Reviewing Lone Wolf Attacks: A Drift From Traditional Counter-Terror Policy? – Analysis


The threat of terrorism, which shook the world during 1970s and 1980s, gained significant global attention only after 9/11. In response to September 11 attack, extensive combat operations were carried by nations in an effort to counter the threat of terrorism. However, many nations took “careful” measures to reinforce their domestic and external security strategy, while further strengthening their intelligence gathering network, however, the emerging threat of lone wolf attacks continues to pose a “serious” challenge to security and intelligence agencies yet failed to attract “necessary” attention from the global nations.

Although, in accordance to the US State Department definition of terrorism (premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents), the lone wolf attack, according to the definition of State Department is not an act of terrorism per se since, it does not involve multi-national groups or violent non-state actors.

Nonetheless, the lone wolf attacks are carried out under same “inspiration and motivation” as that of traditional terrorists that share direct association with militant organizations. Additionally, it cannot be argued that the threat posed by lone wolf attacks are “extensive”. Many security and intelligence agencies face difficulty in identifying perpetrators before their strike, a pre-emptive response which is extremely difficult in the light of absent “credible” and “reliable” human intelligence.

The recent lone wolf attack, carried by an Uzbek national Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov in New York, is a perfect example of attack carried by a “below the radar” individual. During post-assessment of such terror incidents, the principle responsibility for intelligence and security agencies is to identify and apprehend the perpetrator, especially because of large number of casualties caused by the attack. The article will thoroughly assess “multiple” investigative mechanism while explaining significant behavioral properties of lone wolves which differentiates them (makes them more dangerous) than traditional predictable, militants. While adequately addressing the issue, the paper further discusses certain “motivational and inspirational” factors that instigate them in carrying out acts of terror, despite knowing the consequences of their attack.

While assessing lone wolf terror attacks, policy makers first understand the term “lone wolf”. Lone wolf terrorism can be defined as “a terror attack carried out by individual(s) who

  1. carry out the attacks “individually”;
  2. have no direct affiliation with terror factions, and;
  3. whose operational mechanism remains independent without the influence from any external terror mechanism or commands from leadership.

The aforementioned “definition” differentiates between a lone wolf actor and “organized” groups. However, experts continue to argue on the “necessary elements” that constitutes a terror attack. Certain agreed properties that constitute in a terror attack are:

(a) acts of violence,
(b) instigation of fear,
(c) certain motivation factors that may involve (but not limited to) domestic politics, ethno-religious centric or ideological.

These preliminary guidelines could be helpful in assisting policy makers in establishing a “universal” guidelines differentiating violence with acts of terror.

Policy makers must note that, there are much “deliberated” theories already in place which explains “detailed” tutorials on “how to become a terrorist”, of which many have become “favorites” for terror recruiters. However, in theory, the process of recruitment of terrorist comprises of four important steps. However, in the light of massive recruitment in the Middle East and North Africa, the “successful” nature of this recruitment remains a question, especially when only a small percentage of young recruits become terrorists.

Similar to theories related to terror recruitment, there is no “clearly defined” methodology. However, in the light of significant “volunteers”, it can be said that, masses have a choice to “opt” for terrorism. So, what differentiates the young “self-indoctrinated” recruits in taking the course of terrorism than the traditional “organized” members of terror factions? For most of young recruits, research points towards “injustice” as the pushing factor. However, there is no “specific” reason behind the inclination of an individual to terrorism, there are rather numerous “supporting” factors that could force an individual in opting the path for terrorism, or feel a “connection” or “sympathy” for the terrorists. These factors may include their “strong” deterrence towards an issue or a majority group posing a grave threat to their existence and right to life.

Behaviour Analogy And Psychological Prognosis

Extensive psychological prognosis conducted by militaries all over the world rules out the “psychology” as the principle factor for an individual to become terrorists. Since, psychology of lone wolf attackers vary differently, it cannot be completely ruled out from the study.

Although, psychology does play an extensive role for lone wolf attackers, but it remains variant in militant groups preferably at very low or medium levels. While carefully analyzing the behavior of lone wolf attackers along and linking their “behavioral” analogy with terror attack they carried out, “a specific pattern” of psychology appears. Most of the cases have preliminary connections with “obsession and personality disorders”, whereas almost all the attackers have severed from acute “depression” sometime in their lives.

Experts, however, argue that, these “psychological” connections are inconclusive, rather they are more stable than ordinary human beings. This argument seems “rhetoric”, especially when most of the lone wolf attackers perceived themselves as “God’s chosen worriers” and literally “heard the voice of god echoing” in their ears. However, these are “pre-recorded” statements and after initial psychiatric enquiry, it can be argued that, phycology per-se does not carry enough weight of a principle factor but is plays a significant role. Although in the light of certain challenges that arise while understanding “behavioural prognosis” of certain “self-indoctrinated” individuals, security and law enforcement agencies must include the factor of “psychology” while investigating lone wolf attacks.

Indiscriminate Nature Of Attack

After extensive evaluation from post-lone wolf attacks, it can be safe to say that the attacks bear no marks of “personal” offense against a community or a person. The victims of these attacks are not deliberately targeted for their occupation, racial, creed or ethnicity or their occupation. Most wounds are inflicted on civilian population. Moreover, past incidents, experiences may act as an “instigating” principle here. The primary notion for becoming a lone wolf attacker may have certain “connections” with issues (domestic, national, international or personal), with “significant” importance.

Moreover, within the context of group based terrorism, individuals are aligned with similar thoughts and same mindset, which in case of a single individual remains absent. In the context of group based terrorism, the “concept” involves mistreatment or a threat posed to the group which is a significant important factor, opening the doors of terrorism for the group members. After extensively studying previous lone wolf attacks, most of the attackers felt a “moral responsibility” to stand after a certain incident which forced them to react, which seemed largely absent in a group.

Active Factors In Group Based Terrorism

The two most important factors that contribute to the formation of group based terrorism are: commitments and common goals.

Although, in the light of inadequate research conducted on lone wolf terrorism and absence of policies on lone wolf terror, there are no instruments to extensively evaluate their roles. Although, it is absolutely clear that, lone wolf attackers do not follow a traditional “terrorist” approach, which highlights the fact that, these attackers are ready to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause. In the context of traditional theory, the lone wolf attackers are follow a “free fall concept”, which deviates from the traditional theory of “let everyone else sacrifice and only share the fruits of their efforts”, rather sacrificing yourself.

This theory does not persist in group based terrorism. There are no rewards for participation nor are consequences of their choice, but every member of the group witnesses the same process. On the contrary, for lone wolves, these theory does not exist. This is precisely the point where “commitment and dedication”. The concept of sympathy and empathy does not exist and their only dedication and commitment lies towards achieving their goals. However, there have been instances when lone wolf attackers had cooperated with similarly aligned groups in inducing violence against the “non-believers”, this extreme behaviour may have also tripped them into committing terror attacks. Hence, it can be “confidently” stated that lone wolf attackers are committed towards their cause a sense of responsibility that exists in them higher than any ordinary individual. However, this fact cannot sufficiently explain their instigation to commit acts of terror.

Moreover, common agendas and objectives further strengthen the bond between members of a group. When an individual aligns with the group, his understanding towards the group becomes a “common” nation, moreover, every member of the group feels equally dedicated and committed to the group. They remain safe, and share the fruits of efforts, but take extensive measures to reinforce trust in the group. Although, there are negative behavioral properties too, especially when individual feels “insecurity” towards another and feels “happiness” to see others into trouble.

Moreover, in the case of conflicting views and opinions, their commitment become focuses larger to themselves and their group. An individual express care and concern for others and when they are threatened, this could instigate internal rifts or war. This is the epi-centre for domestic conflict, the sheer tendency of human behavior.

Hence, when an individual aligns himself to the group, and then feel that the group is being threatened by external elements, this instigates a scenario of conflict. Moreover, the concept of group terror attacks has its links with lone wolf attackers. The lone wolf attackers remain committed and dedicated to a group than an ordinary member. Its objective, agendas, instigates them to take necessary action. Hence, rather than creating an “operational” plan they take matters into their own hands. This could result from a sense of “dedication and commitment” they have to their members, the thought that their members are continuously threatened, forces them to react. Although, there are other theories that points towards the fact that, lone wolves do interact with groups, but they prefer to be alone.

Breeding in isolation

The lone wolf attackers thrive in complete “isolation”. After assessing most of the lone wolf attacks, the lone wolf attackers had few friends and remained alone. Most of them suffered from “extreme unsocial” personality disorder. This could possibly be the reason as to why individuals become lone wolves and they remain until they are neutralized.


The article extensively assessed factors that instigate individuals to become lone wolf attackers and spread violence and fear among the masses. The aforementioned argument extensively discussed the factors that could assist an individual during its transition of “choosing” to become a lone wolf attacker. Psychology could play an important factor; however, this argument needs extensive assessment and evaluation. Furthermore, the extensive impact of psychology on lone wolf attackers needs extensive deliberation and analysis. However, two possible factors could be dedication and commitment towards the cause followed common group objectives. From the aforementioned statement it is quite clear that lone wolf’s behavioral prognosis involves extreme “sympathetic and empathetic” tendencies.

This explains their dedication and commitment to the cause, along with a sense of belongings in the group, more than ordinary citizens. The aforementioned factors highlights an “unnatural” behavioral prognosis which forces them to commit acts of terror. However, it fails to shed the light on their “tendency to act alone”. Of all the lone wolf attacks, the perpetrators where remained “un-social”. They lived in complete isolation, and made decisions alone.

The Way Forward

The conceptual analysis of lone wolf attack is carried out to understand the “behavioral prognosis” of lone wolf attack. Experts and policy makers should use this analysis to draft a strategic military and tactical strategy to effectively counter the lone wolf attackers. However, the issue of rising lone wolf terrorism needs to be addressed with a multifaceted resolution in an effort to adequately address the issue. Although, many militaries are analyzing the threat perception posed by lone wolf attackers in an effort to create a counter strategy, policy makers must ensure that the assessment and evaluation of the procedure remains productive. The role of intelligence is of prime importance harem hence law enforcement agencies can delegate the task of formulating a strategy to specific intelligence agencies. Policy makers must note that, there is no absolute mechanism to evaluate and assess hundred percent achievement of the policy. The best-case scenario could be to extensively engage academia with law enforcement and policy makers actively.

*Anant Mishra is a former Youth Representative to the United Nations. He had previously served with the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly as well as the Economic and Social Council. His previous assignments were in Rwanda and Congo. He also serves as a visiting faculty for numerous universities and delivers lectures on conflict and foreign relations.

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