'Lone wolf' attackers are elusive but can be traced on the internet
Published 23/07/2016 | 02:30
Recent high-profile terror attacks pose a new challenge for police and intelligence services. All seem to be the work of 'lone wolf' actors. Yet police and intelligence services, by the nature of their work, target groups. It's possible to adjust that focus, but that would require Western societies to make an important trade-off.
On Monday, a 17-year-old Afghan asylum seeker gravely wounded four fellow passengers with an axe and a knife on a regional train near Wuerzburg in Germany before police shot him to death.
The attack continues a series of terrorist acts by loners: the shooting in Orlando in June; the truck rampage in Nice last week; the police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Islamic State claimed responsibility for Orlando, Nice and Wuerzburg, but that's merely in keeping with its status as the umbrella brand for Islamist terror. The killers weren't members of any terror group, and they weren't acting on anyone's orders.
Yet the Orlando and Nice attacks had so many casualties - a combined 133 people dead and dozens more wounded - that an organised group could hardly have been more effective. The November attacks in Paris, which were actually planned by an Islamic State affiliate, took 130 lives.
A full-scale military operation against Islamic State or active intelligence work against it wouldn't have prevented the attacks by people who flew under the conventional radar, never travelling to the Syrian war zone or hanging out with known terror operatives.
Besides, the 'lone wolf' phenomenon has little to do with any particular ideology, though the Islamic State banner has seen some heavy use lately.
'Lone wolf' is a term popularised in the 1990s by white supremacists Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, who called on like-minded people to commit uncoordinated acts of terror. Some of the deadliest of the predatory species have been white racists: Norway's deadliest killer Anders Breivik; Austrian letter bomber Franz Fuchs; 'London Nail Bomber' David Copeland; Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof; Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. It's likely, though, that their ideologies only ran skin-deep, just as radical Islam does for the recent killers of Middle Eastern and North African extraction.
"The conscious belief system," psychiatrists J Reid Meloy and Jessica Yakeley wrote in a 2014 psychological analysis of 'lone wolf' terrorists, "is upon closer examination often quite superficial: a cherry-picked cluster of prescriptive or proscriptive statements that provide a broad rationalisation for the homicidal aggression.
"It's enough for a system to be simple and binary, pitting good against evil, for it to serve as a justification for extreme violence. Such defensive manoeuvres are often part of a pathological narcissism in which the good object is within and the bad objects are all without," Meloy and Yakeley wrote.
The narcissism is an obstacle to affiliating with an actual terrorist group, the psychiatrists pointed out - but it tends to strengthen the lone terrorists' dependence on virtual communities, such as those formed on the internet. There, communication is free from the constant trauma of real-world interactions. That trauma is ever-present in lone wolf terrorists' stories - rejection by a father, a non-existent or troubled sex life, professional or academic underachievement. On the internet, none of this matters.
The radicalisation of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen and Nice truck driver Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel could have been tracked by their internet activities.
The tracks these people left online are known as "weak signals" because they are hard for intelligence services to pick up. Yet there are techniques for doing that. A team from the Swedish Defence Research Agency documented one in a 2013 paper. It's based on a number of behavioural markers that help determine whether a person is capable of radical violence.
For example, potential 'lone wolf' terrorists "leak" - they burn to tell outsiders what they want or even plan to do; they also display "fixation" -a preoccupation with a person or a cause - and "identification," picking a "warrior" role model. The Web can be trawled for the linguistic attributes of these behaviours.
A web crawler programme, instructed to look for such markers in the social network posts of people who visit radical sites (or, presumably, watch certain YouTube videos) could come up with a short list of people to watch. This list can then be checked by a human analys.
Unlike racial profiling, the system is at least colour-blind. There is simply no other way to look preemptively for potential lone terrorists.
It's up to society in each country to decide whether intelligence services should have the power to use methods such as these - and to act on the information collected by such methods. The latter is especially important: the internet is full of hotheads of every description, and their freedom of speech is constitutionally protected in Western countries, though in most of Europe, hate speech is illegal.
My personal preference would be to live with the risk of 'lone wolf' attacks rather than let law enforcement agencies track citizens' online activities so they can prevent them. Yet I suspect many who have lost loved ones in the attacks would gladly sanction such an application of modern technology. It's a debate that can no longer be put off, given the growing number and effectiveness of 'lone wolf' attacks. (© Bloomberg News)