No man is an island and no wolf is truly lone

I have spent the last week at a conference in a Central Asian country discussing terrorism and what to do about it. I have listened to a lot of presentations by those who know the region well and who have tried to put terrorism into local context. Some of the contributions were descriptive while others focused on what we can do, collectively, to prevent terrorism and radicalisation to violence.

One of the participants spoke of lone wolves, a topic I have often spoken on, and not in a positive way. I am not a fan of the term as I feel it is inaccurate, not based on solid data or analysis, misses the point about what terrorism is and how terrorists become terrorists, and raises the spectre of the all-but-unfindable-killer.

A recent trial in Tunisia bears on this issue. Back in 2015 a lone gunman, whom some would call a lone wolf, walked down a beach with an automatic weapon targeting tourists, mostly Brits, eventually killing 38 before he too was gunned down by security forces. Aymen Rezgui, a Tunisian student, had allegedly trained with Libyan militants and his attack was claimed by Islamic State (IS).

At the trial 17 people are accused of ties to the attack (not Rezgui obviously, as he is dead), including the alleged ‘orchestrator’ of the massacre as well as those that sent in surveillance photos of the venue and fellow students of Rezgui who were allegedly aware of his plans. Interestingly, six security forces are also on trial for failing to prevent the slaughter.

So we have an individual terrorist trained in Libya who may have been instructed to carry out his deed by an ‘orchestrator’ and may have had other help and we call him a ‘self-radicalised lone wolf’? Am I missing something here? For the record while the term ‘self-radicalised’ is not always plunked beside ‘lone wolf’, although it often is, it is usually sous-entendu.

I am getting a little weary of making this argument to be honest. The reason I feel the need to continue doing so is that it keeps cropping up and we now have those who are seriously proposing ‘profiles’ of ‘self-radicalised lone wolves’, a curious endeavour as anyone with any credibility in the free-for-all ‘terrorism expert’ field has long maintained that there is no ‘profile’ of a terrorist (so why would we expect one for ‘self-radicalised lone wolf’?).

This myth is important because it is still driving analysis and can have a real-world effect on policy and practice. As if we are not already swimming in fake news and bot-created ‘news’, we now have the sham of a ‘self-radicalised lone wolf’ to add to our woes.

I’d like to put this subject to rest once and for all, even if I know I can’t. The only reason we think that there are mythical lone wolves is because we have done a poor job at data collection. In other words, we have yet to uncover all relevant information that can shed better light on why, where and how these lone actors got to the point of killing. We are basing our analysis on far from complete background. In my books, drawing definitive conclusions despite knowledge gaps is just bad scholarship. The bottom line is that we are all the product of our environments and myriad influences, even if we elect to act on our own on occasion.

As a former intelligence analyst I’d love to be able to tell you that we spies know better. In actual fact we sometimes do since we have access to information that eludes the average citizen. But even with this privileged data we don’t know everything and hence our analysis is never ‘complete’. I wish that more people would own up to the shortcomings of their own thought processes and refrain from speaking ‘ex cathedra’.

I am sorry to say that this is probably not the last time I will weigh in on this matter: I really would rather have hoped it was. We will continue to hear experts talk of the dangers of the ‘self-radicalised lone wolf’ and I will continue to challenge them.

They say ‘no man is an island’ (which sounds kinda sexist but the phrase is what it is). Oh that the lone wolf crowd would move themselves to a deserted island where we would hear of their shallow theories less often.

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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