The Myth of the Big Bad Lone Wolf

Trying to stop lone-wolf terrorists -- much less mentally ill murderers -- is a waste of law enforcement's time and money.

Peter McCabe/AFP/Getty Images
Peter McCabe/AFP/Getty Images

The terror attack on Canadian soldier Nathan Cirillo and the Canadian Parliament by recent Muslim convert Michael Zehaf-Bibeau has re-focused attention on the threat from "lone-wolf" terrorists, those who operate "without direction from abroad and without help from a terrorist organization or cell."

The current discussion once again revolves around whether or not increased surveillance by Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies could have prevented the attack — and whether such efforts are worth the expense in terms of law enforcement manpower and the erosion of civil liberties in Canada. They are not. In the FBI, trying to prevent these type of lone wolf attacks is a Sisyphean task known among agents as a BFWAT, or Big Fucking Waste of an Agent’s Time. That’s no less true for Canada’s FBI equivalent, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Much like the FBI in the United States, the RCMP has primary responsibility for preventing and investigating criminal terrorist activity in Canada. Along with Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) — the intelligence service that was created from the RCMP’s Security Service in 1984 and that has no law enforcement function or powers — the RCMP has limited resources available to find and monitor every potential lone wolf in Canada. Particularly when the threat from lone-wolf terrorists is minimal compared to broader national security threats from al Qaeda- and Islamic State-trained terrorists in the United States, Canada, and abroad.

The lone-wolf phenomenon — sometimes dismissively referred to within U.S. law enforcement circles as "stray-dogs" — is a real threat. But unlike the threat posed by criminal enterprises or even known terrorist organizations, lone wolves are nearly impossible to identify and investigate. By their very nature they have the power of anonymity. While most lone wolves have never heard of Louis Beam’s theory of leaderless resistance, all true lone wolves ascribe to his tenant involving "very small or one-man cells of resistance." Beam understood that one-man cells are "an intelligence nightmare" and near impossible to police.

True lone wolves remain a fairly rare phenomenon by law enforcement or criminal investigative standards. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was not, however, a true lone wolf. The classic lone wolf often mirrors the personality, preparation, and actions of the successful serial killer. Like serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy, the lone wolf is intelligent, articulate, and personable to those he meets, particularly potential victims, yet perceived as somewhat aloof and a loner to outsiders. Like "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski, the lone wolf is organized and meticulous in the planning and preparation of his crimes and often provides a written rational or manifesto for committing his crimes. In spite of Kaczynski being a paranoid schizophrenic, he was able to remain undetected for 17 years until he wanted his manifesto published.

Being an organized offender, the classic lone wolf often prepares escape and contingency plans. In the case of Eric Rudolph, a radical right-wing bomber in the 1990s, the lone wolf was able to commit multiple crimes and live for years as a fugitive in the mountains of North Carolina. Most importantly, the lone wolf offender, just like the serial killer he is or aspire to be, is successful. The true lone wolf hides in plain sight, never drawing attention until something prompts him to act on his fantasy.

None of the above traits and characteristics fit Zehaf-Bibeau’s profile.

His life was a train wreck of drugs and mental illness with little or no evidence of organization. While all current evidence points to the fact that Zehaf-Bibeau was most-likely acting alone and without direction, he does not appear to be a classic organized lone wolf. Rather he more closely resembles a spree killer who acts spontaneously, without a plan, attempting to kill as many people as possible in as short a time as possible. Zehaf-Bibeau was on a suicide mission with no expectation of survival, therefore no plan for escape. And as far as we know, he left no manifesto or explanation of his actions. In short, Zehaf-Bibeau was a disorganized murderer, acting out his fantasies.

The dilemma for law enforcement in a constitutional or parliamentary democracy centers around how to identify the Zehaf-Bibeaus of the world and prevent criminal acts when they represent such a small minority among a terrorism demographic that, by definition, is willing to act without the direction or support of any main terror organization.

The media has been quick to label this case an intelligence failure without considering the limitations on when an intelligence or criminal case can be initiated and pursued by CSIS or the RCMP. According to Canadian media reports, Zehaf-Bibeau was neither a "high priority" for CSIS nor on the RCMP’s list of "90 or so individuals under criminal investigation as potential threats," unlike the previous week’s lone wolf, Martin Couture-Rouleau "who waited in a parking lot for at least two hours before driving his car into two Canadian soldiers."

No one familiar with law enforcement procedures will be surprised to learn that Zehaf-Bibeau wasn’t on the radar of the RCMP or CSIS. Until he began his shooting spree, Zehaf-Bibeau had committed no recent crime nor telegraphed any specific intent to do so. Yet the Globe and Mail reported later that Zehaf-Bibeau "tried and failed to use prayer as a shield against the drug addiction and mental instability stalking him through adulthood." And the New York Times reported "despite a criminal record, an embrace of extremist ideas and an intent to travel to Syria" Zehaf-Bibeau "was not identified as a threat."

Even if Zehaf-Bibeau had somehow signaled his growing radicalization, the RCMP would still have been constrained in its ability to investigate him. In the United States the standard is for "reasonable suspicion." In Canada it is the same. Prior to the shooting there was no evidence that the shooter presented a specific or articulable threat.

The public dilemma for the RCMP, and also the FBI in the U.S., is how to identify the less than one percent of offenders who will evolve and mature into violent, psychopathic, spree-killing terrorists – and, possibly, self-organized lone wolf offenders — without violating their civil rights — and everyone else’s. Absent specific intelligence to direct law enforcement to the most dangerous terrorist threats and develop reasonable suspicion to open a case, the FBI or RCMP will be forced to conduct assessments on every wanna-be jihadist, angsty teenager with a grudge, psychopath looking for an excuse to kill, and generally disorganized murderous wing-nut seeking revenge — whether religious or otherwise — in order to find that one percent reflecting a potential "lone wolf" terrorist.

Needless to say, that’s a tremendous waste of officers’ time and taxpayers’ resources. Finding a true lone wolf offender is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau is gone. Canada and the world may never determine exactly what drove him murder to Nathan Cirillo and attempt to murder numerous others. But so far, Canada is responding responsibly to the tragedy, not allowing temporary anger to distract them from the real threat: al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the other transnational terror groups around the world, organizing and planning the next big terrorist attack on the West.

David Gomez is a former FBI counterterrorism executive in Seattle and current senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. He consults on operational and information security as a security strategist.

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