The Lone Terrorist

National Security
The Lone Terrorist

Four New York Police Department (NYPD) officers were posing for a picture by a bus stop in Queens last October when 32-year-old Zale Thompson emerged wielding a hatchet, striking one officer in the arm and another in the back of the head before he was shot and killed. Investigators discovered that Thompson, an American citizen, had converted to Islam two years prior and had been actively perusing radical websites for months, as well as posting Facebook and YouTube messages that discussed and encouraged jihad.

Thompson was an unemployed recluse who had been discharged from the Navy in 2003 for drug use. Over the following decade, he was described as adrift, often finding himself in trouble with the law. He moved back and forth between the homes of relatives in New York and, during the weeks preceding his attack, participated in a march against police brutality.

Police Commissioner William Bratton said Thompson was self-radicalized and self-directed in his attack against the officers, but was not on any state or federal watch list. The ambush has since been classified as a lone wolf-style attack, a type of terrorism in which an individual who has an affinity with—but is not a member of—an extremist organization carries out a politically motivated assault.

Lone wolf terrorism is a growing threat largely due to the wide array of terrorist propaganda and recruiting materials available on the Internet, experts say. Groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda are especially proficient in using social media to call upon Americans to carry out jihad—holy war—in their own nations, says Veryan Khan, editorial director at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.

“In my opinion, lone wolf terrorism will always be a threat,” she says. “It’s cheap, easy, and requires no training or investment on their part. There is absolutely nothing to lose to inspire individuals. It’s been a part of terrorism culture since almost the inception.”

There has been an uptick of this type of terrorism over the past five years, however, with recent notable examples including the NYPD hatchet attack; the shooting at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada; and the storefront attack in Sydney, Australia. 

“The Internet is ubiquitous in all of it,” says lone wolf terrorism researcher Mark Hamm. “The Internet is triggering events; it’s used to broadcast, it’s used to gain affinity with groups, and it’s used to develop the ideology to begin with.”

Hamm has been studying different aspects of terrorism under National Institute of Justice grants for a decade. His most recent report, Lone Wolf Terrorism in America: Forging a New Way of Looking at an Old Problem, aims to fill the “research void” of lone wolf terrorism.

Hamm says there are four components to determine whether an attack was carried out by a lone wolf. The attack has to be politically motivated—this rules out most school shootings, workplace violence incidents, and other revenge-based events. The attacker has to act completely alone, which excludes perpetrators such as the Boston Marathon bombers and the Oklahoma City bombers. They cannot have a connection or affiliation with any terrorist organization, and they must gather or build weaponry by themselves. 

“That’s a very rigid definition, more rigid than some other researchers’, but this allows us to exclude a whole number of cases that were motivated by revenge,” Hamm explains. 

Using that definition, Hamm and his research team have found that lone wolf attacks are predominantly an American phenomenon. He tells Security Management that 98 cases of lone wolf terrorism have occurred from 1940 to 2013 in the United States, and 45 of those have taken place since the 9-11 attacks. The uptick in post-9-11 attacks is due in large part to the Internet, he notes. 

“The Internet has provided a remarkable transformation in violent radicalization for these individuals who end up as lone wolf terrorists,” he says.

By compiling the background characteristics of the lone wolves, Hamm has identified some common demographic features, although he says there is no one profile for a lone wolf. Those who carry out lone wolf attacks tend to be less educated than members of international terrorist organizations, and 71 percent were unemployed at the time they carried out their attacks. Hamm also found that 80 percent of lone wolves are single, and 64 percent are white males. 

The behavioral patterns of these individuals, though, may be what will empower law enforcement and community members to stop a potential lone wolf before an attack is launched, Hamm says. He acknowledges that people believe lone wolves are impossible to track or stop, but he sees the situation differently. “Once you get inside these cases, you begin to take notice of radicalization, which is an important issue,” Hamm explains. “You don’t come out of your mother’s womb as a lone wolf terrorist. You are developed into one through your social experiences.”

Khan also notes that lone wolves are sometimes fueled by a misguided obligation to their home country. “Much has been made of the second and third generation of immigrants who have not felt at home in Western culture, yet do not know their own culture, as being a big draw to radicalization,” she explains. “Just like when people are drawn to cults, most often an individual is looking to belong.”

Radicalization of a lone wolf tends to result from a process involving personal victimization, political grievance, and the influence of radical group dynamics. Lone wolves are likely to suffer from some sort of psychological disturbance, and Hamm believes they seek solace in extremist ideologies easily learned through narratives on the Internet.

Although Hamm’s definition of a lone wolf specifies that they do not have an affiliation with a terrorist organization, he says they often sympathize or have an affinity with an extremist group. “That’s what’s going on with the ISIS-related lone wolf attacks,” Hamm explains. “They’re not traveling overseas for training, they’re not on the battlefield waging jihad, but they’re certainly inspired and influenced and have an affinity for ISIS. They act out of that sympathy, no doubt driven by online presentations.”

Another distinct element of an impending lone wolf attack is what Hamm refers to as the broadcasting of intent. He says that in 80 percent of the cases he’s studied, the individual tells a friend or family member or, as is increasingly common, publishes a manifesto online of his intent. 

Lastly, there is often a triggering event that pushes the lone wolf to move forward with the attack. Man Haron Monis, the gunman who held customers and workers hostage in a Sydney Lindt café last December, had days earlier lost his legal appeal against a criminal charge. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau may have been frustrated by his difficulties in obtaining a passport when he killed a soldier and attempted to wreak havoc in the Canadian Parliament building before being killed himself. And Thompson, the man behind the NYPD hatchet attack, had been angered by a recent string of deaths at the hands of police.

In January, the FBI arrested Christopher Cornell, who also went by Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, for plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol. An FBI informant learned that Cornell, a Muslim convert, was planning to plant two pipe bombs at the Capitol building, and then shoot government officials as they fled. Cornell left online posts sympathizing with extremists and encouraging violent jihad, and he told the FBI informant that he wanted to carry out the attack in support of ISIS. He was arrested after purchasing two assault rifles and 600 rounds of ammo.

Hamm says that this is a classic FBI lone wolf sting operation—he has studied 15 such cases. The criticism of such incidents is that it is unclear whether these lone wolves, Cornell included, could have actually executed an attack without the FBI’s assistance.

“They all follow the same pattern: a young man broadcasts over social media, drawing the FBI’s attention,” Hamm explains. “A confidential informant with a criminal history and something to gain from his cooperation then enters the picture, leading the sting target to become operational.”

Hamm acknowledges that lone wolves are dangerous because, without informants or communication with organized groups, they are hard to stop before they take action. But he also points out that his analysis has produced a number of red flags. Hamm’s report emphasizes using a database of lone wolf incidents to track patterns and help law enforcement officials and community members recognize the warning signs of a potential lone wolf. 

“Such a study must concentrate on the relationship between radicalization processes and counterterrorism strategies to answer the central research question: How can law enforcement and intelligence communities deal with the threat of lone wolf terrorism and the challenge to identify, target, and arrest people acting on their own?”