Terror Watch

Terrorism – emergence of the ‘lone wolf phenomenon’ as a trend


Most counter terrorism experts agree that the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist represents a new, more dangerous threat to the world. Two recent incidents confirm their concern.

In the past week two terror, or at least terror-related, incidents, committed by two individuals, in Orlando and in Paris, have placed the concept of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist under the spotlight.

A debate ensued about whether a new era in global terrorism has been entered with the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist emerging as a new danger.

The benefits for terror groups with ‘lone wolf’ attacks becoming the preferred mode of attack in the West and elsewhere, are, according to counterterrorism experts, that they are no-risk, high-reward tactics that instantly give the organisations media exposure and expand their reach.

Former Central Intelligence Agency director in the Obama administration, Leon Panetta, supports this notion.

In his autobiography, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, Panetta observed that, “lone wolf terrorists are a growing threat to the internal security of the United States”.

The Islamic State (IS), the notorious and most brutal of all Islamic fundamentalist movements, will undoubtedly be pleased, for it is propagating ‘lone wolf’ attacks and has even distributed an online manual on how to execute a ‘do-it-yourself attack’.

‘Lone wolf’ definition

Counterterrorism experts are debating the definition of a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist, but the following description is as good as it gets.

“Lone wolves are individuals, malcontents, with no apparent connection to any organised group. A lone wolf may commit violent acts in the name of a movement or ideology, but he does so alone, outside any command structure or organised network – he may not even have had any contact with the terrorist organisation in whose name he acts.”


‘Lone wolf’ attacks can be as dangerous as organised terrorist group attacks, as illustrated by the killing of 49 patrons in a gay bar in Orlando by Omar Mateen – the biggest single mass shooting in modern day America.

In 2011 the world was shocked when Anders Breivik, a far-right ‘lone wolf’ terrorist, killed 77 people in two attacks in the normally very peaceful country of Norway.

South Africa also suffered a similar event in 1988 when Wit Wolf (White Wolf), Barend Strydom, shot and killed seven innocent black people (and wounded 15) on a square in Pretoria in broad daylight. He had earlier killed a woman and injured another in a trial run in preparation for the massacre.

Increased ‘lone wolf’ attacks

Over the last couple of years, the West, in particular the US, Britain and France, has experienced an increase in ‘lone wolf’ attacks, mostly executed by Islamic jihadists. But not even predominantly Muslim countries are immune from such attacks, as an incident last year in Tunisia showed. 

The IS will also be celebrating, as it has been calling on its supporters in Europe and America to seek ways to wage jihad and to support the IS in their countries.

A senior IS leader stated that terror attacks in the West, “are more beloved and dear to us than operations we carry out in Iraq, (Syria) and Yemen”, and that “targeting civilians is more pleasing to us than targeting military personnel, as it is kind of reciprocity, and it is also more harmful and painful and a deterrent to them”.

France, still reeling from recent mass terror attacks, very recently had to cope with another ‘lone wolf’ attack when a policeman and his wife were knifed to death by a self-professed Islamic fundamentalist.

On top of this, France and Belgium are on high alert after reports that the two countries are facing “imminent” terror attacks from a fresh wave of Islamic State jihadists reportedly on their way from Syria.

It is reported the attacks are planned to be carried out by either groups of two or by  ‘lone wolves’.   

Tragedy has also struck in Britain when a popular Labour Party Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, was killed on 16 June by a man in a vicious ‘lone wolf’-type attack.

The assailant was described by people who knew him as a loner who battled mental illness, but allegedly had ties to white supremacists in Britain, the US and even South Africa.

Loner, outcast, mental illness, fanatical or fundamentalist tendencies, these are all descriptions that fit the profile of a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist.

Unpredictability and types of ‘lone wolves’

All ‘lone wolf’ attacks have one thing in common and that is their unpredictability. France, while hosting the Euro 2016 football championships, was on maximum alert. Up to 90,000 police officers and security guards were deployed to ensure the safety of local and visiting fans.

But still a ‘lone wolf’ attack was perpetrated by an assailant previously convicted for jihadism, and who left behind a note urging others to “turn the Euro football tournament … in France into a graveyard”.

According to an expert on terrorism there are two types of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists – the ‘groomed attacker’ and ‘the opportunist’.

The ‘groomed attacker’ has a direct link with a specific Islamist group, whether past or present. This implies training and allows interaction with other fighters and even sometimes leaders.

Often this interaction also includes participation in ‘active combat’. The typical ‘groomed attacker’ is the foreign fighter returning to home soil.

The ‘opportunist’ usually has little to no direct links with terror groups, beyond exposure to extremist propaganda – usually via social media. This makes them especially hard for counterintelligence agencies to identify and combat.

Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, falls in this category and President Obama recognised the challenge in his response to the Orlando tragedy, saying: “U.S. law enforcement officials are doing everything to stop these kinds of attacks, but are sobered by the difficulty in trying to detect these lone actors beforehand.”

For Islamic extremist organisations such as IS all that matters is the propaganda value presented by such attacks.

Mateen’s attack appears purely opportunistic. To date there is little evidence of him being a jihadist, except that he came under the attention of the FBI twice, but nothing emerged to substantiate claims made against him.

But he allegedly called emergency services shortly before the attack and swore allegiance to the IS.

The IS, nevertheless, immediately seized upon the opportunity by claiming responsibility and calling him “one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America”.


Past incidents have shown that ‘lone wolf’ attacks are often difficult to link to organised terror groups.

Counterterrorism experts mostly agree that current techniques are not geared towards finding individuals who are bent on mass violence, but lack solid links to terrorist groups like the IS.

It is, therefore, exceptionally challenging for security and intelligence establishments to pre-empt these kinds of attacks as they are planned and carried out by a single person, leaving little if any evidence of a planned attack.

Lone wolves, according to one expert, think ‘outside the box’ because that is where they always are; namely outside the ‘normal box’.

They are loners operating in isolation from the broader society. This means there is no group decision-making process or group pressure that might stifle creativity or lead to leaks about plans.

The challenges ahead, as ‘lone wolf” terror attacks proliferate, as most experts suggest, were voiced by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton.

He claimed the pressure on law enforcement to figure out who is truly a credible threat is immense.

The police are not expected to prevent every illegal act – except when it comes to terrorism. “In the area of terrorism, there is an expectation that you shouldn’t have any, but the world has changed. We are going to have it…and with more casualties.”

Public participation

There is consensus among counterterrorism experts that closer cooperation between law enforcement and the community is essential, with the latter playing an integral part in informing on possible suspects.

South Africans should heed this call – they are not immune against this global trend.

by Garth Cilliers

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