Just what is a ‘self-radicalised novice’ terrorist anyway?

A few months ago an Austrian town put out a ‘help wanted’ sign – for a hermit.  I am not making this up.  The town has apparently had a hermit since the 17th century and the last one ‘retired’ in the fall of 2016 (how do you retire from being a hermit?  I wonder how good the dental plan is).  In the end some guy from Belgium got the job (his reaction to being the winner out of 50 candidates: “I thought I didn’t have a chance”). I hope he is happy in a cave with no running water or heat.  I also am having a hard time figuring out what the qualifications for a hermit position are (someone who is ok being alone??).

Not surprisingly hermits are few and far between in our world, ascetics and those who much on locusts and wild honey notwithstanding.  The reason for that is likely tied to our nature as a species for humans are social animals.  We thrive on, and probably at some fundamental level require, contact with others.  Besides, the societies and economies we have constructed would have been devilishly difficult if we were all hermits, right?

As for average humans so for terrorists.  Violent extremists come from society and are the product of their surroundings, for good and for bad.  No one, Belgian hermits even, live in complete isolation.  However tenuous the links to others are, they are there if you dig deep enough.

And yet we have another case of a so-called lone wolf terrorist – the guy who took a hammer to a police officer outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last week.  Except that he is being labelled a “self-radicalised novice” by a French prosecutor.  Apparently the suspect told police he had radicalised himself over the last ten months, was unknown to French intelligence services, showed no signs of radicalisation to those in his life, had never been to Syria or Iraq, and never been convicted.  All this points to “the profile of a neophyte that the services fighting terrorism fear as much as hardened cases” according to the aforementioned prosecutor.

Everything French officials have said may be true.  The terrorist may indeed have acted alone and yet this does not mean that his radicalisation process was exactly as he described.  He had apparently made a video pledging allegiance to Islamic State and had downloaded their ‘lone wolf’ manual.  But we are all the composite of our experiences.  This man is no different.

There are very many questions that need to be answered before we can draw the unlikely conclusion that he is a near-mythical lone wolf.  What was his upbringing?  Was he married?  Who were his friends?  Did he attend a mosque and what were his relationships with other Muslims?  What were his online  habits?  Which sites did he visit?  Which social media apps did he use?  What did he post?  What were the reactions to his posts?  How long had his attack been in the planning?  And that is just a start.

Unless this guy was one of the 50 applicants for the hermit opening in Saalfelden I can almost guarantee you that once enough stones are turned over French investigators will find that Farid – for that is the name of the attacker and, by the way, he was a doctoral student so he could not have been a hermit unless he was doing a PhD in hermitology – had some contacts and engaged in what US psychologist Reid Meloy calls ‘leakage’.

We need to resist the erroneous temptation to give in to this notion that lone wolves are out there, so much so that it sometimes seems they are running in packs.  The evidence simply is not there.  Countering terrorism relies on accurate analysis.  This kind of analysis is not helpful.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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