INTERVIEW BY: JOHN WISNIEWSKI

Lone Wolf Terror investigates the motivations of numerous political and ideological elements, such as right-wing individuals, ecoextremists, foreign jihadists, and even quasi-governmental entities. In all these cases, those carrying out destructive acts operate as “lone wolves” and small cells, with little or no connection to formal organizations. Ultimately, Michael suggests that leaderless resistance has become the most common tactical approach of political terrorists in the West and elsewhere.

 

Why did you decide to write your book “Lone wolf Terror,” George?

I wanted to write a book which reflected the broad trends in terrorism and conflict that I discerned over the past several years. Although protracted insurgencies persisted in Iraq and Afghanistan, political violence in the West seemed increasingly random and unorganized. To be sure, the FBI has foiled numerous terrorist plots, but on closer inspection, there seemed to be a strong agent provocateur element in a number of these cases. In the aftermath of 9/11, a massive homeland security apparatus was erected in the United States. Moreover, there has been much more intelligence sharing, not only among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, but between the U.S. government and foreign governments as well. Finally, there seems to be much greater intrusiveness in our private lives today because of increased monitoring of electronic transmissions (as illustrated by Edward Snowden’s revelations) and increased surveillance in public areas. Authorities were able to quickly identify the Tsarnaev brothers as the primary suspects in the Boston Marathon attack thanks to surveillance films that covered the event.

The upshot is that it seems increasingly difficult for terrorists to mount operations in developed countries such as the United States. All of the aforementioned trends would seem to militate against the effectiveness of formal terrorist groups. Today, they are extremely vulnerable to disruption. Yet, the Internet provides people with no formal connections to terrorist movements to build a sense of collective identity not unlike the “imagined communities” that the political scientist Benedict Arnold wrote about in his study of nationalism. Individuals and very small groups still have the potential commit acts of terrorism on their own initiative without any formal direction from a group. Previously, many of these attacks have been amateurish. Nevertheless, on some occasions, lone wolves have inflicted high casualties. The cases of Timothy McVeigh and Anders Behring Breivik come to mind.

 How can we define lone-wolf terrorism”?

Lone wolves are individuals or very small groups—no more than a few persons—who carry out terrorism on their own initiative. They do not answer to any formal leadership hierarchy. They are often self-radicalized. To distinguish lone wolves from ordinary lone criminals, the former is guided by some ideology, which could be political, social, or religious. Often, lone wolves are influenced by extremist subcultures. And they can be quite eclectic in their worldviews. For instance, in addition to radical Islamist propaganda, Tamerlan Tsarnaev read literature associated with the American extreme right which extolls themes such as white separatism, Holocaust revisionism, and 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Is there really any way to try to combat lone wolf terrorism”?

Preventing lone wolf terrorism can be challenging because the perpetrators seemingly attack out of nowhere. Inasmuch as they operate alone, they are less likely to raise red flags and be noticed. Nevertheless, there are some strategies that can be applied to counter lone wolf terrorism.

Although lone wolves are solitary actors, they do not live in a vacuum. It is unlikely that that terrorists will completely self-radicalize. Often, lone wolves come out of extremist subcultures. Understanding the radicalization process can give investigators clues as to who might be susceptible to the blandishments of terrorist movements. By cooperating with affected communities, law enforcement authorities can gain insight as to who could be prone to becoming a terrorist. Awareness programs, not unlike those used in schools could be used to engage communities and encourage people to come forward with information on possible terrorist plots.

Another approach is to disseminate counter narratives in the affected community in order to quell the tensions that give rise to political violence. Elements of the new media, including YouTube and similar platforms, can be used to post videos and improve public relations. Furthermore, a legal argument has been made that online forums, such as Twitter, could be held culpable for provident “material support of terrorism.” Discussion groups that are forums for radical discourse often display notices that indicate that the material displayed on the sites do not necessarily reflect the views of the administrators, thus suggesting a waiver of liability.

To be sure, government authorities should deal resolutely with lone wolves who commit serious crimes. Blanket repression against extremist and dissident subcultures that hold unpopular beliefs, though, should be avoided. Although state repression can be effective, especially if the targeted group or community has not established deep roots, it can also backfire. Arguably, the 1992 Ruby Ridge and 1993 Waco fiascos were counterproductive. In particular, the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas, which resulted in the death of 76 persons, was the event that enraged Timothy McVeigh and set him on his course of action, which culminated in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City—the most horrific act of domestic terrorism prior to 9-11. The resentment resulting from the way in which the government handled these two events did much to fuel the militia movement in the mid-1990s.

Today, where is the largest threat of lone-wolf terrorism coming from?

A variety of extremist subcultures have spawned lone wolf terrorists. The American extreme right has done the most theorizing on the topic. Louis Beam’s “Leaderless Resistance” first released in 1983 was the seminal treatise on this strategic approach. Other extreme rightists have since elaborated on the concept. Representatives of the radical environmental and animal liberation movements have been very adept at implementing the leaderless resistance approach to terrorism.

But the most serious threat of lone wolf terrorism that I see comes from radical Islam. Islamists are part of an international movement. They draw support from co-religionists in countries all over the world. Although their co-religionists may not provide direct support, they often express moral support which emboldens the jihadists. Moreover, there is a cult of martyrdom in radical Islam which contributes to terrorism. Unlike other extremist subcultures, radical Islam fosters an ethos of self-sacrifice which serves as a big force multiplier. Other extremist movements, for example, white nationalism, may espouse this principle as well. However, there is virtually no communal support in the European-American population for extreme right terrorists. Terrorists such as James von Brunn, or Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, or Buford Furrow were condemned by virtually the whole European-American population. By contrast, jihadist terrorists consistently receive moral support in some circles. Even though this support may come from a minority of the Muslim population, it nevertheless instills confidence to those in this terrorist subculture. Furthermore, radical Islam can selectively draw upon portions of the Koran to justify martyrdom operations. Finally, there are a sizable number of young Muslim men in Western Europe and the United States who have difficulty assimilating in their host countries. Although American society seems to do a much better job in assimilating newcomers, a persistent sluggish economy makes it difficult for young people to find their niche in the world. This was illustrated by the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a young man and talented athlete with high ambition, but who failed to find his place in American society.

What leads a person to commit an act of terrorism-can you take us inside the mind of a would-be terrorist, George?

To date, most episodes of leaderless resistance have been ill-planned and haphazard. But, as the concept gains currency, it is conceivable that a new breed of more dangerous lone wolves could emerge in the future. The case of Anders Behring Breivik illustrates this possibility. According to his online political manifesto, he spent nine years methodically planning his attacks. In detail, he explained how he procured firearms and stashed caches of weapons. All the while he evaded suspicion from authorities. For the first part of his attack, he placed a bomb that exploded at the offices of the prime minister. The second part of his attack was a shooting spree at a summer camp where Labor party leaders sent their children. All totaled, 77 people were killed in these attacks. Presumably, the attacks were intended to send a message to the government that he disapproved of Norway’s liberal immigration policies. The new media figured prominently in Breivik’s campaign of terror. Shortly before he began his attacks, he uploaded an electronic book on the Internet called 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. In addition, he uploaded a video on YouTube titled “The Knight Templar 2083.” The video contained numerous references to the Islamic threat to Europe interspersed with iconic images of Crusaders. The notoriety stemming from his attacks, he predicted, would serve as marketing ad for his manifesto.

A more recent episode of lone wolf terror appears to have been motivated by personal grievances. In February of last year, Chris Dorner went on a one-man rampage which left four dead and four others wounded. His campaign of violence could presage some worrisome developments in the lone wolf trend. On his Facebook page, he posted a rambling manifesto that explained in detail the reasons for his attacks and the grievances that spurred him on. He was a former LA police officer who lost his job after he filed a complaint against his supervisor. Although he was driven by personal grievances, he could not resist framing his rampage in quasi-political terms.

His politics is difficult to pigeonhole. On the one hand, his manifesto praised leading Democratic politicians and espoused liberal positions. With no apparent sense of irony, he defended gun control and praised Senator Dianne Feinstein for her efforts in this area of legislation. Despite his apparent liberalism, Dorner expressed support for numerous Republicans as well.

Despite episodes of sporadic violence, some observers dismiss the lone wolf trend as primarily a nuisance. Some people argue that it could be more aptly consigned to the field of abnormal psychology. Nevertheless, even persons who have psychological problems can commit acts of violence motivated in part by political ideologies. In fact, they may prove to be most susceptible to extremist exhortations to violence. After all, people with a stake in the system, those who have something to lose, may be less likely to risk death or a long prison sentence.

For his part, Dorner conceded that he was under severe depression. He even suggested that his brain should be preserved after his death in order to study the effects of severe depression on the brain. In his own words, he exclaimed that he had nothing to lose, a trait, he averred, was behind the successful guerilla movements that have bedeviled the U.S. military over the years, including al Qaeda and the Viet Cong.

The growing popularity of the new media and their expanding set of platforms—including blogs, web forums, Facebook, and YouTube—have democratized the creation and distribution of information. To be sure, this development has enriched our lives in many ways, yet now any person with a grievance can use these platforms in conjunction with violence as a method to bring dramatic attention to his cause. In one sense, Dorner succeeded in that the Chief of the LA Police, Charlie Beck, announced that the department would reopen the case which Dorner referenced in his manifesto. Dorner’s online sympathizers created Facebook pages in his honor. Collectively, they received over 30,000 likes in just a short period of time. Judging by the level of online encouragement he received, Dorner’s rampage could be a harbinger of more mayhem to come as more and more disaffected lone wolves resort to violence to get their messages out to a large audience.

We often think of terror coming at us in the form of lone wolves from the Arabic nations, but should we fear American extremists as well?

Absolutely yes. The record shows that lone wolf terrorists come from a variety of political backgrounds. Radical Islamists, eco-terrorists, animal liberation activists, violent anti-abortion activists, white nationalists, and neo-anarchists have all been implicated in a variety of leaderless resistance operations. As the noted terrorism analyst Christopher Hewitt once noted, extremist violence often occurs within a context of the political zeitgeist. For instance, Klan terrorism in the South was part of a broader pattern of white resistance to the civil-rights struggle. Similarly, Black terrorism, including killings by the Black Liberation Army, was associated with the rise of the black-power movement. Leftist terrorism emerged in the context of widespread student opposition to the Vietnam War. We can expect lone wolf terrorism from a wide range of political actors.

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