Why Lone Wolves Fail
Attacks like the one in Orlando are easy for the Islamic State to inspire, hard for the West to stop – and not really worth worrying about.
“The smallest action you do in the heart of their land,” declared Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani earlier this year, “is dearer to us than the largest action by us and more effective and more damaging to them.” Omar Mateen seemed to heed this call when he apparently decided on his own to mow down 49 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, an act he dedicated to the Islamic State. As Adnani predicted, the attack received far more attention than the latest developments in Syria and Iraq, prompting recriminations as well as shows of support and, once again, putting the Islamic State on the world’s front pages.
Attacks by such “lone wolves” – individuals who have no operational connection to a terrorist group or network but act in its name or the name of the broader cause – are cheap and seemingly impossible to defend against. They are also lethal: In addition to Orlando, last year saw shootings in San Bernardino, California, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 was another example of the form. It also bears mentioning that the lone wolf phenomenon isn’t restricted to Islamist terrorism: The far right has seen its share of lone wolf attacks – at least a dozen in the past 10 years, including the 2015 shooting in a Charleston, S.C., church.
Yet as a strategy, the lone wolf approach is one of failure. Wolves kill, but they don’t win.
Because lone wolves like Mateen are not usually trained, they often fail, and even when they succeed, they are less lethal than “professional” terrorists. The post-9/11 record of plots in the United States shows most of the would-be terrorists to be bumblers. The contrast with the attackers in Paris in 2015, Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005 is striking. In each of these attacks al Qaeda- or Islamic State-linked attackers, working together, bombed and shot their victims, leading to 130, 191, and 52 deaths, respectively. Compare that with the three worst jihadist attacks in the United States in that period: Orlando, San Bernardino, and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, where a total of 76 people died.
Sustaining the attacks is another problem. In Orlando and San Bernardino, the terrorists died in shootouts with the police. In Boston, the terrorists successfully shut down the city with a primitive bomb at the marathon. But rather than conducting more attacks, leaving town, or otherwise preparing for the next round of mayhem, they went out to party with friends. This tactical amateurism diminishes not only the death count of these attacks, but also their terror value.
Often the targets lone wolves pick are less strategic and symbolic, reflecting their personal agendas more than those of the group. The jury is still out as to why Mateen chose the Pulse nightclub for his murders, but the San Bernardino attack occurred during the office Christmas party at a community health center where one of the killers worked. San Bernardino is a city few in the world had heard of, hardly an iconic choice like Paris, London, or Madrid. The Islamic State can still brag about killing its enemies, but the cachet of shooting patrons of an LGBT nightclub or office party is low.
Undisciplined attackers can also embarrass a group or a cause. The white supremacist movement, for example, had to contend with Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The attack that killed 168 people not only struck a symbol of what McVeigh believed to be an oppressive federal government, it also killed 19 children and three pregnant women. It was tough to portray McVeigh’s cause as heroic after that.
By their very nature, lone wolves are not integrated into the population as a whole. The most successful terrorist groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah, provide social services, compete in elections, and have large military wings that are embedded in the community. These ties often make groups cautious, but they also give them deep roots that sustain them when times get tough and enable them to shape the politics of their regions. Violence by itself has much less impact.
Such ties are especially important because lone wolf attacks, like all terrorist attacks, usually lead governments to redouble their efforts. Paris led France to become more aggressive in its military operations against the Islamic State’s core in Iraq and Syria. Before the Orlando attacks, the New York Times ran an article in which many argued that the FBI was too aggressive in targeting would-be terrorists through its extensive use of sting operations and informants. Today such criticisms ring hollow.
Because of these many problems, groups are more likely to embrace lone wolf attacks when they are weak. White supremacists, who exercised vast political influence in the 1920s and other periods through the Ku Klux Klan and other groups, began to call for “leaderless resistance” as their support declined. The Islamic State called for lone wolf attacks in 2014, but then, when its strength in the Middle East was rising, it prioritized having recruits go to its self-proclaimed caliphate if they could. Now it places more emphasis on lone wolves acting at home, but it does so as the caliphate has lost vast amounts of territory, and watched as its funding dries up, and the number of foreign recruits plummets. Lone wolf attacks help this group on the run claim that it is winning.
The biggest reason groups embrace lone wolves is that they are hard to stop. They are less likely to be on the radar screen of law enforcement services because they lack foreign connections. Comprehensive defenses are impossible: We can’t defend every Christmas party, nightclub, or marathon. Indeed, we should recognize that success abroad might in the short term lead to more attacks, as the Islamic State seeks to prove its relevance.
We must ensure that the FBI has the resources and authorities it needs to find and disrupt those would-be lone wolf attackers who do land on their radar screens. Even more important, the support of local Muslim communities is vital, as they are more likely to know those who might be listening to the siren call of the Islamic State and other groups. If these communities are alienated by discrimination or the poisonous political rhetoric directed against them, then they are less likely to reach out to police.
Perhaps most important, we must recognize that some attacks will still get through and thus resilience is vital. If we panic and overreact, we do the job of the Islamic State and other groups for them.
Photo credit: HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images