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The 'Lone Wolf' Disconnect

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

The idea that a lone individual will appear seemingly out of nowhere to launch a horrific terrorist attack sends shivers down the spines of public security planners and law enforcement officers — not to mention average citizens. Because of their unique traits, "lone wolves" present very real challenges to the law enforcement and security professionals charged with guarding against such threats.

However, with the road from desire to actual destruction fraught with obstacles, the lone-wolf terrorist — one capable of causing mass casualties — is a rare individual indeed.

The flames of fear regarding lone wolves are fanned by the near-constant bantering about such operatives in radical circles, in movies and books and even in analyses pertaining to domestic and international terrorism. For many years now, domestic radicals such as neo-Nazi Tom Metzger and former Klansman Louis Beam have championed the "leaderless resistance" model of operation. Beam's 1992 essay, "Leaderless Resistance," has been widely embraced by many on the radical right as the definitive work on the subject and has been translated into many languages.

In his essay, Beam envisions a two-tiered approach to revolutionary struggle. One tier would be the above-ground "organs of information," who would "distribute information using newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc." The organs of information were not to conduct any illegal activities but rather to provide direction for lone wolves, as well as issue propaganda for recruitment purposes. 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 connections to the above-ground activists. Of course, in 1992, Beam likely never imagined how the Internet would become an almost perfect medium for the organs of information to disseminate information to the detached, anonymous lone wolves.

In many ways, the radical Islamist world also has embraced this operational model and the Internet technology. Scores of Web sites dedicated to serving as jihadist organs of information aim to radicalize individual Muslims and then equip these radicalized individuals with information on how to conduct terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda franchises even have produced online magazines, such as Maaskar al-Battar (Al-Battar Training Camp), which was produced by al Qaeda's Saudi node. These magazines are designed to further support radical ideology, teach individual radicals how to train for jihad and provide guidance on how to surveil and select targets — and even how to properly employ a number of weapons systems.

However, in spite of the fact that the concept of leaderless resistance has been publicly and widely embraced in both the domestic terrorism and jihadist realms, few terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by lone-wolf operatives. In fact, we have seen more mentally disturbed lone gunmen than politically motivated lone-wolf terrorists. A main reason for this lack of operatives in the political realm is the disconnect — the lack of translation from theory to action.

Definition of a Lone Wolf

It is important to define the term "lone wolf" because many people — both in the militant realm and in law enforcement and intelligence circles — misuse it or use it imprecisely. A lone wolf is a person who acts on his or her own without orders from — or even connections to — an organization. The theory is that this distance will prevent disclosure of attack planning to informants or technical surveillance and therefore provide superior operational security.

A lone wolf is distinct from a sleeper operative in that a sleeper is an operative who infiltrates the targeted society or organization and then remains dormant — sometimes for quite some time — until being activated, perhaps by a prearranged signal or a certain chain of events. A lone wolf is a standalone operative who by his very nature is embedded in the targeted society and is capable of self-activation at any time.

Most militant groups do not have the resources or patience to launch a true sleeper operation. While militant groups do frequently utilize covert operatives, such as the 9/11 attackers, we are unaware of any instance in which a militant group ran a true sleeper cell operation. (Most of the sleeper operations we know of involve attempts at international espionage.) Clearly, most covert militant operatives engage in some sort of operational activity and do not remain dormant. One cannot carry out operational activities and be a sleeper.

Also, it must be remembered that a sleeper — or other covert operative, for that matter — is trained and dispatched by an organization. The existence of this connection to an organization means that the operative cannot, by definition, be a true lone wolf.

Al Qaeda and its jihadist cousins and progeny across the globe have used a number of different operational models, some of them quite decentralized. However, even decentralized grassroots operatives, such as the London Underground attackers, have contact with an organization and so are not, by definition, lone wolves.

Some lone wolves are ideologically motivated, some are religiously inspired, some are mentally disturbed and still others are influenced by a combination of these factors. Our focus here is on politically or religiously motivated attackers, not on mentally ill individuals motivated for other reasons (such as Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho). Certainly such individuals create terror during their rampages, but they are not conducting politically motivated terrorist attacks. We distinguish between lone wolves and "lone nuts" because, although many politically motivated attackers do have some degree of mental illness, rational and irrational individuals operate differently. Mentally disturbed individuals are far more likely to self-radicalize in a vacuum and have less concern for their own safety than do most politically motivated attackers. This lack of concern for their own safety often helps them to overcome their lack of skill.

Easier Said Than Done

The rubber meets the road when potential attackers try to place lone-wolf theory into action. Like much political theory, or even business theory, it often is easier to design a system than it is to apply it to a real-world situation — one that involves fallible people.

One of the biggest problems for lone-wolf operators is acquiring the skills necessary to conduct a successful terrorist attack. Perhaps this is one reason suicide bombers rarely are lone wolves; there simply is too much involved in preparing for such an attack.

In his essay on leaderless resistance, Beam wrote, "It becomes the responsibility of the individual to acquire the necessary skills and information as to what is to be done." This, of course, is an obvious condition of leaderless resistance — and it is easy enough to write. But acquiring these skills in the real world can pose quite a daunting challenge. (As a decorated Vietnam War veteran, Beam likely did not realize how difficult it might be for someone lacking his military and combat experience to pick up those skills.)

In fact, some of the most successful lone-wolf assailants, including Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, had served in and been trained by the military. Some people consider Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh an example of a military-trained lone wolf, but his possible association with the Aryan Resistance Army, his connections to The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord group in Elohim City, Okla., and his connections to like-minded individuals — including Michael Fortier and Terry Nichols — suggest he was a grassroots operative and not a truly isolated lone wolf.

Military training is not a necessity for lone-wolf success. Joseph Paul Franklin carried out a series of killings (perhaps as many as 20 in several states), robberies and arsons from 1977 to 1980 in an attempt to ignite a race war in the United States. His attempts to assassinate high-profile targets Vernon Jordan and Larry Flynt failed, though he seriously wounded both of them and left Flynt paralyzed.

Even though many Web sites and military manuals provide instruction on such things as making bombs and marksmanship, there is no substitute for hands-on experience in the real world. Playing the neo-Nazi video game "Ethnic Cleansing" or similar games for hours will not automatically make a person an expert tactical shooter. Gaining such expertise requires practice. Intellectual prowess also is no substitute for experience. For example, even a genius like Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski had to do much experimentation in order to improve the design of his explosive devices. Of the 16 devices Kaczynski sent, several either did not explode or did not function as designed. In the end, Kaczynski's 18-year bombing campaign killed only three people.

Because of the difficulty of successfully manufacturing (in Kaczynski's case) or even stealing (in Rudolph's case) effective explosives, many would-be lone wolves attempt to procure explosives or military weaponry. It is at this stage, when the lone wolf reaches out for assistance, that many of these individuals have come to the attention of law enforcement. One such case was Derrick Shareef, who was arrested in December 2006 while attempting to trade stereo speakers for hand grenades and a pistol he sought to use in an attack against the CherryVale shopping mall in Rockford, Ill. The person Shareef approached to help him obtain the weapons happened to be a police informant.

Immaturity and lack of common sense also are significant hurdles for some would-be lone-wolf attackers. For instance, a person who attempts to buy an illicit fully automatic weapon when he could easily — and legally — obtain a less expensive semiautomatic version of the same weapon clearly is influenced by Hollywood and does not understand the effectiveness of controlled, sustained fire versus the spray-and-pray shooting he sees in the movies or on TV. As Franklin and several mentally disturbed shooters have demonstrated, automatic weapons are not needed to inflict carnage.

Another consideration is that the process of radicalization — to the point that a person undertakes a terrorist attack — rarely occurs in a solitary setting. Many individuals require the feedback and encouragement of like-minded individuals to help them reach that point. And this group dynamic crosses ideological divides. It is seen in gangs of racist skinheads and radical Jews as much as it is in jihadists. In many cases that first appear to involve a lone wolf, further investigation shows that the person's activities were motivated and facilitated by others. Only certain types of individuals can go through this process of radicalization and indoctrination and then motivate themselves to take violent action outside of a group dynamic. Franklin, Kaczynski and Rudolph, for example, tended to be loners even before they became radicalized.

Furthermore, even if someone can cross the hurdle of self-radicalization to the point that he is willing to conduct an attack, and even if he can build effective explosive devices or shoot a gun, he still must have other subtler abilities — street skills — that are difficult to master without practice and actual training. Perhaps the most significant of these street skills is surveillance tradecraft.

Although radical Web sites and online training magazines provide written instruction in surveillance, mastering the complex and subtle set of skills required to be a good surveillance operative takes a great deal of training and practical experience. It is not impossible for someone to develop and hone these skills on his own, but it is extremely difficult. Even Rudolph, a lone wolf who practiced excellent operational security and had good bombmaking and wilderness-survival skills, ultimately was captured because he lacked street skills. It was his suspicious behavior while on a street that caused a citizen to follow him back to his truck and report the vehicle's license tag to the police.

While the fictional and theoretical versions of lone-wolf operatives can be terrifying, real-life examples demonstrate that not only are such attackers fairly rare, but the constraints their isolation imposes on them (in acquiring weapons and training) usually limit the amount of damage they can do. Moreover, a lone wolf who reaches out for external assistance or training eventually finds himself interacting with other militants — and then he no longer is considered a lone wolf.

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