Why most terrorists are not true ‘lone actors’

The recent sentencing of a man to 20 years in prison for his role in the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack underlines why the term ‘lone actors’ is inaccurate.

The recent sentencing of a man to 20 years in prison for his role in the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack underlines why the term ‘lone actors’ is inaccurate.

SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA – Our fascination with the notion of ‘lone actor’ terrorism takes away from how this form of violent extremism actually happens.

One of the most romantic/heroic images out there is that of the ‘lone wolf‘ (aka the ‘lone actor’). This evokes someone who goes against the crowd, someone who does not need to be told what to do, someone who achieves something significant, if not spectacular. It really does come across as a very attractive character.

In recent years this metaphor has been extended to terrorism. It appears that we are inundated with this wave of individuals who act entirely on their own, with no assistance from anyone else, in carrying out acts of violent extremism. Given their small footprint they are very hard to identify, very hard to follow and very hard to interdict. The challenges to security intelligence and law enforcement agencies should be obvious.

Except that this metaphor is not very accurate.

I have been pushing back against the use of these terms over the last few years. We have all heard politicians describe terrorist attacks carried out by individuals – or even small groups of people (lone ‘dyads’, ‘trios’, ‘quartets’?) – in these words. And I think there is a lot of confusion created as a result.

The bottom line is that few people are really 100% self-sufficient. We all belong to larger society, even those of us who are intensely introverted and who keep their contacts and interactions to a minimum.

It is thus a very legitimate question to ask: is there really such a thing as a true lone terrorist actor?

My answer is no, with very, very few exceptions (the ‘Unabomber‘, Ted Kaczynski comes to mind although even there I see some wiggle room). Even those who elect to plan and execute terrorist acts on their own are part of a larger ideological movement. Sticking with Islamist terrorism as an example, the one with which I am most familiar, there is an entire universe out there which collects and distributes propaganda and provides inspiration, guidance and, at times, direct support or instructions for ‘followers’.

People consume this material regularly. In my time in security intelligence I recall cases of individuals who spent hours – 10, 12, 14 hours a day – reading and watching extremist content online. Some frequented chatrooms where they engaged with others. Few were truly on their own.

‘No man is an island’ or so they say and this applies to terrorism as well. If not actual logistic assistance – as we will see in a bit – individual terrorists benefit from the contributions of many others. This should help us to avoid the overuse of these terms.

On October 24, 28-year old Enrique Marquez Jr., who had pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists and making false statements regarding the rifles he had bought with money received from Syed Rizwan Farook, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The name Farook should be familiar to you: he and his wife Tafsheen Malik were the terrorism ‘dyad’ which carried out the December 2015 San Bernardino attack in which 14 people were killed and a further 22 wounded.

The court found that Marquez “had a high IQ and the mental capacity to understand what the guns would be used for”, despite his claim that he had been under Farook’s influence from the age of 13. Interestingly there is more to this case: Syed Raheel Farook, the brother of Syed Rizwan Farook, Tatiana Farook, Syed Raheel Farook’s wife, and Mariya Chernykh, Tatiana Farook’s sister, are scheduled to be sentenced next year.

Gee, the couple are not looking so ‘lone’ anymore, are they?

What does this all tell us? Simple. Terrorism is almost always a group effort. Sometimes that group provides logistics aid. More often that group is a much larger community of the likeminded, either in the real world or online. Islamist terrorists are not operating in a vacuum, even if they elect to execute an act on their own. There is a whole universe out there which sets the scene for action.

I suppose I have been engaged in my own ‘lone actor’ campaign over the past 20 years. I am trying to get the terms ‘lone wolf’ and ‘lone actor’ off the agenda as neither is accurate or helpful (at least ‘lone actor’ is not as bad as ‘lone wolf’ I suppose). I am not so naive as to believe I will succeed but I will keep trying.

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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