Book Reviews

"Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat," by Jeffrey D. Simon

By Book Review Editor
Wednesday, October 29, 2014, 1:00 AM

Published by Prometheus Books (2013)

Reviewed by Ashley Green

Former Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta observed in his recent memoir that so-called “lone wolf terrorists”–terrorists who work without group assistance−are a growing threat to the internal security of the United States. It’s an observation that has been echoed by many officials and former officials. Some would respond that the threat of lone wolf terrorism is still very remote in the United States and, in any case, there’s little reason to think it merits a legal or policy response other than to pursue investigations, prosecutions, and trials through the federal courts and the existing substantive framework of criminal law.

As policy, this might be correct; the threat might be adequately addressed without special legal measures and in any case, even when such attacks are politically or religiously motivated, or both, they might well be no easier to predict or address than notoriously difficult to predict non-political, non-religious school or workplace shootings. Whether or not this is so, however, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013, or the shooting last week in the Canadian parliament building, attention to lone wolf terrorism as a category is increasing.

The increased expert and scholarly attention is a welcome shift regarding a topic that has long been a kind of awkward stepchild to the focus on the leading transnational terrorist groups of concern to the United States particularly—Al Qaeda and the branches of its network as well as new, mostly jihadist groups. Jeffrey D. Simon’s Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat (which appeared in February 2013) is one of the relatively few studies of this type of threat. (Though not, as the book's marketing copy says, the first or only one. Another is Ramon Spaaij’s 2011 book, Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention. Still, apart from scholarly articles in such specialist venues as the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, the literature is relatively sparse; Jessica Stern's detailed, interview-based research remains a vital source of understanding.) Simon—an independent security and terrorism consultant, and visiting lecturer in political science at UCLA—argues that internal, lone wolf terrorists are more dangerous than many terrorist groups (whether internal or external), more difficult to discover in advance and more difficult to stop.

Simon divides lone wolves into five separate categories: secular; religious; single-issue; criminal; and idiosyncratic. This attempt at distinguishing categories is useful. Each is analyzed in the context of real-life case studies, often of a notorious individual falling, on Simon’s account, within one of these categories. So, for instance, Timothy McVeigh is the poster child of a “secular” lone wolf, given his fervent antigovernment sentiments. Theodore Kacynski epitomizes the “idiosyncratic” lone wolf terrorist, motivated by personal and psychological issues though cloaked in political or ideological language.

These categorical differences largely describe motivation or justification, rather than, for example, means or methods. But Simon also emphasizes some commonalities--lone wolves of all types are, according to Simon, generally more creative and innovative, nimble and opportunistic, than organized terrorist groups. This is so in part because the lone wolf is not bound to group decision-making processes (documents captured from Al Qaeda in the early post 9/11 years reveal an organization with significant bureaucratic and institutional elements, including, for example, pension provisions, though it seems likely that little of this structure survived American counterterrorism attacks).

Free to create and implement their own scenarios, lone wolves are often willing to utilize weapons of mass destruction where they can lay hold of them. Simon focuses a chapter on Bruce Ivins, a troubled man with a brilliant mind, who allegedly was responsible for the 2001 anthrax letter attacks in the United States. Using his creativity and resources as a microbiologist and senior biodefense researcher at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, as Simon tells the story, Ivins mailed anthrax to members of Congress and the media. Answering only to himself, Ivins’ freedom to think outside the box—even the box established by terrorist organizations—made him particularly dangerous. That said, although the evidence for Ivins’ being the author of the anthrax attacks appears strong, the fact of his 2008 suicide before any charges were brought or a criminal case was brought to trial leaves a serious gap in the ability to draw firm conclusions, particularly as to the outside-the-box thinking and internal motivations and justifications this example is intended to illustrate.

The total number of lone wolf attacks that have occurred throughout history is quite small. Part of the book’s point (framed as a sort of historical “fifth wave” of terrorism, by reference to political scientist David Rapoport’s well known “four waves” of terrorism), however, is that the internet and technology have made it easier today than in earlier eras for lone wolves to obtain, first, the ideological and psychological support and reinforcement of world view that typically move such actors, thus potentially increasing the numbers today; easier to obtain materials and information for individual, “retail” attacks to be more damaging, second; and easier, though global and social media, to leverage the act, third.

Lone wolf terrorism is historically rare, but as officials and former officials such as Panetta warn with increasing heat, the easy and comforting belief, long part of the US public diplomacy--that the US faces terrorist networks that are essentially “out there,” not “in here”--looks less and less true. It's dangerous to assume a reversion to the historical mean when, by reasons of technology, the mean might be shifting. Moreover, the rise today of transnational networks of terrorists oriented to strike global targets that are also integrated with territorially based jihadist insurgencies seeking to take and govern a whole territory provides new ways of ideological radicalization combined with practical training and experience and fighting in the only-too-real battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The training is not merely theoretical and over the internet; it is a practicum in insurgency, with skills that can be brought home.

The rise of ISIS postdates Lone Wolf Terrorism; it does not take up this possibility, though it might be thought more worrisome than even those described in the book. But these new modalities of jihad point to other pools of possible lone wolf terrorists. Between 1968 and 2007 (in a sample of countries throughout the world), there were over five thousand terrorist incidents falling within his lone wolf criteria, but only one of these was committed by a woman, Simon reports.

This lack of female lone wolf activity can be attributed to general biological differences, Simon says. Women are typically more risk averse than men, he says, place a higher emphasis on social acceptance, and when they kill it is often unpremeditated. These kinds of very general assertions are insufficient to prove much, if anything. While female lone wolf terrorism is still few and far between, Simon’s assertions here seem mere conjecture, and he cites few sources in support of his notion that women kill when they are emotional and impulsive. Given that US newspapers currently are reporting that apparently surprising numbers of American women are attempting to sign up over the internet for service to The Islamic State, it seems quite possible that existing jihadist groups will see the value in mobilizing women as terrorists and, particularly—as already seen among the Chechen jihadists—as suicide bombers, the so-called "black widows."

Yet the example of the Chechen widow-turned-suicide bombers or terrorists raises a major question as to how broadly or narrowly “lone wolf terrorist” should properly be defined. An individual working entirely alone, radicalized perhaps by reading jihadist literature online or even participating in internet chat-rooms—that’s perhaps the easiest case. What about the terrorist who is actively schooled online by a mentor, an Anwar Al-Awlaki, coached and trained? Individuals who have fought in Syria or Iraq or elsewhere, and return home—as isolated individuals, yet ready to plan and act at some point down the road, with or without specific direction? Simon is very imprecise as to these kinds of definitions—he appears willing to accept three people acting together as lone wolf terrorism, or when coached by networks abroad. It might be more accurate to say that the phenomena he seeks to describe are less “lone wolf” than “not part of institutionalized terrorist groups.”

This is a bit unfair, to be sure. Most readers will understand that there are differences between isolated individuals, adrift on the internet, even a couple of them working together, becoming radicalized and trying to blow up something—and an organized terrorist group radicalizing, training, indoctrinating, and finally sending out, with a suicide vest, an individual to act within the group’s strategic aims. Yet it’s simply not very clear where, in Simon’s account, the lines are drawn, or how—given their capaciousness—they preserve the lone wolf terrorist as a truly distinct subject of analysis.

The analytic problem gets much, much worse, however, in looking at some of the book's examples of “terrorism” and “terrorists.” If the standard definition of terrorism involves leveraging an act of violence through the media in order to pressure larger political populations—well, some of Simon’s examples look less like “terrorists” than “assassins” because, though they kill, they appear indifferent to leveraging the effects of the act; others seem more like criminals motivated not by ideology or politics but simply money; and others seem to be simply mentally unhinged to an extent that though they might sow “terror,” calling them “terrorists” obscures more than it reveals. Simon lassos too many things into his definitions of terrorism and lone wolf terrorism; the result is flabby criteria that lack analytic bite because they can accommodate far too much.

Problems of definition to one side, Simon calls for prevention strategies tailored specifically to the differences that lone wolf terrorism or its distinct categories, present. Simon’s proposals rely heavily on preventive technology, such as improving airport security; implementing mail-screening technology in at-risk corporations; expanding closed-circuit television in public settings; and monitoring lone wolf Internet activity, presumably through big data techniques. In terms of responsive techniques, he also advocates for a combination of strategies, such as the use of forensics and psychological profiling. There are excellent precautions that many organizations should adopt from these recommendations. Lone wolves are an emerging force in the world of terrorism, and as an internal security threat within the United States, both now and in the foreseeable future, and Simon’s book gives us a basic analytic framework for understanding it.

(Ashley Green is a student at Washington College of Law, American University, where she serves as the Executive Editor of the Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law.)