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By John Ubaldi
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Since the horror of the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda and the emergence of the Islamic State, the U.S. has been fixated on preventing the next major terror attack. However, the focus is slowly shifting toward stopping lone-wolf attacks.
Lone-Wolf Terror Attacks Arrive in the US
The U.S. has experienced several recent lone-wolf terror attacks including the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida (by ISIS convert Omar Mateen) which killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. More recently, in 2018, white nationalist and anti-Semite Robert Bowers killed 11 people and wounded six others at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. That same year, a different type of lone wolf, Cesar Sayoc, was arrested in Plantation, Florida, for allegedly mailing more than a dozen homemade parcel bombs to liberal politicians and media affiliates, including CNN.
Lone-Wolf Attacks Become Part of Domestic Terrorism
Lone-wolf attacks often originate with foreign terror organizations. But domestic terror attacks usually originate with extremely far right-wing or far left-wing actors. The deadliest U.S. lone-wolf terror atrocity was carried out by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the architects of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, on April 19, 1995. That attack killed 168 people and wounded 680 others.
Domestic terrorists in the U.S. are usually loners who are often frustrated with their personal and professional lives. They are usually unmarried and often align with an extremist organization that they feel will understand and nurture their rage – a group that gives them a sense of belonging that they have never felt.
Tactics of Lone-Wolf Terrorists
Michael Loadenthal, the author of the chapter on leftist political violence in “Perspectives On Terrorism,” writes that “unlike far-right-wing terrorist who ‘frequently deployed lethal violence more indiscriminately and with less regard for civilian casualties,’ leftist violence ‘tends to be both symbolic and targeting inanimate property not humans.’”
However, others disagree with Loadenthal’s analysis by pointing to the leftist violence perpetrated by Ted Kaczynski, commonly known as the “Unabomber,” who mailed parcel bombs to unsuspecting victims, and by James Hodgkinson, who targeted Republican participants in a charity congressional baseball game in June 2017. Hodgkinson severely wounded U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others before he was killed by U.S. Capitol Police.
Despite numerous examples of lone-wolf terrorism at home and overseas, such attacks are still rare compared with group terror attacks. However, the actions by individual terrorists have become harder to detect, because these perpetrators often live in the shadows, operate alone, and do not communicate their plans or intentions to others.
The various law enforcement and intelligence agencies that are tasked in combating terrorism face a perplexing situation in preventing lone-wolf terrorism. Traditional methods of using undercover sources and intercepting communications – practices that have worked in the past against group terror organizations – are largely ineffective against lone-wolf attackers.
How to Defeat Lone-Wolf Terrorists
Jeffrey C. Connor and Carol Rollie Flynn authored an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “What to do About Lone Wolf Terrorism? Examining Current Trends and Prevention Strategies.” They state that technology “is also an increasingly important element in today’s lone-wolf terrorism.
“The Internet is a major source of inspiration for would-be lone-wolf terrorists. The Web provides such people with any easy way to forge connections with like-minded extremists, and they are able to use new technologies to mask their online personas to avoid detection. However, even with the prevalence of online forums where hate-speech and pro-terrorist sentiment flourishes, distinguishing between the thousands of individuals accessing and posting content on these websites and the handful who may at some point act on their feelings is nearly impossible.”
Daniel L. Byman’s recent article for the Brookings Institute, “How to Hunt a Lone Wolf: Countering Terrorists Who Act on Their Own,” states that one way to hinder lone-wolf attacks is through tighter restrictions on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. He suggests restricting accounts, monitoring users more regularly and eventually suspending such accounts when appropriate.
Unfortunately, this social media strategy nearly always brings with it claims of infringement of one’s constitutional right to free speech. What is appropriate online versus what is deemed as violent and provocative is an ongoing debate. This free-speech issue alone is indicative of why combating domestic lone-wolf terrorists will be a protracted and difficult task for years to come.