Lone-operator Terrorism: Tackling a Growing Threat

terrorism, BreivikStanding tall: a memorial on the streets of Oslo after Anders Behring Breivik's attacks of 22 July 2011 (Source: Dmitry Valberg)

For 17 years, the USA lived in fear of the “Unabomber”, Theodore Kacynski, who sent package bombs to unsuspecting victims. Over the course of these 17 years, the FBI acquired and analysed 82 million records, 9,000 event photographs and 12,000 event documents, but was unable to bring Kacynski to justice. It was eventually his brother who raised the alarm in 1995. The case of the “Unabomber” pertinently demonstrates how unprepared security services are to tackle lone-operator terrorists. The lone operator has existed throughout the 20th century, but he (and it usually is he) constitutes a growing threat to international security that requires innovative and proactive solutions.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”: defining terrorism

A key problem with the current approach for dealing with lone-wolf terrorists is that their inclusion into definitions of terrorism has only been a recent phenomenon. As Jeffry Simon highlights in his book, Lone-Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, as late as 1994 the FBI still characterised terrorism as being “committed by a group(s) of two or more individuals”. This is a symptom of the wider problem of tackling terrorism: governments are reactive, rather than proactive. This reactivity takes two forms: governments respond to information to foil terrorist attacks, rather than extensively considering the possibilities themselves, and are also reactive following successful terrorist attacks, via adapting policy as appropriate in response to such events. Moreover, there is no universally-agreed definition of terrorism itself, which clearly complicates the suppression of this threat. Nevertheless, there are several generally accepted principles of lone-operator terrorism that constitute a broad definition: terrorists are generally committed to achieve specific ideological ends and that, in order to achieve these goals, they involve the deliberate use of violence against civilians, thus provoking fear among the general populace. Even this broad definition could be critiqued, particularly if cyber-terrorism were to emerge as a popular form of terrorism. Cyber-terrorism in particular has the potential to shift the focus away from physical violence to disruptive activities, thus bringing what exactly constitutes “violence” into question. Nevertheless, the above definition reflects existing lone-operator practise, and is broad enough to encompass the varied motives for terrorist action, and thus will form the basis for this article.

What motivates lone terrorists?

The fact that lone-wolf terrorism is so widespread makes it particularly hard to isolate specific causes. As Helena Roy has argued in The Globalist, factors such as poverty have a negligible impact on terrorist activity. However, while her article attributes terrorism to a lack of civil liberties, this is not necessarily the only factor, either, as the reality is more nuanced. Simon highlights five categories of lone-operator terrorist, an excellent exemplification of the diversity of the phenomenon of lone-operator terrorism. These include the secular lone-wolf terrorist, who carries out terrorist action for political reasons; the religious lone-wolf terrorist; the single-issue lone-wolf terrorist (such as members of the Earth Liberation Front) who seeks a single political goal; and the idiosyncratic lone-wolf, who may not necessarily have a discernible motive owing to psychological issues. Simon also identifies the criminal lone-wolf, who has no political goal, such as a terrorist who commits an attack for financial gain. The inclusion of this category is contentious, as it is often unclear whether perpetrators should be classified as criminals or terrorists; such “terrorists” will thus not be considered here.

Although there is a discernible media tendency to focus on the “religious lone-wolf”, this belies the complexity of lone-operator terrorism. Although it is perhaps hard to imagine now, religious lone-operator terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon, and has only been dominant since roughly the 1970s. The most convincing explanation for these trends thus far has been offered by Rapoport, namely, that there have been four waves of modern terrorism. These include the Anarchist Wave, the Anti-Colonial Wave, the New Left Wave and the Religious Wave. The first three waves reinforce Roy’s view that terrorism is a product of the suppression of civil liberties: the New Left Wave, for example, was initially prompted by the Vietnam War, as terrorists increasingly saw themselves as the defenders of the Third World. However, the Religious Wave constitutes a clear break from existing terrorist activity: it is motivated by a desire to further the cause of a non-secular system of government, which does not advocate democracy. Thus while there may be a correlation between a lack of civil liberties and terrorism, this does not imply causation, and the motivations of lone-operator terrorists must be taken into account.

However, we cannot simply focus on this ‘Religious Wave’ because, as Simon notes, we are approaching a fifth period, namely ‘the Technological Wave’. This threatens to upset existing terrorism patterns, as lone-operator terrorists with vastly different aims confide in the Internet to develop their plans. The Internet provides a space where would-be lone terrorists can seek advice from others in extremist chat rooms, learn about existing terrorist movements, learn how to make bombs, research targets and even publish their own manifestos, as Anders Breivik did prior to the 2011 Norway attacks. The Internet is therefore increasingly taking the “lone” out of “lone-operator”, enabling such terrorists to be better prepared, and ultimately more likely to succeed. Furthermore, the Internet could potentially be the target of cyber-terrorist attacks itself. However, as has been previously noted, given that such attacks do not involve physical violence, their inclusion within the definition of terrorism is contentious. As well as facilitating the sharing of knowledge, the Internet can also create terrorists, as was the case with Roshonara Choudhry, who became radicalised after watching the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki and consequently attempted to kill MP Stephen Timms, a supporter of the war in Iraq.

Why so few women?

Choudhry is an exception: she is one of a few isolated examples of where women have carried out lone-wolf terrorist attacks. Women are comparatively common in terrorist organisations: they were responsible for 30% to 40% of the suicide attacks carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, for example. A number of suggestions have been proposed for this difference, but perhaps the most credible is that, as Simon notes, women are generally more risk-averse. It has been observed that, generally, women view risky behaviour as resulting in unfavourable outcomes more than men, and are less likely to be overconfident. Naturally, this becomes a particular issue for lone-operator terrorism, where there is a much higher risk due to increased uncertainty, as the terrorist lacks a support network. However, the increasing importance of the Internet is likely to comparatively diminish potential risks, as female would-be lone-operator terrorists can reduce the risk of planned attacks via research. The power of research is perhaps most strongly demonstrated in the case of animal rights activist Volkert van der Graaf, who shot Pim Fortuyn, a controversial Dutch prime ministerial candidate. Van der Graaf was able to use the Internet to obtain Fortuyn’s schedule, and even a map of the radio station he planned to visit. The Internet also arguably reduces the need for a physical support network, as it can provide a virtual replacement that is harder to detect. In the near future, we may thus be likely to see an increased gender balance among lone-operator terrorists.

Graffiti of the Unabomber in New York's Amtrak Freedom Tunnel, Harlem. Terrorism, Unabomber

Graffiti of the Unabomber in New York’s Amtrak Freedom Tunnel, Harlem (Source: Flickr: Laser Burners)


Strategies to tackle lone-operator terrorists

Given that the Internet is likely to increase the number of successful “lone-wolf” attacks, it is clear that a new, innovative strategy is required to reverse this trend. Traditional terrorism strategies typically focus on asset freezing, as well as military action, as was the case in Afghanistan. Such strategies are not effective against lone-operators, the majority of whom are not known to the secret services, and thus, as the example of the “Unabomber” demonstrates, they are much harder to identify and suppress.

Consequently, governments need to adopt a proactive, rather than reactive, response to the lone-operator threat. Although lone-operators are likely to keep a low profile, there are still certain tell-tale signs, such as the purchase of chemicals for homemade bombs that counter-terrorism organisations can exploit. Such a system was in place in Norway at the time of Anders Breivik’s attack, and was triggered by his large purchase of fertiliser, although it was later written-off, as Breivik owned a farm. If such a system were expanded, it could lead to much earlier identification of terrorist threats, provided that concerns were rapidly pursued.

While the Internet poses a threat, it also poses an opportunity. In his article, Lone Wolves in Cyberspace, Gabriel Weimann estimates that, as of 2012, there are almost 8,000 websites serving terrorists and their supporters. Governments could infiltrate terrorist chatrooms, enabling the identification of terrorists to take place at a much earlier stage, as well as removing “self-help” terrorist sites and publications. This could prove a fruitful strategy, as many terrorists prefer to communicate with others to both boast about their achievements and seek further advice. As Simon aptly notes, “lone wolves like to talk a lot.” This desire to communicate was ultimately what brought down the “Unabomber”, whose brother discovered a copy of the manifesto that he sent to the New York Times and the New York Post.

Even though their techniques will change, lone-operator terrorists will continue to reach out to fellow terrorists online, and it is pivotal that governments capitalise on this. Indeed, it was governments’ failure to adapt to this new “wave” that enabled a number of lone-operator terrorists to slip through the gaps: in 1999, David Copeland planted nail bombs in locations throughout London, and revealed at his trial that he had learnt how to manufacture bombs via the Internet, downloading The Terrorist’s Handbook and How to Make Bombs: Book Two. Groups such as al-Qaeda are also increasingly enticing lone-operators to act on their behalf via polished social media strategies. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, publishes the magazine Inspire, which, although illegal to possess without reasonable excuse in the UK, is still available via a simple Google search. The fact that such publications remain freely available on the Internet pertinently demonstrates that the security services have a long way to go in suppressing lone-operators’ online support networks.

It is hugely difficult to remove such material as it is often rapidly republished. Governments should thus focus their efforts on sites where terrorists congregate, as such networks are not as easily replaceable. It is these networks that offer personalised support to terrorists and thus are more useful to potential lone-operators than a magazine. Other actors, such as Internet Service Providers, also have a clear role to play in identifying potential terrorist activity, although this too would not be simple to enact, given the recent outcry over the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter”.

In particular, government will have to adopt an increasingly aggressive strategy towards the “Dark Web”. While intelligence services are being increasingly proactive in this area, with the FBI shutting down the “Silk Road” online black market in 2013, it is clear that dedicated teams need to be created to monitor and suppress this hub of criminal and terrorist activity. The UK Government has already taken steps to tackle the “Dark Web”: in December 2014 David Cameron announced plans for a specialist unit to be created to crack down on child pornography. The current climate necessitates the creation of a similar task force to force potential terrorists out into the open, and destroy virtual support networks that escape traditional detection techniques. Governments should thus adopt a two-pronged approach: suppressing terrorist material on the “surface web”, such as Inspire, that could attract potential lone-operators, and also focusing on the Dark Web, where more dedicated terrorists are likely to congregate.

Looking towards the future

While lone terrorists are an important and growing threat, it is important to highlight that they are still only responsible for a small proportion of attacks. However, there is no room for complacency, as groups such as ISIS are aggressively inciting lone wolves to commit terrorist attacks on their behalf. We are thus likely to see a future landscape increasingly dominated by fears of lone-operator attacks.

Defending against a growing threat will naturally require an increased level of surveillance by governments, to enable preventative action to be taken against terrorists. Ultimately, this preventative aspect must be the cornerstone of any future policy directed towards lone-operator terrorists, due to their low profile. Such a move is unlikely to be popular: recent proposals by David Cameron to block encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat were widely criticised. Herein lies the crux of the problem when dealing with this terrorist threat: how to identify and supress terrorist activity, without infringing on our rights. A recent report by the PEN American Centre found that 75% of respondents in countries classified as “free” described themselves as “very” or “somewhat” worried about government surveillance in their countries, and proposals for anti-terrorist surveillance will undoubtedly exacerbate this trend. There is clear evidence that an increase in surveillance, particularly on the Internet, is necessary to combat the growing lone-operator threat, it will have to be carried out tactfully to ensure public support. Governments will thus have to adopt a targeted approach, clearly focusing on terrorist chatrooms, for example. As governments crack down on major terrorist organisations, they will increasingly seek out lone-operators to act on their behalf. While we can speculate about the techniques these lone-operators will use, or what their motivations will be, one thing is certain: lone-operators will prevent the “War on Terror” from being won.