Why ‘lone wolves’ aren’t really alone

Anyone who has read my work or seen/heard me in the media over the past few years knows that I really, really dislike the term ‘lone wolf’.  My objections are threefold:

a) it is inaccurate most of the time,

b) it get used far too quickly in the absence of any confirming information, and

c) it lionises terrorists and romanticises terroris, neither of which we want or need.

Today I want to focus on the first point made above, i.e. that lone wolves are seldom lone.  By this I mean two things:

a) they rarely act 100% on their own (yes they are exceptions but they are rare), and

b) they NEVER get to the point in their ideological journey going solo (hence the other popular term I do not use – ‘self-radicalisation).

I got to thinking about this (again!) the other day when I read a report in the French press that two men associated with Mohamed Merah are going to trial.  Merah was the terrorist who went on a nine-day killing spree in the south of France (Toulouse and Montauban) in 2012, shooting 12 people, seven of whom died.  His first targets were French soldiers and police officers and his last victims were Jewish kids and a rabbi/teacher.  He was then killed by French security forces after a 30-hour siege at his Toulouse apartment.

At the time Merah was described by several media sources as a ‘lone wolf’, the latest in a trend of solitary terrorists.  And yet once again the label has turned out to be inaccurate.  Merah’s brother and a friend are now facing charges, more than five years later.  The brother, Abdelkader, is accused of helping him plan the attacks while a friend, Fettah Malki, is said to have given Merah a flak jacket, an Uzi submachine gun and ammunition.  It thus looks fairly certain that the attacks were NOT solo acts but received significant support.  In the end Mohamed Merah did act alone but he did not get to that point on his own.

A more recent case makes this point further.  After a knife attack by another ‘lone wolf’ in Marseille, Swiss police announced that they have arrested two Tunisian asylum seekers they believe have links to the terrorist who carried out the attacks.

I am puzzled why a lot of people still fail to understand this very important point.  Most of us are social by nature. It is what makes us human.  Yes, there are exceptions, but even the Las Vegas shooter from last week had a girlfriend and a family and although authorities are still struggling to find a motive he is nevertheless the sum of his relationships and his own internal calculations and demons.

In this light, next time you read an article or see a news item where the assailant is called a ‘lone wolf’, ask yourself:

a) what is this designation based on? Is there any immediately available information that supports the label?  Do the same for ‘self-radicalisation’.

b) which ‘experts’ are using the term (see my previous blog on the difficulty in who is a real expert and who is not)?

I’d like to end this piece with a quote from Nautilus, an on-line science site that I have taken to reading over the past few years.  I think it complements what I am trying to convey here quite nicely.

“Human beings are intensely social animals. We live in hierarchical social environments in which our comfort, reproduction, and very survival depend on our relationships with other people. As a result, we are very good at thinking about things in social ways. In fact, some scientists have argued that the evolutionary arms race for strategic social thinking—either for competition, for cooperation, or both—was a large part of why we became so intelligent as a species.”

Given that terrorism takes thought and commitment to ideology, and that ideology is a group phenomenon, it stands to reason that people do not radicalise by themselves in their parents’ basements and rarely truly act alone.

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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