are no strangers to guns and violence.
Bitterness born from felt insignificance, coupled with criminal capability and weapons experience, form a combustible mix. Add the element of virulent extremist ideology, and it can explode. This destructive chemistry, propagated by new forms of social media and mass communication that simultaneously connect and isolate, is not going away anytime soon.
The challenge this presents to societies in the West is twofold. Early detection of plots is essential, but equally important is offering disenfranchised men and women who might be tempted to take the path of the lone wolf better routes to self-worth and significance. This so-far neglected frontier of counterterrorism can be ignored no longer.
Arie W. Kruglanski is Distinguished University Professor in Psychology at the University of Maryland, and a senior researcher at START, National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism. He is former editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social cognition, and of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and is now President of the Society for the Study of Motivation. .