At the close of a year that seems, more than many in the recent past, to have been framed by acts of terrorist violence, the Leytonstone tube station stabbing has brought the issue of lone actor terrorism back in to the public-eye in the UK. But what exactly is lone actor terrorism? How large a risk is it to the general public? What sort of people become lone actor 'terrorists'? What are their motivations? How do they differ from the generality of lone actors in the USA who commit mass shootings? What can be done to prevent lone actor terrorism?
What is lone actor terrorism?
Most people think of terrorism as meaning the mass murder of civilians. But the concept is wider than that. The FBI's 1999 definition of terrorism is: "The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." Of note, it includes violence against property as well as persons.
Lone actor terrorism is properly defined as individuals acting alone, with no help, support or training from anyone else. In other words, it excludes individual members of groups returning from Syria or Iraq and committing terrorist acts. And it also excludes solo terrorists committing acts single-handed on the orders of the terrorist groups of which they are members. Some investigators include isolated dyads - pairs of individuals acting alone - as 'lone terrorists,' but this is stretching things. If one partner adds to the intelligence picture, affirms the tactics of the other, helps procure weapons, provides their transport, or steels mutual resolve prior to an attack, they are a team. And neither the leader nor the led can be said to be acting alone.
An act is also only said to constitute terrorism, if it was committed in an attempt to influence government or society in furtherance of political or social objectives. This might seem simple, but it isn't always so. People's motives are not necessary clear, and may prove to be mixed. The difficulties that this causes can be seen in the confusion in the press about individual cases. When a Muslim in Oklahoma in September 2014 decapitated his boss after she had sacked him and he had been watching jihadist videos, was this terrorism or workplace violence? Or both? When Dylan Roof in June 2015 shot nine people dead in a church in South Carolina, stating that he wished to start a race war, was this a hate crime or terrorism? Or was he, as Senator Graham of South Carolina opined at the time, just "one of these whacked-out kids"? The difficulty experienced by the FBI this month in finding any clear evidence that the San Bernardino shootings at the man's workplace were definitely terrorism is a further case in point.
How common is lone actor terrorism?
In 2009, Leon Panetta, then Director of the CIA, said: "It's the lone wolf strategy that I think we have to pay attention to as the main threat to this country." In January 2015, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, revealed: "The thing that I think keeps me up most at night [is] this concern about the lone wolf who goes undetected." In May 2015, Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, told the press that lone wolf terrorists could attack the USA, "at any moment."
Lone terrorism is not a new phenomenon. A study by Hamm and Spaaij in 2015 found that, in the USA over the last 73 years, there had been an average of 0.62 lone actor terrorist attacks per year in the USA, with a mean annual death toll of 2.1. In the UK, Gill in 2015 looked at lone actor terrorism in Europe and the USA from 1990 onwards and found that, "the number of lone-actor terrorists has remained stable over time, with a typical range of 5 to 11 actors per year." This, of course, fails to recognise the possibility that the actions of police and security forces may have prevented some attacks occurring. But the numbers and their stable nature are nevertheless real. How then does the US figure of 2.1 deaths per year from lone actor terrorism compare with other risks to its citizens? Well, it is unimpressive. In 2014 in the USA, for instance, there were 26 deaths from people being struck by lightning. According to FBI figures, in 2013, there were 14,196 intentional homicides in the USA, with a murder every 37 minutes. And in the same year, there were 32,719 traffic deaths in the USA, or 93 deaths per day. Every death is a tragedy, but lone actor terrorism is way down the league in terms of numbers. Statistically speaking, it is the drive to work and the weather forecast that should be keeping US citizens awake at night.
What sort of people become lone actor terrorists?
It used to be said that lone actor terrorists could not, by definition, be mentally ill, and that lone suicide terrorists were not suicidal, but driven by a cause. The conclusion about mental illness arose in part because of the clear past research finding that members of terrorist groups (as opposed to lone actors) are generally psychologically stable and intact. This isn't surprising in terms of groups: if you were running a group, would you select reliable, dependable people to join you, or people who were unstable and unpredictable? Loners, however, are different. The most recent study from the UK (Gill, 2015) has found evidence that 41% of lone actor terrorists had a history of mental illness, a figure likely to be an underestimate as it was based many on publically available information sources. Similarly, the prevailing view is now that death is part of the script because the individuals wish to die.
What is the motivation of lone actor terrorists?
The 2015 study by Hamm and Spaaij found that in 80% of their series of lone actor terrorists, the individuals were motivated by personal grievances as well as political grievances and that mixed motivation is "characteristic of lone-actor terrorists." Why might personal grievances be expressed in political form? The possibilities are several. Those aggrieved at their treatment by society are likely to be drawn to the ideas of anti-government groups, which offer a vehicle for expressing feelings of victimisation and discontent. Political motives may be used as a 'cloak' to make personal grievances more acceptable. And, in those that are mentally ill, political texts can provide an explanation for frightening and otherwise non-understandable psychotic experiences. Lone actor terrorists often follow similar steps along their pathways: grievance and alienation, giving rise to depression and elements of despair: a desire for revenge; an aim to achieve some sort of vindication in death, even only in notoriety; often a final stressful precipitant, and a desire to let the world know. A script for expressing such feelings through violent action is readily available. Hamm & Spaaij (2015) found evidence of copycat elements in 33% of lone-actor terrorist cases. This is not to say that the Internet has had any effect on the numbers of lone actor terrorists: Gill (2015) has found that, although it may provide a source of the script, the growth in the Internet has not been accompanied by a growth in lone actor terrorism.
Who are the lone terrorists that are included in research studies?
Studying lone terrorists is difficult: many of them die during or shortly after the incident. Researchers rely for the most part on publically available documents to identify and provide information about individual cases. Predominant amongst these are newspapers, which may have a slant to their narrative, although these may be supplemented by other sources such as court documents and official reports. And the danger is of ending up with a rag-bag of cases which have little in common. Only some researchers are open (or brave) enough to publish their datasets. When they do, questions immediately arise. What, for instance, have mass killers such as Anders Breivik to do with lone student activists torching cars; with a man from Communist Poland hijacking an aircraft to get to the West; with a farmer who drove his tractor into a pond near the Lincoln memorial in protest against cuts in tobacco subsidies?
Caveats apart, such studies are still producing useful information. But, whereas the public perception of lone actor terrorism is that it concerns principally radical Islam, the research datasets show that the larger group is right-wing inspired violence, and that single-issue lone terrorism (e.g. anti-abortionists in the USA) run jihadi-inspired lone terrorism a close third.
How do lone actor terrorists differ from other forms of lone shooter?
Whereas the number of lone actor terrorists has not been increasing, there has been an alarming rise in mass shootings by lone actors in the USA, with the shootingtracker.com website recording 353 in the USA in 2015, up to the 2nd of December. Leaving out gang shootings and those related to the commission of crimes, lone actor mass shootings concern workplace shootings, university shootings, school shootings, unexplained public shootings and family massacres, as well as lone actor terrorism. There are now some studies comparing various of these groups. The general finding is that there are very few differences between them. The loners involved exhibit much the same factors and follow similar scripts, whatever the category to which they are later assigned. In other words, lone actor terrorism is simply one part of a more general phenomenon of grievance-fuelled violence. This is important, because it allows the study of larger case series; it allows conclusions reached in one field now to be tentatively transferred to another.
What can be done to prevent lone actor terrorism?
But, whatever the problems in categorising cases as 'terrorism' and the complications of mixed motivation, the fundamental question remains: What can be done to protect the public from lone actor terrorism? It is not enough to reply that it is very difficult, or that not much can be done. One has to look for ways forward.
In the USA, the obvious problem is easy access to firearms. The problem in the UK can never be as serious because the country is not awash with weapons. Nor are bombs the main danger. Breivik succeeded in constructing an effective bomb, although most of his victims were shot; Copeland in London killed with homemade explosive devices. But the manufacture of bombs is beyond the capabilities of most loners and many of their attacks are necessarily low-tech. So Choudhury attacked MP Timms with a knife and the man in Leytonstone tube was likewise restricted to a knife attack. Such incidents are extremely serious, but mass killing by the loner are usually difficult to achieve. The paradox is that while they kill or injure fewer, the visceral nature of such attacks has an equal or greater impact on the public consciousness than those that claim more victims.
There are dangers in retrospective wisdom. Nevertheless, an encouraging finding in the research studies of lone actor terrorists is that there were warning signs, had there been any mechanism to detect them. For instance, in Gill's series (2014), others were aware of individual's grievance in 82.4% of cases. In 79%, others were aware of the individual's commitment to a specific ideology. In 64%, the individual had told friends or family of intent to engage in terrorist-related activities. In 35%, at least one other person knew of preparation/planning for an attack. And in 27.7%, the individual provided a specific warning. Added to this is the factor of mental illness, effective treatment of which will reduce risk.
So what does this add up to?
It indicates that prevention of lone actor terrorism is not simply an issue for policing and security services, but also a health issue and a public education problem. In the UK, the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre pioneered a joint policing/health approach to the assessment and management of risk in cases of threats or concerning behaviour towards politicians and the Royal Family. It is highly effective. There is a case for replicating this model on a regional basis as a means of confronting the problem of lone actor terrorism in the UK.
However the perpetrator may justify or cloak their actions, acts of lone violence are essentially grievance-based. There are dangers in allocating cases into narrow categories, or individuals may fall through the gaps between agencies, as in the case of Man Haron Monis in Sydney this time last year.
Also evident is the need for more measured and rational media responses to such incidents. The confusion and fear caused by misleading and lurid headlines inevitably leads to pronouncements by public-figures that encourage social isolation and division, so increasing the likelihood of terrorist acts generally, whether far-right, single-issue or in the name of radical Islam.