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The Challenge of the Lone Wolf

Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - 12:55 Print Text Size

By Fred Burton

Historically, gunmen and bombers who act on their own — lone wolves — have posed a significant threat in the United States. Indeed, from the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln to the slaying of music legend John Lennon they have presented a far more deadly threat to prominent people in the United States than have militant groups. Additionally, as demonstrated by cases such as the 1991 Luby's restaurant shooting in Killeen, Texas, or the recent Virginia Tech massacre, they also pose a grave danger to ordinary Americans.

Due to their often solitary, withdrawn nature, lone wolves present unique problems for security and law enforcement, as their very qualities make it hard for law enforcement or protective security details to gather intelligence regarding their intentions. That said, however, they are not impossible to guard against. Lone wolves frequently take actions in advance of an attack that make them vulnerable to detection by a proactive, protective intelligence program that incorporates investigation and countersurveillance.

Although they most often are male, there is no single profile of the lone wolf. Some are ideologically motivated, some are religiously inspired, some are mentally disturbed, and still others can have a combination of these other factors.

On the ideological side are some leaders (especially among far-right extremists) who promote the concept of "leaderless resistance." This idea perhaps was most widely promulgated by former Klansman Louis Beam. In a February 1992 essay, Beam outlines a plan to overhaul the white supremacist movement — calling for the formation of small, autonomous cells that were to be driven by ideology rather than act under the direction of membership groups. Beam's argument was that this leaderless resistance would have superior operational security and be more successful in conducting attacks than the membership groups, which he believed (correctly) were filled with informants.

In his essay, Beam envisioned a two-tiered approach to the revolutionary struggle. One tier would be the above-ground "organs of information," which would "distribute information using newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc." The organs of information were not to conduct any illegal activities. The second tier would be made up of individual operators and small "phantom" cells that would conduct attacks. These people were to remain low-key and anonymous, with no traceable connections to the above-ground activists. Beam wrote, "It becomes the responsibility of the individual to acquire the necessary skills and information as to what is to be done."

Perhaps one of the most prolific, and least known, ideological lone wolf terrorists was neo-Nazi Joseph Paul Franklin, who conducted a string of arsons and shootings from 1977 to 1980 in an effort to spark a race war in the United States. Franklin, who frequently targeted mixed-race couples, killed at least 20 people during his attacks, which by his own account also included failed assassination attempts against Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt and then-National Urban League President Vernon Jordan.

Included in the religious realm are "Phineas Priests," people who believe they have been chosen by God and set apart to act as his "agents of vengeance" on Earth. Phineas Priests frequently conduct attacks against abortion providers and homosexuals — targets they believe have violated biblical law. Phineas Priests derive their name from Phinehas, an Old Testament character who killed an Israelite man and a Midianite woman and who was credited with stopping the idolatry brought into the midst of the Israelites by Midianite women.

Most Phineas Priests, including Buford Furrow and Eric Rudolph, are adherents to the racist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity religion. Christian Identity, however, does not have a monopoly on religiously motivated lone wolves. Radical Roman Catholics like James Kopp, Protestants such as Paul Hill and Muslims like Mir Amal Kansi and D.C. Sniper John Allen Muhammad also have committed religiously motivated attacks.

Though many, if not most, of the ideologically and religiously motivated lone wolves exhibit some degree of mental illness, other mentally ill attackers have no ideological or religious motivation. Some of these individuals "go postal" and commit their attacks at work, while others attack at malls or schools. Unlike the ideological (and even some of the religious) lone wolves, who purposefully choose the leaderless resistance model to thwart law enforcement, the mentally disturbed are generally self-motivated and self-contained.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, both serving life sentences for attempting to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford during separate incidents, are two rare female lone wolves. Fromme, a follower of jailed cult leader Charles Manson, pointed a loaded pistol at Ford in Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 5, 1975, but was wrestled to the ground by a Secret Service agent before she could fire a shot. Seventeen days later, Moore, an accountant and political radical, fired one shot at Ford after he left the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, but missed.

The Problem for Police

A prime example of the problem lone wolves pose for police is Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, who began sending improvised explosive devices in 1978 but was not arrested until 1996. During those 18 years, Kaczynski sent 16 devices, several of which either did not explode or did not function as designed. Although this allowed authorities to recover a large quantity of physical evidence, Kaczynski's isolation kept him from being identified. It was only after the publication of Kaczynski's "Unabomber Manifesto" in 1995 that his brother came forward to the FBI and identified him as a possible suspect.

When investigating a militant organization it is possible for law enforcement or intelligence agencies to plant informants within the group. Even small, insular groups are vulnerable because it is not uncommon for one or more members of the group to get cold feet and inform authorities about the group's plans to commit acts of violence. With a lone wolf, however, there is no such possibility of infiltration or betrayal. If the suspect never discusses his or her plans with anyone else, he or she can easily fly under law enforcement radar. In most cases, these kinds of individuals can be highly successful in carrying out an attack, especially against vulnerable soft targets.

Mentally disturbed lone wolves pose particular problems because they often have an extremely narrow focus of interest and cannot be diverted to an easier target by heightened security measures. There are some notable exceptions to this, however. For example, Furrow conducted surveillance on several Jewish targets and bypassed some of them because he considered their security to be too tight, and Franklin diverted from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Jordan after he found Jackson's security to be too robust for his purposes.

Mentally disturbed lone wolves also frequently have an almost total disregard for the consequences of their actions, and quite often show no concern about escaping after they attack, as exemplified by John Hinckley, who did not attempt to flee after attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Frequently, as in the case of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho and Luby's shooter George Hennard, the attacker will commit suicide.

When lone wolves do choose to escape and conduct a string of attacks, their anonymous nature and isolation frequently complicates the situation for law enforcement, especially if they take efforts to conceal their identities and minimize the amount of physical evidence they leave. For example, Franklin was able to operate for three years before he was identified and arrested because he spaced his attacks apart in terms of geography and time, and frequently changed his vehicles, weapons and appearance. In fact, it was only after his arrest and confession that the full scope of his activities was realized. Rudolph also traveled great distances between targets and took efforts to alter his appearance.

The Threat

Because of this history, and the problems lone wolves pose for them, local, state and federal law enforcement sources say they are particularly concerned about the threat of individual extremists. This is not exclusively a big-city problem, as several lone wolf incidents have occurred outside of major metropolitan areas, in suburbs or smaller cities. Federal counterterrorism sources, citing the relative ease of attacking in a public place — as demonstrated at Virginia Tech and other locations — have expressed serious concern about the possibility of similar assaults being perpetrated by an Islamist militant or a white supremacist. The logic is that if a mentally disturbed individual can execute such an attack, what prevents an ideologically inspired terrorist from doing the same — or worse?

Because lone wolves are widely dispersed throughout the United States and are distributed across the ideological and social spectrum, it is especially challenging for law enforcement to identify them before they act. The same is true of potential lone wolf extremists. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between those extremists who intend to commit attacks from those who simply preach hate or hold radical beliefs (things that are not in themselves illegal). Therefore, authorities must spend a great deal of time and resources looking for individuals who might be moving from radical beliefs to radical actions in an attempt to single out likely lone wolves before they strike. With such a large universe of potential suspects, that is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.

Rearing their Heads

There are some signals that can be watched for in connection with lone wolves. In fact, in retrospect, the majority of lone wolves came to the attention of authorities at some point before their attack. Frequently in workplace violence and school shooting cases, the perpetrators are found to have had prior brushes with the law and/or the mental health system. Attempting to sort lone wolves out from the heavy stream of people who come to the attention of the police and mental health professionals, however, is another difficult search through a very large haystack.

These individuals, though, often frequently exhibit behaviors by which they reveal themselves.

Lone wolves, especially mentally disturbed ones, frequently attempt to make written or telephonic contact with their targets before making physical contact. It is at this time that they can be identified and investigated by security or law enforcement personnel. Monitoring the tenor of the contacts from such individuals can also help to indicate their future intentions and provide indications of a deteriorating mental state.

Another sign of a possible lone wolf is when a dedicated and committed extremist suddenly quits a membership group and goes into "radio silence mode." For example, Bob Matthews and three other members "left" the National Alliance in 1983 to form the domestic terrorist group "The Order." In 1999, World Church of the Creator member Benjamin Smith, who had been named "Creator of the Year" for his zeal and dedication, left the group shortly before going on a three-day shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana that randomly targeted racial and ethnic minorities. Smith killed two people and wounded nine before committing suicide while being chased by police.

Perhaps the most common time that lone wolf assailants self-identify — and the point at which they are most vulnerable to being identified before an attack — is when they are conducting pre-operational surveillance of their potential targets; when they are stalking, in other words. Since pre-operational surveillance involves establishing patterns, potential attackers will stalk their targets several times. Thus, each time they improve the chance they will be observed, especially if the target is employing countersurveillance operations in search of such threats.

Countersurveillance — the process of detecting and mitigating hostile surveillance — is an important aspect of counterterrorism and security operations. Good countersurveillance is proactive, meaning it provides a means to prevent an attack from happening. This can be a group effort performed by a dedicated countersurveillance team, or it can be done by individuals who simply make the effort to be aware of their surroundings and watch for people or vehicles that seem out of place.

Lone wolves are especially vulnerable to detection during the surveillance phase because they do not have others to assist them. Conducting solo surveillance against a moving target is one of the hardest tasks any professional surveillance operative can be tasked with, and is even more difficult for an amateur. In a solo surveillance, the operative is forced to reveal himself repeatedly over time and distance, and in different environments. Also, a person unskilled in the art of surveillance, especially one who is mentally disturbed, will frequently commit many errors of demeanor. Thus, their odd behavior and crude surveillance technique — they frequently stalk and lurk — make them easy to pick out.

Because of this, countersurveillance — whether by law enforcement, intelligence agencies, corporations or individuals — is a critical means of spotting lone wolves during the target selection and planning stage, the time the operation is most vulnerable to detection and interdiction. It is important to be able to recognize hostile surveillance by a lone wolf before the next phase of the attack cycle begins — because once the actual attack is in progress, it cannot be undone.

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