Lone Wolves: Behind the Curve

As the tragic attacks last summer in Charleston, Chattanooga and aborted plots in Boston and other cities demonstrate, the threat of lone wolf terrorism is very real and rising. Yet, the U.S. government is behind the curve in crafting the type of comprehensive and innovative strategy required to counter this threat. Eight years ago the U.S. Congress rejected legislation to study this phenomenon and develop an effective response. This past summer, Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies took on this challenge: and the results and policy recommendations of this task force provide a way ahead for the U.S. to tackle this vexatious—and growing—threat.

The Task Force’s seventeen graduate students and their two instructors identified several salient, troubling trends that surfaced in Chattanooga and recently in Philadelphia. Of immediate importance was the increased targeting of military and law enforcement personnel. In addition, we found the greatly expanded use of social media and the Internet for radicalization, the lone wolf’s preference for firearms because of their ready availability in the U.S., and the declining affinity of lone wolf attackers for established terrorist groups to be alarming. The Task Force further concluded that profiling is not an effective means of detection and that therefore new, novel, alternative approaches are needed.

Three key finds include:[1]

First and foremost, a standard definition across the U.S. government is required to facilitate analysis of the problem and effective policy solutions. The Task Force adopted the following definition as a useful starting point: Lone wolf terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or threat of violence committed by a single actor who pursues political change linked to a formulated ideology, whether his own or that of a larger organization, and who does not receive orders, direction, or material support from outside sources.

Second, the President should appoint a cross-agency mission manager, who reports to the White House, to coordinate development of a government wide strategy and plan. The current responses are disjointed and uncoordinated. Numerous organizations and agencies across federal, state, and local jurisdictions are involved with this issue. However, the Task Force could not figure out who is in charge and how all of these disparate efforts are being brought together. A presidentially appointed mission manager could coordinate and oversee all efforts, across all agencies, to counter violent extremism (CVE). A mission manager affiliated with the White House would also have the power to recruit the best innovative thinkers in the film and music industries, and from the sports, social media, and gaming worlds to design powerful, sophisticated, and targeted counter-messages.

Third, greater emphasis should be placed on detection and redirection of lone wolves during the radicalization stage by relying on non-traditional strategies. Informal community awareness and law enforcement approaches are two ends of a continuum. Both are necessary but are not sufficient. Recent polling, for instance, shows that target communities do in fact often mistrust government and police.   Statistics also indicate that more than 60 percent of lone wolf terrorists share their intentions with an acquaintance or family member, underscoring the importance of community reporting as a potential means to detect and deter lone wolf attacks. We must continue to strengthen informal community outreach as a fire-break to deflect and redirect those susceptible to extremism and violence.

The U.S. government should therefore develop mid-range social service responses that will be available to informal communities when at-risk individuals are identified. Currently missing are approaches along the continuum that involve the public health and social sectors such as mental health, educational, vocational, and housing services. Moreover, some law enforcement tactics such as sting operations or heavy-handed surveillance can create mistrust within communities, thereby reducing the effectiveness of “See Something, Say Something” type campaigns.

The emphasis, in sum, should be placed on preventing and short-circuiting radicalization through strengthened trust and engagement on community levels and more effective use of social services to identify and preempt at-risk individuals. Law enforcement will continue to play an essential role in addressing this problem, but must be accompanied by other long-term solutions based in the educational, vocational, health, and social sectors. A successful outcome is impossible, however, without clear leadership.

*Jeffrey Connor and Carol Rollie Flynn are adjunct professors in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

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