Identifying lone-wolf terrorists: not always top dog

With lone-wolf terror attacks on the rise across the United States and Europe, a recent study offers a new way of understanding how those who commit such atrocities are created.

Writing in the journal Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Orlandrew E. Danzell and Lisandra M. Maisonet Montanez summarise the standard ‘typologies’ currently used to identify individuals at risk of turning to solo terrorism.

The authors then propose an alternative theoretical perspective which builds on those typologies – especially the radicalisation thesis – to provide a more comprehensive explanation for lone-wolf behaviour.

Danzell and Montanez’ ‘Internal Pack Conflicts Theory’ suggests that lone wolves are often the result of multiple key personality and environmental drivers.

They write: “While previous typologies provide important insights into lone wolf terrorism, the current literature often overlooks an important intervening variable … They fail to sufficiently enlighten the intelligence community and law enforcement officials on the process that explains the ‘turning point’ in the lives of lone wolves.”

As they observe: “Even though lone wolves thrive in isolation and engage in minimal interactions with others, it is within these social interaction processes (or lack thereof) where lone wolf motives, intentions, and behaviors ignite.”

In order to explore their theory further, Danzell and Montanez review the cases of Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City outrage) and Nidal Hassan (the Fort Hood attack). While the authors discovered that the trio didn’t share many ‘profile features’, they noted that all three experienced problems with hierarchy or the ‘pack’ at some point in their lives. The outcomes of these ‘pack conflicts’ were similar: acts of lone-wolf terror.  

They conclude: “Contrary to existing theory that characterizes the lone attacker as sophisticated (i.e. alpha personalities), this study shows that, in fact, lone wolf terrorists are often betas who evolve similarly to the animal hierarchy.”

Danzell and Montanez’ approach as outlined in this article provides ‘the pack’ (that is, society) an important and viable way to understand and identify future lone wolves. The experience of ‘dispersal’ – when ‘wolf’ leaves a previous pack or environment and may or may not join up with other ‘dispersed’ wolves – is key.

That those who we think of as ‘lone wolves’ do not necessarily act alone is also a crucial insight.

Rather than looking for ‘masterminds with alpha personalities’, Danzell and Montanez’ work suggests that our security services might be well advised to keep ‘betas’ who are ‘aggrieved by or outcast in society’ on their radars as well.

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Taylor & Francis Group partners with researchers, scholarly societies, universities and libraries worldwide to bring knowledge to life. As one of the world’s leading publishers of scholarly journals, books, ebooks and reference works our content spans all areas of Humanities, Social Sciences, Behavioral Sciences, Science, and Technology and Medicine. From our network of offices in Oxford, New York, Philadelphia, Boca Raton, Boston, Melbourne, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo, Stockholm, New Delhi and Johannesburg, Taylor & Francis staff provide local expertise and support to our editors, societies and authors and tailored, efficient customer service to our library colleagues.

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