Declassifying ‘Lone-Wolf’ Terrorism: Formulating A ‘Counter-Terror’ Strategy – Analysis


By Anant Mishra*

After “extensively” analysing and assessing global nation’s counter terrorism response towards lone wolf terror attacks along with the challenges faced by domestic and external security and intelligence agencies, numerous “viable” pragmatic counter-terror strategies were drafted by military and strategic experts throughout the world. Actions carried by “Lone-Wolf” terrorists are “virtually invisible” to “identify and separate”, hindering domestic and intelligence agencies to formulate an “accurate response”. The traditional “profiling” in law enforcement is no longer a viable strategy, particularly towards identifying the “lone-wolf” actor, however, the actor’s “operational mechanism” in the form of an “individualistic response” leaves numerous clues which law enforcement departments particularly hailing from domestic and intelligence groups can use to formulate an effective and efficient strategy.

Moreover, roughly every lone wolf attacker has showcased his/her commitment towards a cause, an alignment or a connection with active“terrorist factions”, pointing towards “increasing presence of radicalised youth” separating them from “potential sympathetic individuals and supporters”. In the light of “aggravating attacks” from “lone wolf terrorists”followed by the rise of “aggressive right-wing factions” (such as A.B. Breivik), law enforcement officers continue to face enormous challenges, especially when it comes to formulating a “viable” applicable strategyto identify lone wolf attackers, who continues to “hide in plain sight”, fearlessly.


After the aggressive violence induced by radical Islamic terrorists against Charlie Hebdo on January 7th, 2015, the threat induced by lone wolf attackers have become a “top” priority for law enforcement officers particularly those hailing from domestic and external intelligence agencies. The law enforcement and intelligence agencies in Parisfaced with two prominent questions:

  • Was there any intelligence input prior to the attack?
  • Was there any way to prevent tragic loss of lives?
  • What should be the strategy to identify perpetrators and their plots?
  • Can we prevent future attacks from happening?

All the aforementioned questions are difficult to address. The Directorate General for External Security (DGSE) continues to simulate multiple “responses”, whereas the General Directorate for Internal Security has started “counter-terrorism liaison program” with Directorate of Military Intelligence (DRM) along with Directorate for Defence Protection and Security (DPSD) in an effort to “strengthen, cooperate and coordinate” a response against future attacks. There is no absolute way to provide a suitable answer for the fourth aforementioned question, rather than stating the fact that, it is absolutely “difficult” for security and intelligence agencies to forecast and prevent future possible attacks. No intelligence agency would talk the responsibility to answer, however, drawing a strategic response in an effort to forecast and prevent an attack in the future would be “difficult”. The objective of the article is to evaluate and assess viable pragmatic counter-terror approachesagainst the threat posed by lone wolf terrorismwhile especially emphasising on strategies to counter “Charlie Hebdo” styled attacks. To begin with strategic viable solutions, it is imperative for policy makers to first define lone wolf terrorism.

The definition

The term “lone wolf” was first introduced by US law enforcement agencies towards individuals carrying out attacks outside a designated command structure.Operation Lone Wolf was carried by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)to “apprehend” Alex Curtis who instigated “right-wing factions” to participate in “lone-wolf” activism. Since then, numerous terminologies have been introduced by various strategic and intelligence experts, some calling it asan “individual resistance”, “self-indoctrinated terrorism tactics”and “self-sponsored terrorism”.

The article does not lean to a particular definition rather encourages law enforcement agencies and security, intelligence establishment to collect all “available definitions under an umbrella” in an effort to formulate an effective strategy. Traditional Counter-terrorism centred think tanksdefine Lone wolf as “an individual who acts on his/her own will outside a traditional organizing structure or a group”. Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) taking the definition to an extent, separates the definition with sleeper agents pointing towards the “dormant” nature of the sleeper agent who is “purposefully” tasked to infiltrate an organization and only reveals himself only on the command of a group or an organization. On the contrary, “A lone wolf is an “individual” operative without a “command and control” structurewho on his free will initiatives an attack”. Although,many counter-terrorism agencies ignore the “ideological” connection of the individual with other “active groups”, which the lone wolf could have been interacting either through “intra-personal interaction” or by “accessing internet”.

Throughout the article the focus will remain on “Operational mechanism” of lone wolf attackers. Although, a significant percentage of lone wolf attackers have been found “influenced” with radical Islamic militant organizations, such as the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda, the “decision, operational planning and carrying out procedure” has largely been “self”, instead of following “traditional commands” from the organizational leaders. Moreover, it is imperative for policy makers to include those “individuals that are inspired/self-indoctrinated by violent radical religion-centric terror organization” within the brackets lone wolf terrorism definition. They could have maintained “links” with the radical religion-centric organization, but the structure of the organization could not be “traditional”.

Absence of a “traditional individualistic behaviour”

Numerous terror attacks carried by “lone-wolves”in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, in particular to the attack by Barend Strydom, an African national, whoshot and killed a dozen people while wounding many, at the Strijdom Square in Pretoria, South Africa; In La Défense, a man stabbed and mortally wounded a soldier Cédric Cordier. The soldier was later declared “out of danger”. The attacker was identified as Alexandre Dhaussy, a French national who converted to Islam; Another Islamist Mohammed Merah killed over seven people in the city of Toulouse while taking numerous hostage. He was later killed during a 32-hour standoff; In one of the first deadliest attack in Germany, Arid Ukashot and killed two US soldiers while mortally wounding many others at Frankfort Airport; On October 22nd, 2014, a Canadian national Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot a soldier on-guard at the National War Memorial. The suspect then ran towards the Parliament of Canada and was engaged in a gun-battle with the forces. Additionally,subsequent attempts were made to bomb Seaside Park, New Jersey, lower Manhattan, New York; and New Jersey. Injuring over thirty civilians, the perpetrator Ahmad Khan Rahami was apprehended from Linden, New Jersey, after he open fired injuring three responding officers.

Policy makers must note that, the mastermind” individuals of some aforementioned examples of deadly violence and attacks, vary particularly with respect to their operational mechanism and “target locations”, along with ideological and political inclined groups. Moreover, the common element in these attacks point towards a particular indoctrination or “religion induced”. All the lone wolf attackers were strongly “believers of faith”.

It is important to note that, there is absolutely no “traditional” framework of a lone wolf attacker. However, in the light of their religion centric “differences” and “ideological” mindset coupled with the element of “faith in religion”, makes it easy for security and intelligence agencies to “classify or rule out lone wolf terror attack”. Additionally, there are certain characteristics which possess “significant similarities” among all lone wolf attackers. The fact that continues to challenge security and intelligence agencies is the presence of “few lone wolf attacks which were carried by individuals without any connection to a terror faction”. According to a research conducted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe(OSCE) jointly with INTERPOL, less than 1.34percent out of 78 lone wolf attacks in US, Germany, Canada, Australia were “individualistic” in nature. This numerical value further complicates the investigation carried by security and law enforcement agencies of lone wolf attacks, seriously hindering their ability to formulate a viable counter-terrorism strategy. Besides all agreements considered, the lone wolf attacks continue to accelerate phenomenally.

Identifying “motivating factors” of lone wolf elements

It will not be incorrect to state that, the radical religion-centric lone wolf “modus operandi” hosts similar characteristics of traditional “right-wing” lone wolf attacks. Throughout the 1990s, Tom Metzger and AlexCurtis openly instigated their followers to commit violent acts of crime. Furthermore,“radical-white” advocator Louis Beam, who was a former member of the notorious Ku Klux Klan, drew the “early strategy on how to carry out a leaderless revolution”. He drafted a scenario where “individuals could carry out attacks without responding to a centralised organization or a leader established headquarters”.

Although, experts have not directly linked the modus operandi used by “radical Islamic centred”lone wolf extremists with that of traditional “right-wing” attackers,however there is striking similarity ofsmall-scale attacks. In 2003, Osama-Bin Laden, through his supporters distributed “instructions” asking his followers not to wait for any instructions in “carrying out attacks”. He further asked his followers “to use whatever means available”. In the late 2004, Abu Musab al-Suri, a Spanish-Syrian national, who was an active member of the “closed circle” group of Bin Laden, published his narrative of Islamic Jihad through a paper titled “Call for Worldwide Islamic Resistance,”. In this roughly seventeen hundred “doctrine”, he mentioned a “new form of jihad”, highlighting the acts of terror carried by “small groups”, which he titled them as “leader-less resistance”. Individuals irrespective of their nationality or age, will wage war on allfronts-“fighting the West in the West”. Two years later, Abu Jihad al-Masri, a prominent figure in Al-Qaeda, published his narrative titled “How to fight alone”which was massively downloaded from Jihadi-centric websites.

Challenges faced by security and intelligence agencies

Lone wolf terrorist attacks are one of the most “unpredictable and difficult to diagnose” events. It will not be incorrect to state that, lone wolf terror attacks bring “nightmare” to intelligence agencies, domestic security institutions, national and regional law enforcement organizationsas they are extremely “sensitive” and “revolve around multiple possible scenarios”.

To begin with, lone wolf elements possess “individualistic” characterises, who live “shadowing intelligence agencies” in “plain clothes”. The attacker may be someone’s relative, friend, husband, brother, or neighbour living next door. Intelligence agencies cannot come to a inclusion simply by studying the perpetrators visual appearance or “daily routines”. The individual avoids “absolute outside contact” making his/her actions discreet. This further increases the difficulty for security and intelligence agencies to “identify and apprehend” a lone wolf attacker. While comparing the individual’s actions to “traditional/conventional terrorist factions”or “centralised command centred” terror actors, “individual” actors have the benefit to maintain a “low-life” and avoiding “all forms of attraction/suspicion” before and post-attack.

When “conventional” terror group members operate, the risk of “detection” from security and intelligence agencies remains high.

Furthermore, in the light of growing “right-wing” political activism followed by frequent protests by anti-government groups, it is very difficult for law enforcement agencies to differentiate between a political activist or a terrorist. This poses a grave threat to security and intelligence officers especially when they are forced to swing between their “gut” and “individual actions”, failing repeatedly to identify perpetrator while reassessing the individual’s operational mechanism, choice of targetor activities or propaganda. The epitome of lone wolf is “idiosyncratic”. They are individuals with motivated by “numerous ideologies and factors”: from radical Islamic fundamental or Wahhabi ideology to “extreme-right wing”, while suffering from “suicidal, obsessive compulsive behavioural disorder” which then fuels psychopathy. This “diverse” behaviour induces certain “vision”, which forces them make hateful comments/accusations on the internet, to disruptive activities which later concurs their quest of “violent actions”, which does not give away anything “unusual” characteristics forecasting the individual’s actions to be “violent”, alerting security and intelligence agencies only when the attack has occurred.

Policy makers must note that, it is literally impossible to differentiate between the lone wolves who carry violent attacks and radical fundamentalists who simply advocate their beliefs. In European Union member nations, and in US specifically, the “freedom of speech is absolute” which limits the investigation of intelligence and security agencies to only “active violent actions”. Although all terrorists are “radicals”but not every radical is a terrorist, which makes it a phenomenally difficult task for security agencies to rule out the “lone wolf”who is going to initiate an attack before the concerned agencies apprehend, particularly in the light of digital age and rapidly evolving “technical tools” used in intelligence.Policy makers must note that, the “original” lone wolves could have “seemingly popularity” which could result in the rise of “copiers”and instigate the youths in carrying attacks using “similar techniques”.

It is important to remember that, lone wolf attackers suffer from necessary skills, technical training, and“organizational support”of violent terror factions, their “attacks”,in the form of Charlie Hebdo shooting and the 32-hour hostage crisis in Sydney, can be lethal.

Drafting an effective Counter-terror policy

How should the intelligence and security agencies deal with the“phenomenally” growing threat of lone wolf terror attackswhile facing enormous challenges of identifying and arresting them, without raising suspicions? This question remains “unanswered” especially in an inclusive society which continues to debate on “human rights” and police brutality. Although, the fact remains unchanged: security and intelligence agencies are facing an enormous challenge,especially when it comes to lone wolves carrying out attacks “using all means available”.

However, the aforementioned statements and shortcomings highlight significant factors which could be utilised by policy makers to formulate an effective counter-terror strategy.

To begin with, the approach agency uses to track “radical elements” entering and exiting a country, plays a vital role. Formulating the strategy which focusses more on “how an attack” could take place rather than “the identity of the attacker” creates a big difference. Furthermore, it is imperative for security and intelligence agencies to extensively study on “how does an individual radicalises”, the entire procedure. Such “aggressive” and “out-of-the box” strategy could effectively reinforce the state’scounter-terror policywhich could, if “effectively and efficiently planned”, could put an end to a possible lone wolf attack.

It is imperative for security and intelligence agencies to understand the modus operandi of a lone wolf,while formulating carefully a “detection trap”unavoidable even by the “careful” individuals while reinforced with “every tactical manoeuvre”used in counter-terror planning. Counter-terror training should be extensive throughout law enforcement units, while training in “signal avoidance”, “isolation and individualism” should be provided at all levels, in an effort to apprehend a perpetrator “isolating” himself before an attack. This not only requires real time data inputsbut also requires an “effective and efficient flow of information and its management”. The union between the intelligence analysts and field operation staff makes the difference.

Furthermore, intelligence agencies should bring their attention to the essential “common feature” that might be link one lone wolf with another, separating the individual from “community” while indicating an “irrational behaviour”. At this point, security and intelligence agencies must “coordinate and cooperate” with relevant agencies before “making an arrest”. Also, it is important for security and intelligence agencies to strengthen their grip on community, which can be achieved by hosting confidence building mechanisms within the community, after all the masses are the true “eyes and ears”.

Policy makers must note that, lone wolf operators, although acting alone, at some point of time, receive inspiration from an ideology or violent actors, it is imperative for security and intelligence agencies to disrupt presence of any such materials or “hidden societies”. It the state’s responsibility to condemn any, all such acts, ideologies which promotes violence.

Since, lone wolves act outside the framework of an organization, their acts are ignited by a local incident. State must initiate awareness talks, community development “de-radicalisation” centric program inviting students, teachers, community leaders, parents and all stakeholders, while maintaining an “healthy” atmosphere rather than panic.

The formulation of an effective counter-terror program begins with “communicating” with certain section of communities. Alternatively, this should be carried out without “providing their acts a stage and an audience”. Countering lone wolves is a priority but not at the stake of “publicising” them in a way that incites others to “take the same route”.

In the end, the most effective way to counter lone wolf attacks rests in “understanding their operational mechanism”. In recent violent incidents, all the perpetrators where masculine and used licensed firearms to commit acts of crime.This “selective individuals” who carries licenced arms and significant ammunition needs to be isolated and carefully assessed by security and intelligence agencies. This can be done by “strengthening gun licensing policy along with strict background checks”.


As explained in the aforementioned arguments, security and intelligence agencies face an enormous challenge in countering lone wolf attackswhile any “formidable” counter terror strategy would have limited impact. Similar to all acts of terrorism,there is no way to guarantee absolute elimination of this threat. With this said, the road to counter lone wolf terrorism is “rough and long”. The answers for the question on “factors responsible for radicalisation of lone wolf terror actors” are in its premature stage,needs to be assessed thoroughly. In the light of increasing lone wolf terror attacks, new question repeatedly emerges, particularly highlighting the role of internet along with “narcissistic sadistic” comments made by “right wing” factions against minority communities. With few “radical Islamic” lone wolf actors, the question of “an individual’s sudden change of course to commit acts of terror” makes it difficult for security agencies to respond. Thus, through “extensive cooperation and coordination” between inter and intra domestic and intelligence agencies along with timely sharing of ideas, experience and assessment of lone wolf terror attacks,policy makers will be able to create viable counter-terror response against lone wolf acts of terrorism.

About the author:
*Anant Mishra
is a strategic affairs analyst with specialization on Afghanistan

This article was published by Modern Diplomacy

Modern Diplomacy

Modern Diplomacy

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