Who’s afraid of the big bad ‘lone wolf’?

ESSAY: Frank Furedi on how Western society’s panic about ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ ends up empowering sad individuals who want to do harm.

In a lecture given at Groningen University in Holland this week, Frank Furedi critiqued the idea of the ‘lone wolf’ terror threat. His lecture is published below.

Terrorism is different to every other threat facing mankind, whether those threats are physical, natural or manmade. Why? Because the impact made by terrorism is determined in large part by our response to it.

Terrorism involves a very subjective process of perception. How we visualise terrorism is shaped by a cultural narrative, by a cultural script, by signals telling us what a terrorist looks like and what motivates his acts of destruction.

The way a community responds to an act of terror is mediated through its perception of the threat, through its sense of existential security and its ability to give meaning to the terrorist experience. And in turn, these responses are influenced by society’s broader cultural perception of terrorism and how much of a threat it poses.

‘Cultural scripts’ provide citizens with ideas about the risks posed by terrorism and about its likely impact on their daily lives. In contemporary Western society, the signals sent about terrorism influence people’s view of their own vulnerability and of their capacity for resilience. Today, terrorism is frequently presented to us as a force that cannot be stopped. It is often said that it is not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the terrorist will strike again. It is claimed that society is confronted with a new breed of terrorist, one who has the capacity to inflict not just harm but catastrophe on society.

The shifting narrative

Since the start of the twenty-first century, there has been a dramatic shift in the way that the threat of terrorism has been understood and dramatised.

At the beginning of the century, terrorism was conceptualised as something that had its origins ‘over there’ – usually in the Middle East. When former US President George W Bush raised the question ‘Why do they hate us?’, it was widely assumed that ‘they’ were from somewhere far away. The people who ‘hated us’, and who threatened us, were very much seen as being external to Western societies.

However, since 9/11 it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the threat may not simply be an external one, but a domestic one, too. In America and Europe, the realisation that there are people who do not like their societies, who do not want to be American or Dutch or whatever, has made the terror threat feel more intimate. And in response to this realisation, the cultural narrative has shifted its focus on to ‘homegrown terrorists’ and the radicalisation of young people who feel existentially distant from their societies.

Almost seamlessly, the discussion about homegrown terrorism has mutated into a debate about the threat posed by ‘the lone wolf’. It was American law enforcement agencies who pioneered the construction of a new threat facing Western society - that is, from people referred to by the FBI as HGVEs: homegrown violent extremists.

Rise of the lone wolf

The terrorist threat facing the United States has evolved significantly over the past 10 years, and it is still evolving. The main threat now emanates from within the borders of the US, in the form of HGVEs. A further development has been the emergence of the so-called lone wolf: an individual malcontent with no connection to any organised group, someone who is entirely off the radar; indeed, someone who could be anyone.

The narrative of the lone wolf originated among American white supremacists,  who self-consciously advocated the tactic of leaderless resistance. The label was subsequently embraced by law-enforcement agencies and the media to refer to individuals who, acting on their own initiative, attempt to inflict terror on their fellow citizens. So the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and the army officer Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot and killed 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas in November 2009, have been referred to as ‘lone wolves’. And since last July, with the massacre of 77 Norwegians by Anders Behring Breivik, the concept has become Europeanised.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the terrible attacks in Norway, the European Union exhorted member states to be wary of ‘lone-wolf terrorism’. ‘The issue of ‘lone-wolf terrorism [requires] increasing attention’, declared the EU. Numerous European security agencies have subsequently become preoccupied by the lone-wolf terrorist. Earlier this month, the London-based Royal United Services institute warned that the UK faces a growing threat from lone-wolf terrorists returning from fighting with radical Muslim groups overseas. Apparently, returnees from ‘wars in Somalia, Yemen or Nigeria’ might apply their experiences to the streets of the UK. In response to these claims, the Home Office confirmed that it would do more to try to pre-empt the activities of lone wolves.

Official concern about the lone-wolf terrorist is even more pronounced in the US. Last August, President Barack Obama said he feared a ‘lone-wolf extremist’ attack more than an ‘al-Qaeda spectacular’. He said the ‘most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now ends up being more of a lone-wolf operation than a large, well-coordinated terrorist attack’. He clearly had the Norway massacre in mind, talking about ‘somebody with a single weapon being able to carry out wide-scale massacres’.

This point was echoed by the FBI last September, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack. ‘Our great fear is a self-radicalised individual, or an individual who has been radicalised through modern media, who makes a decision to act on his own’, said one FBI official.

Numerous American officials describe the lone wolf as their worst nightmare. ‘It keeps me up at night’, said Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, last year. Former Illinois governor, James Thompson, who was joint head of the 9/11 Commission, has said that stopping lone wolves is ‘almost impossible’. ‘The lone-wolf operative, a single person, radicalised by what they see on the internet or hear at mosques, is going to be a greater threat to the US today than on 9/11’, he claimed.

So, what’s behind the nightmare?

In the United States, some security officials argue that all four of the operationally effective attacks on American soil since 9/11 have been carried out by lone wolves. Similar conclusions have been drawn by their counterparts in the EU, who point to the Norwegian massacre as proof of the scale of the ‘lone-wolf threat’.

However, it is worth pausing to note that the fact that the lone wolf is now considered the principal terrorist threat to the West could be seen as good news. After all, the absence of effective, organised terrorist operations in America and Europe suggests that, contrary to previous analyses, the phenomenon of the super-terrorist has been massively overblown. The rise of the lone wolf may also indicate that terrorist groups’ capacity to inflict major attacks, such as the bombings in Madrid and London, are actually fairly limited. It could even be argued that formerly well-coordinated global networks have clearly become disorganised during the past decade.

In comparison with the numerous doomsday scenarios about the global forces of terrorism that were rolled out in recent years, the threat posed by the lone wolf appears fairly insignificant. Individuals who work alone tend to have a far more limited ability to inflict harm than organised groups do. Most individual plots are never converted into action. Breivik’s massacre in Norway and Hassan’s attack in Fort Hood should be seen for what they are - as being exceptional in terms of the level of harm inflicted by individuals.

So what is behind the nightmares about an impending lone-wolf terror attack? What did the director of America’s National Counterterrorism Center mean when he said last September that one of the things he was most concerned with was ‘finding that next lone-wolf terrorist before he strikes’? To understand this fear, it is useful to explore the modern cultural script about the lone wolf.

The failings of society

As the criminologist David Garland has noted, ‘Our fears and resentments, but also our commonsense narratives and understandings, become settled cultural facts that are sustained and reproduced by cultural scripts’. The individual terrorist has always served as the personification of danger. Crazed anarchist plotters in the nineteenth century or terrorists with a nuclear bomb in a suitcase (a panic that was widespread in the 1950s) have always excited the imagination. The vicious individual terrorist in Hollywood movies often resembles a superhuman character with a formidable capacity for destruction. Moreover, although they are frequently portrayed as lunatic megalomaniacs, they’re also seen to possess a faculty for intelligent calculation.

Many of these attributes of the powers of destruction have been transferred to the lone-wolf terrorist. However, there is one important difference between old Carlos the Jackal-style characters and the current cohort of lonely wolves. What is remarkable about the lone wolf is that they are strikingly unremarkable. These are very average, very normal individuals who are therefore very difficult to spot. They are not just enemies within - they are also invisible foes.

The narrative of the lone wolf is closely related to one of the most intellectually illiterate ideas in the world of counterterrorism today: that of ‘radicalisation’. According to the official version of events, the lone-wolf agent is likely to be an unexceptional and often socially inadequate individual who becomes suddenly radicalised by what he encounters on the internet or through some other outlet, such as at a mosque. Official discourse often uses the term ‘sudden radicalisation’ to describe the unexpectedly swift process of the conversion of a young person to the cause of terrorism. This implies that the threat is not simply the lone wolf himself, but the powerful dark forces of ‘radicalisation’.

The lone-wolf terrorist is seen as lacking the superhuman qualities of his predecessors. If anything, these are relatively low-achieving, impressionable individuals. In a roundabout way, these apparently vulnerable ‘wolves’-in-the-making represent the difficulty that modern society has in motivating and socialising the younger generations. That they choose to be radicalised into a worldview that is hostile to the values of their society is not experienced simply as an act of betrayal, but as an indictment of society’s failure to give meaning to people’s lives. So the phenomenon of the lone wolf speaks not just to the isolation of these individuals, but also to the relative weakness of the values that are supposed to bind society together. It is a heightened sense of cultural disorientation that helps to empower the lone wolf.

From a sociological perspective, it seems clear that threat assessments of lone wolves really express a concern about the failure of society to win the loyalty of its citizens. Americans who kill fellow Americans, like Norwegians who shoot their neighbours, do not just murder individuals - they also raise fundamental questions about the integrity of the communities that they inhabit. Last year, an American Congressional Report warned about homegrown Islamic terrorists –possibly including radicalised American soldiers – who might target American military communities. This was depicted as a ‘severe and emerging threat’. If even your nation’s soldiers are at risk of becoming radicalised, who can you trust? Those who have difficulty answering this question are highly likely to internalise the cultural script of the lone wolf.

The idea of the self-radicalised individual says more about today’s terrorism experts and political officials than it does about the process through which individuals really do develop hostile attitudes towards Western society. Often, the official rhetoric of radicalisation echoes the language of child protection. It warns that ‘vulnerable’ and ‘impressionable’ young people may be targeted on internet sites, campuses and at social venues, and be ‘groomed’ by cynical operators. Back in November 2007, it was reported that the UK government’s Research, Information and Communication Unit would draw up ‘counter-narratives’ to the anti-Western messages that appear on some websites and which are ‘designed to influence vulnerable and impressionable audiences over here’. The same point was made in November 2006 by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, who said ‘it is the youth who are being actively targeted, groomed, radicalised and set on a path that frighteningly quickly could end in their involvement in mass murder of their fellow UK citizens’.

This dramatic framing of the threat - ‘sudden radicalisation’ – allows extremism to be seen as a kind of psychological virus that can afflict the vulnerable and those suffering from psychological deficits. Yet it overlooks the fact that the success of radicalisation may also expose the relative weakness of society’s moral and cultural resources. The question that proponents of the lone-wolf thesis rarely pose is: why did they reject our way of life in the first place?

A cultural rather than physical threat

In his statement about the threat of the lone wolf, President Obama observed that ‘when you’ve got one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage’. Yet experience suggests that the damage and loss of life inflicted by lone wolves is relatively small-scale. The number of lone wolves that have been identified is miniscule and so is the physical threat they represent. Of course, these days numerous episodes of violence that are actually not linked to political radicalisation are interpreted as ‘hate crimes’ or ‘lone-wolf behaviour’. Yet even if every shooting spree gets rebranded as an act of lone-wolf violence, still the threat posed by such people need not make citizens feel insecure.

In fact, the way that society responds to acts of individual terror represents a far greater threat than the destruction caused by the lone wolf himself. The inflation of the threat empowers the lone wolf, who may conclude that relatively modest acts of terrorism are likely to achieve a disproportionate impact. The best example of this was the Washington sniper in the summer of 2002, who literally managed to terrorise the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth for some considerable time. Constant live television coverage and political discussion of the shootings unconsciously fuelled a palpable sense of fear and anxiety, and served as an invitation to be terrorised - they empowered the shooter, making him into a mighty threat to the capital of the United States.

From time to time – fortunately very rarely – the lone wolf succeeds in causing great physical damage. But it is not the scale of this damage that endows the lone wolf with such significance. They are not simply a physical but also a cultural threat. They serve as symbols of a society that is not quite at ease with itself, one that feels culturally fragmented and atomised. In the end the lone wolf works as a metaphor, with the emphasis on the sensibility of being isolated and alone. The image of a socially disconnected young man sitting in front of a screen, lost in the world of online confusion, is one with which society is all too familiar. Disconnected from us but not immune to the virus of radicalisation, they become people whose behaviour can easily become unrestrained and uncontained by social norms. That is the threat they pose. It is the insecurity that surrounds Western culture that has encouraged officialdom’s dangerous dramatisation of the lone wolf.

Frank Furedi is author of Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown by Frank Furedi is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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