“Lone Wolf” terrorism (LWT) is a relatively new term for deadly acts performed by individuals, and is likely to lead to a further dilution of privacy as law enforcement spies more to control it. LWT is used to distinguish individual acts of terrorism from those perpetrated by groups against a multitude of individuals, and has been characterized by claims that the terrorist has been radicalized or influenced by extremist teachings.
As authorities improve and increase their counterterrorism measures, the world is witnessing more acts of violence by so-called lone wolves. But the use of the term may have political implications as it is less damaging politically to a government to admit to singular, random acts of violence rather than admit to larger scale, coordinated terrorist conspiracies. On the flip side, LWTs can justify otherwise unpopular military action.
There was a time not so long ago when violence perpetrated by individuals was not classified as “Lone Wolf” terrorism, but maybe should have been. The Fort Hood shootings at the army base in 2009 are a good example. The shooter, Nidal Hassan, an army psychiatrist turned jihadist, killed 13 and wounded 30 more during his rampage. This was not considered a terrorist act, but rather “workplace violence” as it could not be connected to any terrorist group. Today, in the aftermath of a hatchet attack on policemen in New York City and the killing of a soldier outside Canada’s parliament, Hassan would be classified as a lone wolf, and his acts, terrorism.
The designation “Lone Wolf” provides political cover for politicians seeking to legitimize military operations in the Middle East. By intimating terrorist ties or radicalization stemming from say, ISIS, governments can sway public opinion in favour of an otherwise unpopular, drawn-out conflict, saying that those group’s long reach threaten us domestically. There is much more sympathy and mileage to be gained by attributing random acts of violence to home-grown lone wolf terrorists.
As stated before, the phenomenon of individuals committing violent even murderous acts in the US is not new. One need only look at four US presidential assassinations to see this. And in the 1990’s, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings, the FBI’s Operation Lone Wolf investigated white supremacists who encouraged autonomous violent acts.
One reason that the politicians and the media are so enamoured with the Lone Wolf designation is that the old paradigm of terrorist groups striking large targets no longer works. Our latest war on terror demands a new model and a new designation to fire the imagination, and yes, to stoke fears. It will ultimately justify personal profiling and the mass collection of data as a means of thwarting LWT.
The assumption that terrorist acts are always borne of connected networks boosts domestic counterterror efforts which profile entire communities as threats. This has engendered tactics by law enforcement which border on racism. In New York City, for example, entire mosques were designated terrorist organizations to justify police surveillance. The term “Lone Wolf” terrorist merely allows the privacy abuses to continue, as it is surmised that the seeds of terror are spawned in networks of Muslims.
Which is not to say that “LWT” is a flawed designation for attacks by ideologically motivated individuals. In hindsight, viewing the carnage of recent attacks, it seems apt as it lends motive to what would otherwise be characterized as madness. The LWT straddles the chasm between individual bad actor and madman. And motive is important if, in the end, it bolsters military action abroad and domestic surveillance at home. It ushers in the dawn of a new era of justification for our heightened state of national security paranoia.