Research / Other publications
No Longer Alone: Lone Wolves, Wolf Packs and Made for Web TV Specials
Jeffrey Kaplan, Doctoral School on Safety and Security Sciences, Óbudai University, Budapest, Hungary, Visiting Fellow, Danube Institute, Budapest, Hungary
"No Longer Alone: Lone Wolves, Wolf Packs and Made for Web TV Specials." In Barbara Perry, Jeff Gruenewald and Ryan Scrivens, eds., Right-Wing Extremism in Canada and the United States (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, forthcoming 2022).
Lone wolf, leaderless resistance, skinheads, Christian Identity, Ku Klux Klan, Odinism, Oklahoma City bombing, Christchurch, Ted Kaczynski, Anders Behring Breivik, Brenton Tarrant, Joseph Paul Franklin
A Note on Terminology
There is some controversy over the term ‘lone wolf’ which goes beyond academic definitional disputes. Many argue that the term glorifies terrorists rather than describes a terrorist act. The term ‘lone actor’ is therefore used in law enforcement and is becoming increasingly prevalent in academic writings as well. Lone actor as a term of art is fine, but the argument that the term ‘lone wolves’ gives the attacker too much credit for cunning and guile is misguided. That their attacks succeed is proof enough that they do not lack either cunning or guile. Thus, while the next section seeks to unpack the terminology, this chapter uses the term lone wolf rather than a lone actor. Similarly, the terms radical right, extreme right, and far-right too often tend to be used almost interchangeably. Radical right is much favored by American observers to denote the sector of the right-wing who seek to act outside the norms of the law and the democratic system.
In Europe, where the parliamentary system offers an opening in electoral politics for right-wing extremists, far or extreme right is preferred. This chapter focuses entirely on a form of terrorist activity that is best described by the term radical right.
Academic Definitions The academic literature of lone-wolf terrorism by 2021 has become voluminous, so much so that a full accounting would require a monograph to be comprehensive. This section, therefore, focuses only on several key contributions. It began with my own “Leaderless Resistance” which appeared in 1997 and perhaps marked the first use of the term ‘lone wolf’ in the terrorism literature. Perhaps the most influential monograph on the topic followed in 2004 with Marc Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks, which focused on Islamist terrorism.
Its redolent catchphrase “a bunch of guys” caught the journalistic imagination. Several important monographs followed including Ramon Spaaij’s Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism. (2011),
George Michael’s Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance (2012), Peter Phillips’ In Pursuit Of The Lone Wolf Terrorist (2013),
Jeffrey D. Simon’s Lone Wolf Terrorism (2013) and his case study The Alphabet Bomber (2019). Add to this the anthology Jeffrey Kaplan, Heléna Lööw and Leena Malkki, Lone Wolf and Autonomous Cell Terrorism (2015) and an avalanche of articles too numerous to mention, but wonderfully listed in Greta E. Marlatt's “Lone Wolf Terrorism – A Brief Bibliography” (2019).
Each summarized the findings to date, offered various case studies and each contributed to our understanding of the lone wolf phenomenon. With so much to choose from and so little space, this section will focus primarily on the work of Raffaello Pantucci, Burt Schurman, Ramón Spaaij, Mark S. Hamm, Jeff Gruenwald and his co-authors and Paul Gill et. al. Perhaps the most useful place to begin is Raffaello Pantucci, "A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists" whose findings are relevant to the study of far-right lone wolves. Pantucci correctly notes that lone wolf attacks are seldom carried out solely by a true loner with no outside assistance whatever. Instead, he offers a four-part typology based on a detailed analysis of a variety of lone-wolf operations. These are the Loner, Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf Pack, and Lone Attacker.
The true loner—an actor who acts completely in isolation—is rare and exists in a definitional gray area. Joseph Paul Franklin is a case in point. Was he a lone wolf terrorist, a serial killer, or simply an individual so deranged that he was expelled from the American Nazi Party for behavior too bizarre even for their decidedly peculiar standards? Or all of the above?
One might argue that the true loner has gone the way of the 8-track tape in the age of social media. As even a cursory examination of groups like the painfully frustrated and utterly isolated Incels (Involuntary Celibates) demonstrates, no one is too weird to be without compatriots thanks to the internet. The lone wolf in Pantucci’s telling is perhaps the most common. The lone wolf does act alone but is nurtured by a supportive milieu. It was also the modus operandi of the pro-life rescue movement where anyone contemplating the use of lethal force would cease all contact with the movement and act alone. The lone wolf may and probably does have help along the way and is backed by a supportive milieu, but in the end acts alone. The wolf pack is similar but involves a small relatively autonomous group who Pantucci believes still constitutes a lone wolf pack. This is a point made by many others, most notably Christopher Hewitt who defines a terrorist group as having four or more members while those having fewer still may be classified as lone wolves.
Paul Gill does not go this far, but notes that individual actors and isolated dyads (two members) would qualify. This form of lone-wolf action might better be termed autonomous cell structure and classified at best as a lone wolf style operation. However, it has the utility of bringing actions like the Oklahoma City bombing perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh with the help of Terry Nichols and many similar cases into the lone wolf category.
The lone attacker is an increasingly common feature of Islamist attacks but is still quite rare in the radical right where organizational structures are far less developed. The lone attacker according to Pantucci acts alone, but is nonetheless tied to, and to a degree controlled, by an organization. In the present day, Atomwaffen, an American-based National Socialist group, has perpetrated violence of this type, although at the cost of having members imprisoned and the group driven largely out of business by government pressure. Pantucci’s typology, while of some heuristic utility, leads to the obvious question of whether a wolf pack constitutes lone wolf terrorism at all? While I have argued elsewhere that it does not and that this form of violence would better be analyzed as autonomous cells rather than lone wolf violence, Bart Schuurman and others argue that the wolf pack, like the very concept of lone-wolf terrorism itself, has outlived its usefulness to academics and law enforcement alike: We… avoid the oxymoron of “lone wolf packs.” Regardless of how small such dyads, triads, or small cells may be, as soon as two or more people interact with one another with the aim of committing a terrorist attack, small-group dynamics come into play. Peer pressure, leader-follower interactions, group polarization, and other social–psychological processes by definition rules out including even the smallest “packs” under the heading of lone-actor terrorism. Schuurman’s criticisms are sound but represents a minority view in the field at present.
A complicating definitional factor in the study of radical right-wing lone wolf terrorism is the often fuzzy boundaries between criminal violence and lone-wolf violence. Criminal violence, spree killings and acts perpetrated by the mentally ill greatly complicate the definitional boundaries of lone wolf terrorism. In this respect, the work of Jeff Gruenwald and his co-authors, writing from a primarily criminology perspective, is particularly useful. Their “Distinguishing ‘Loner’ Attacks from Other Domestic Extremist Violence” focuses on homicide incidents while bringing in mental illness as a key variable. Gruenwald et. al., offer a useful variable set to examine both behavioral and tactical factors in lone wolf terrorism.
Finally, an unavoidable weakness of open-source studies of lone-wolf terrorism is that by definition they are incomplete, lacking closed source data that is generally zealously guarded by law enforcement and government agencies. Paul Gill et. al addresses this issue with "What Do
Closed Source Data Tell Us About Lone Actor Terrorist Behavior? A Research Note." The article focuses on the UK and encompasses both Islamist and radical right actors as they evolve from radicalization to action.
In recent years, there have been fewer works on lone wolf violence than a decade ago.
But new research continues to emerge in a field that is still very much contested.