Information shared with family offers a glimmer of hope in the battle to stop lone wolf attacks

Many lone attackers share information on their plans prior to the attack, which gives hope that their family or friends will tell the authorities, writes Cormac O’Keeffe            

Amid the despair of the last few weeks as to how society can possibly prevent acts of terrorism by lone attackers came some glimmer of light from the MacGill Summer School in Donegal.

A security expert at University College London said research he conducted had found that, in 60% of such cases, the individual had shared information about what he was going to do.

Paul Gill, senior lecturer in crime and security, took part in a five-year study, examining 160 cases of lone actor (‘lone wolf’) terrorists.

The Wicklow academic said they were surprised that so many attackers had told other people that they planned to carry out a bombing or a shooting.

“Generally, somebody knows something,” he told the summer school, which held a session on international terrorism on Wednesday evening.

A senior security source, speaking separately to the Irish Examiner, made the same point.

“Rapid radicalisation is an issue, but some people will know, like close family members,” he said.

The scene on the night of the Nice Attack

The hope within security circles here and abroad is that these individuals are willing to contact the authorities.

“We would hope people would come forward beforehand,” said the source. “They have already done so in relation to foreign travel [sons or siblings intending to fly to Syria to fight].”

This is a key challenge facing security and police agencies: having those structures, and a culture of trust, in place with the Muslim community.

Mr Gill said their research found there is “no profile of a lone attacker” and that they come from all ages and educational and family backgrounds.

He said most suffer from a “great number” of risk factors and that an extremist ideology “gives them a sense of black and white” at a time when their lives are unravelling.

Mr Gill said 40% had a mental health diagnosis, compared to 25% for the wider population. But he said the types of disorders were very different: with significantly higher cases of delusional disorders and schizophrenia.

But, he said mental health combined with other issues, including a breakdown in the family, loss of a job and other personal grievances.

He said some of the individuals are violent people and “use the banner of IS as an excuse”. He said many are “pretty much illiterate” about IS, which is often “just a cool brand” to them.

Mr Gill said they are often “looking for fame” and to be “remembered”.

Rob Wainwright, director of the EU police agency Europol, who also spoke at the event, said many lone wolves see themselves as “military heroes”.

He said some are “radicalised very quickly, sometimes in weeks”, through peer pressure and social media.

A briefing paper by Europol highlighted the “operational difficulties” in detecting and disrupting lone actor attacks, as seen in four recent incidents: Orlando, USA; Magnaville, France; Nice, France; and Wurzburg, Germany.

It pointed out that while IS had claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, none seemed to have been planned by it. It said the “allegiance” pledged by the perpetrators of Orlando, Magnaville, and Wurzburg, indicated they were IS supporters.

It said there was no definite link yet with the Nice attacker, but pointed out he had been reportedly radicalised “in a very short time frame and to have consumed jihadist propaganda in the days preceding the attack”.

Echoing Mr Gill, Europol said that 35% of lone actor attackers between 2000 and 2015 had some sort of mental health disorder, and noted that the Nice attacker reportedly suffered from a serious psychiatric disorder.

“Even though ideology may be used by terrorist perpetrators to cast a shadow over the deeply individual/ psychological motives of their acts, one should not disregard the motivating power of the jihadist discourse to certain audiences,” it said.

It added: “In cases where the perpetrator has a mental health disorder, ideology might have an aggravating effect, leading to different target choices and scaling of the attack.”

Touching on the same issues at the MacGill school, assistant Garda commissioner John O’Mahony said what was “particularly challenging” for police and security services was the “identification of lone actors who may have self-radicalised and pose a threat, but who are not physically interacting with like-minded persons”.

Key to this is “better understanding how volatile individuals are motivated by terrorist propaganda”. To assist them, he said they are engaging with leading academics.

He also said measures have to be taken “to ensure our intervention and investigative specialist units are trained and equipped”, and said there are “significant intelligence gaps” arising from advances in communication technologies, such as encryption.

Mr Wainwright backed plans in Ireland to modernise surveillance powers to include lawful access to emails, web data, and encrypted communications.

He pointed out that “good intelligence” is crucial as it is physically impossible to monitor thousands of potential suspects on a 24-hour basis: “It is about triaging and following the intelligence, but sometimes, people will come out of nowhere and hit us.”


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