How Coherent Is ‘Lone-Wolf Terrorism’ As A Concept? Does It Assume An Outdated Model Of Organization?

This title aims to highlight whether or not ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ is coherent as a concept, and whether is assumes an out-dated model of organisation. With such a wide range of examples and contexts that house ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ it is important to be highly specific. For specificity within this paper, I will use prominent ‘lone-wolf’ cases and the already established literature surrounding the concept as lenses in which to critically analyse the coherence of the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’. By building upon the works and studies undertaken by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Ramon Spaaij, Raffaello Pantucci, Jessica Stern, and others I will challenge the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ and the norms that surround it. By doing this I hope that this paper will make evident the importance of the study and utilisation of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ as a concept, not only for its uses in human security but its uses as a learning tool to better understand the psychology that surrounds the radicalisation and inspiration of ‘lone-wolves’ prone to violent progression. 

The ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ the concept encompasses an entire spectrum of motivations, actors, geographies and methods.  As a complex and wide-ranging concept it would be impossible to cover the entirety of the concept within one paper. In order to answer the question effectively I aim to focus on the concept as a coherent framework, the terms and typologies that bolster it and it’s basic structure in relation to key examples, as opposed to explaining the details and subsections that this concept encompasses. Within the realms of the concept I would argue that the resulting understanding of this sub-section of terrorism is integral to the understanding of terrorism in general, and this paper will seek to prove this. In order to show not only the coherence but also the utility of the concept, I will make mention of the actions of multiple actors that span the spectrum used to understand actors of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’. In order to answer the overall question effectively, the following questions will guide this paper’s discussion. What is a ‘lone-wolf terrorist’? What is the concept’s coherence and utility? Why and how is ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ important for terrorism studies? What model of organization is ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ representative of and is it outdated? Are there any problems with the concept?

What is a ‘lone-wolf terrorist’? 

The concept of a ‘lone-wolf terrorist’ is two-fold. The first definition can be seen to describe the concept of ‘leaderless resistance’, a concept taken from The Turner Diaries in 1978 and used as a tactical factor in the actions of terrorists (Pierce/McDonald, 1978). Organizations that lend themselves to terrorist methods like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front utilize the concept of ‘leaderless resistance’ within their operational values, in specific reference to violent action. The second definition associated with the term ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ is the best defined as the acts of violence enacted by an individual, sometimes a duo, with political or ideological motivations who lack the previous association or connection with an already established terrorist organization. Coined in the late 1990s, the term seeks to encircle the individuality and isolation of the acts of violence that are to be or have been taken. When it comes to motivation, whether ideological, religious, political or anarchic, the concept is all encompassing, which makes it unique within the study of terrorism that often seeks to separate all forms in order to benefit their counter. It is this definition that I will use throughout this paper to best represent its utility and coherence.

Much like other forms of terrorism the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ lacks a single profile. Within terrorist groups despite a range of motivations for joining, the association with, and membership of a terrorist group binds actors within terrorism together. These associations and group contacts lead to the counter-terrorist action to be primarily based on intelligence gathering linked to communications between group members (Clarke and Newman, 2006). However, the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ does not lend itself to these associations. The isolation and often self-radicalisation of ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ removes communication, as a source of intelligence and while the motivations of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Islamic State (IS) are made clear through public promotion and agenda, the motivations of ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ range from political and religious to anarchic and personal. This unique trait of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ seeks to not only isolate it as a concept but also as a countering focus. The task of monitoring ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ can be hindered by the more random nature of attacks and motivations. And without patterns to follow, the apprehension of ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ can span decades, much like the pursuit of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, which spanned from 1978 to 1995.

What is the concept’s coherence and utility?

If we take the finding of the ICT’s ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ study in 2013 as evidence of the breadth that this sub-section of terrorism spans, then there are clearly four types of actors to be associated with lone-wolf terrorism. “Loner”, “lone-wolf terrorist”, “lone-wolf pack” and “lone attacker” are all terms coined within the study, with the first three being associated directly with the concept known as ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ (Pantucci, 2011:8). The fourth, “lone attacker”, the only actor to have direct association with a terrorist organisation, is purely comparative within the study, used to show the differences in motivation, radicalisation and actor profiles (Pantucci, 2011:8). While the third actor is associated with the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’, groups with association or connection with a more direct influence from prominent terrorist organisation will not be focused on within this paper. In reference to the question, I am seeking to better understand the coherence of the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ and in order to do this my focus will be based on individuals as opposed to small cells, regardless of their official association with the concept.

Pantucci’s ‘lone’ terrorist actors framework goes further. Described as an individual who plans or attempts to carry out acts of terrorism, the “loner” uses the cover of extreme ideology (Pantucci, 2011). Despite often claiming that they have some association with radical beliefs, the only connection that they have with extremism is through access to ideology that is either published or posted online (Pantucci, 2011). Prominent examples include, Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, who in 2006 drove a Jeep into a crowd of students at the University of Northern Carolina, and Major Nidal Malik Hasan who in 2009, successfully completed a shooting rampage of killing 13 and injuring 30 others, with victims both military and civilian (ICT, 2013). On the other hand, “lone-wolf terrorists”, are often “troubled individuals that seek solace in the extremist ideology”, carry out actions without actual outside assistance (Pantucci, 2011:9). However, their self-taught ideology is often reinforced through contact with extremists, online. An example of which would be Mohammed Merah, who in 2012 killed seven, three of whom were children of the Jewish faith. Acting alone, and with both influence first hand with time spent in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and by watching jihadist videos online, with Merah becoming radicalised from external sources, acted alone targeting his victims on grounds of their religious and ethnic affiliations (ICT, 2013).

Studies of both group terrorism and ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ show that ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ can be motivated by a combination of methods, the link between the political and personal is highly prominent when discussing this specific form of terrorism (Spaaij, 2010; Pantucci, 2011). The summarisation of the concept by academics and counter-terrorists alike highlight not only its coherence, but also its utility. The structure that Pantucci (2011) poses to better understand this unique and specific form of terrorism is one that can also be used to better understand terrorism in general, and in turn, may be used in order to better counter terrorism.

Why and how is ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ important for terrorism studies?

Despite the threat that terrorism poses in general, the threat that is posed by ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ is much more specific threat that poses, with actors that operate in a much more specific way than terrorist groups. The threat that ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ pose to human and state security is more complex, specifically in reference to methods of counter-terrorism. In order to counter the actions of a terrorist group, intelligence agencies gather information on the members of a group and their communications often play an integral role in the monitoring and thwarting of terrorist attacks. Violent actors under the umbrella of ‘Lone-wolf terrorists’, however, rarely communicate with others. When it comes to those who have been coined as “loners” , communication rarely plays a role and these actors predominantly self-isolate. ‘Lone-wolf terrorism’ also spans a more complex framework than other forms of terrorism. As the isolation of individual actors impacts the identification of these actors, their self-identification often interlinks the ‘lone-wolf terrorist’ with struggles of a political, social, or religious nature (Spaaij, 2010). These struggles often encourage a lone wolf terrorist’s both physical and emotional isolation, often leading to their dichotomization of society into “us” and “them”. These acts of isolation and emotional distancing from others, often leads to the dehumanization of the ‘enemy’ which can effectively weaken a person’s normal psychological barriers against violence (Spaaij, 2010).

The threats posed by ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ can impact the wider community; the actions taken by terrorist groups have been shown to influence and ‘inspire’ others. ‘Lone-wolf terrorism’ which is enacted specifically by influences much more widely available through the Internet (Stern, 2003). Not only does the growing access of information enable terrorist groups to form an indirect connection with vulnerable, and violently progressing individuals with radicalising material, it is also increasing the impact of these radicalised individuals. With articles providing bomb-building instructions, the threat of violent individuals with little other outside world influence could be seen to increasingly affect even more educated young people (Stern, 2003; Bakker and de Graaf, 2011).

What model of organization is ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ representative of and is it outdated? 

The model of organization that ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ is primarily associated with is one of isolation, and self-radicalization. With the growing radicalization of individuals not being contained to one specific state, radicalization materials are able to be exported across borders and reach the most vulnerable around the world.

‘Lone-wolf terrorists’ lack the integration or association with established terrorist cells or groups but some do adopt the teachings or motivations of wider, established terrorist groups. These teachings are often found in sources such as books, and manifestos exported by other terrorists seeking to promote their cause (Spaaij, 2012). Purely based on individualism, the acts of violence enacted by ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ are examples of single-terrorist action. While some academics, like Pantucci seek to encompass small ‘lone-wolf pack’ terrorists into the umbrella of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ the actions of small groups with Pantucci’s typology are more representative of beginning or basic terror cells as opposed to a group of individual or ‘lone’ terrorists acting as one.

It is clear that while the organisation model set out primarily by Pantucci (2011) in association with the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ is clear when it come to typological organisation, the model itself needs to be developed. As more research is progressed on the topic the framework will require adjustment. Another point that I would make from observation of the literature that surrounds this concept is that the model of organisation needs to be more specific. Ideally the typology of the ‘lone-wolf pack’ terrorists should be removed or like the ‘lone attacker’ be used primarily as a source of comparison. Without specificity this concept can become too complex for academic understanding and therefore, would lend itself to becoming redundant in association with counter-terrorism efforts.

Are there any problems with this concept?

The primary issue with the concept is complexity. While I have drawn from the literature in my understanding the literature in general seeks to repeat itself. Without newer studies or further research into the primary elements that encompass the concept, like motivation, psychology and radicalization the concept will fail to truly understand those that it encircles. The concept is highly important for both counter-terrorism and academic research purposes the concept is too complex and too little researched to truly enhance our understanding of terrorism. Future developments should involve the appropriate sub-sections, including ‘lone-wolf avenger’ and ‘lone-wolf vigilante’ being better represented by research (Bates, 2012). Furthermore, these subsections while important further complicate the concept itself. With many sub-concepts being held under the umbrella of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ more focus should be taken to formulate research and evidence to each. This is not to undermine the concept’s utility, its success in thwarting attacks and understanding the examples of this form of terrorism are inherently useful to understanding the concept of terrorism in general.

The concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ is clearly one in need of further development, and with the term remaining highly specific its develop and progression remains interlinked with that of ‘lone-wolf terrorist’ actions. The development of the concept itself would require closer studies of the psychology of the violent actors coined as ‘lone-wolf terrorists’. A better understanding of this specific form of terrorism would enable the faster apprehension of actors either planning attacks or those who have carried out their plans of attack. It may also allow both counter-terrorism experts and academics to better analyse the motivations and reasons behind an actor’s progression from violent thought to violent action. ‘Lone-wolf terrorism’ as a concept throughout this paper has been shown to not only be a coherent concept but highly useful in both research and counter-terrorism development. Based on self-isolation, self-radicalisation, the complex framework and psychology that surround this security concept should act as a guiding principle in order to better understand the concept itself and to better counter the actors encompassed by it. Examples of misguided, isolated and calculated, career ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ exist, and have been mentioned throughout this paper. It is clear therefore that the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ is not only wide-ranging but also highly complex. Actions taken to counter ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ are extremely difficult and incomparable to actions taken against groups like IS or the IRA, due to non-affiliation and isolation finding and counter attacks planned by ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ is hindered. With the growing attention of the information age among the vulnerable and disenfranchised youth, the development of young terrorists is only becoming easier. It is without a doubt that not only is the concept of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ coherent but increasingly relevant. This growing threat to human and state security needs to be better understood in order to best tackle it. The weakness of understanding of the elements, such as psychology, motivation and radicalisation that surround this concept by counter-terrorists only increasingly benefits the terrorists. With focus remaining on international terrorism that crosses borders, enacted by large groups like IS the development of this concept’s understanding is set to falter. However, it is clear that influences from international groups like IS and Al-Qaeda is seek to influence many individuals and therefore, the growth of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’ and their attacks can only increase. 


Bakker, E. and de Graaf, B. “Preventing Lone Wolf Terrorism: Some CT Approaches Addressed,” Perspectives on Terrorism 5, no. 5-6 (2011): 43-50. 

Bates Rodger, (2012) “Dancing with Wolves: Today’s Lone Wolf Terrorists,” The Journal of Public and Professional Sociology 4, no. 1: 1-14

Clarke, R.V.G. and Newman, R. G (2006) Outsmarting the Terrorists Published: Greenwood Publishing Group 

International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) (October 2013) Trends and Developments in Lone Wolf Terrorism in the Western World: An Analysis of Terrorist Attacks and Attempted Attacks by Islamic Extremists Published: by ICT, Online 2013 (Accessed: 10th March 2017) Available at:

Pantucci Raffaello, (2011) A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists (London: the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence). 

Spaaij, R. (2010) “The Enigma of Lone Wolf Terrorism: An Assessment,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 33, no. 9, 854-870.

Spaaij Ramon, (2012) Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention (Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer).

Stern Jessica, (2003) “The Protean Enemy,” Foreign Affairs 82, no. 4: 27-40


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