What makes a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist?

Posted on September 5, 2011

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Their actions do not take place in vacuum – and may influence others

In the wake of the Norwegian massacre one question has troubled many minds: ‘What sort of person inflicts such suffering on their fellow citizens?’ .

La Trobe University researcher Dr Ramon Spaaij says while most terrorists usually do not suffer from identifiable psychopathology, the rate of such disturbance among lone wolf terrorists is higher.

Dr Spaaij has carried out an in-depth study of lone wolf terrorism in fifteen European and non-European countries. Some of these cases, he says, appear to have significant parallels with what we so far know about Anders Breivik.

His study ‘The Enigma of Lone Wolf Terrorism, which has been published in the journal ‘Studies in Conflict & Terrorism’, deals with the motivations and methods used by lone wolf terrorists, and the nature of their radicalisation process.

His research indicates that the main ideological drivers of lone wolf terrorism are White supremacy, Islamism, nationalism and separatism, and anti-abortionism.

‘Lone wolf terrorists tend to create their own ideologies that combine personal frustrations and aversion with broader political, social, or religious aims,’ he says. The degree to which these aims correspond to those of existing extremist movements vary.’

Dr Spaaij says lone wolf terrorists may ‘identify or sympathize with extremist movements or have been a member or affiliate of such a movement in the past. Their action and its justifications clearly do not take place in a vacuum. Conversely, lone wolf terrorists may also influence wider movements.’

Dr Spaaij: their actions don't happen in vacuum

High incidence of psychological disorder

Dr Spaaij is a Senior Research Fellow in La Trobe’s School of Social Sciences. He says four of the five lone wolf terrorists in his case studies were diagnosed with either a personality disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder. A similar proportion appears to have experienced serious depression at least once in their lives, and all suffered from a variable degree of social ineptitude.

‘They were loners with few friends and generally preferred to act alone. Communication with outsiders was largely confined to violent actions and written statements.’ He says his case studies reveal a number of influences that shape lone wolf terrorists’ beliefs and their willingness to put these beliefs into practice through violence.

‘These include personal aversion or depression, negatively perceived developments in their personal life or career, direct or indirect interaction with extremist movements, and broader processes of social and political polarization in society. They also include militant literature and Internet publications, and they were admirers of terrorism occurring elsewhere.’

The most common weapons used were firearms, explosives and armed hijackings and the principal targets were civilians. Dr Spaaij says his studies reveal the difficulty of preventing and detecting lone wolf terrorism, and that much more research needs to be done into such behaviour.