Social media may encourage ‘lone-wolf terrorist’ attacks

A mass killer, acting alone, strikes in the name of a political cause, but doesn’t belong to an organised movement. A disturbed criminal, or a committed terrorist?

Security scholars classify them as lone-wolf terrorists. The phenomenon isn’t new. But social media, and groups like Islamic State, may be encouraging these hard-to-stop killers.

  • 1. What is a lone-wolf terrorist?


The perpetrator acts alone and without instructions; is politically motivated; and has no formal ties to an organisation. Lone wolves harbour personal and political grievances. They display mental instability, more often than terrorists acting within groups.

  • 2. Was the attacker in Munich on July 22 a lone-wolf terrorist?


The evidence suggests he was not. He was a teenage gunman acting alone and without political motivation.

A search of his home yielded no evidence of any link to terrorism, but newspaper articles and a book about school shootings were found in his bedroom.

Germany has been spared the type of terrorist attacks that killed hundreds in Paris, Nice, and Brussels. But tensions have risen since mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve and since an attack, on Monday, near the Bavarian town of Treuchtlingen, in which two people were critically injured with an ax, on a train, by a 17-year-old Afghan refugee.

  • 3. Was the Nice killer a lone-wolf terrorist?


Islamic State claimed the attack was carried out by one of its “soldiers,” but French authorities have no evidence that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who was killed by police, was tied to the group. Bouhlel got help from at least five people, but there’s no evidence they had contact with Islamic State.

  • 4. How common are lone-wolf attacks?


A study of 5,646 terrorist attacks, from 1968 to 2010, found that 72, or 1.3% of them, were committed by lone wolves. The study was conducted before IS leaders, in 2014, began to urge followers to do whatever they could to kill citizens of enemy nations. Lone-wolf attacks in the US became more common after the terrorism of September 11, 2001.

  • 5. What challenges do lone wolves present?


Because they don’t belong to organisations that can be infiltrated and monitored, they are difficult to detect and stop. This is why two white supremacists, Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, advocated lone-wolf actions in the 1990s. However, most lone-wolf attackers in the US have broadcast their violent intentions in advance, to associates, or on social media.

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