Explaining “Lone Wolf” Terrorism

  • May 24, 2011


The arrest of two men suspected of plotting to attack a synagogue in New York City on May 11 serves as a stark reminder that Jews and Jewish institutions continue to be a favorite target for extremists motivated by radical interpretations of Islam. 

Although they do not constitute a fully coherent movement in the U.S., more and more American-born citizens, naturalized U.S. citizens and residents have attempted to act on ideologies that justify and sanction violence against Westerners and Jews. A significant number of these extremists are influenced by English-language terrorist propaganda and recruitment materials online.

These materials, filled with accessible Western references and practical advice, portray the West (and America and Israel specifically) as being at war with Islam and often feature calls for attacks on American soil. In addition to Jewish or Israeli institutions, the most common targets are U.S.military installations, major landmarks and transit systems.

One indication of the influence this propaganda has is the number of extremists that have been found in possession of this type of material. The list includes many arrested in 2010, among them Antonio Martinez, a Maryland man arrested for attempting to detonate what he believed to be a car bomb at a Maryland Army recruiting center in December; Barry Walter Bujol, Jr., a Texas resident arrested for attempting to deliver money and other equipment to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; and Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was arrested in November 2010 for attempting to blow up a Christmas tree lighting with a car bomb in Portland, Oregon. Mohamud went so far as to submit an article to AQAP’s online English-language magazine, Inspire (it was not published), as well as to another English language online terror magazine called Jihad Recollections.

Each of these cases demonstrates not only the growing threat posed by individuals who self radicalize online without any physical interactions with established terrorist groups, but also their willingness to act alone to further the objectives and ideologies commonly propagated by Islamic terrorist movements overseas.

While media reports on the latest synagogue plot explained that Ahmed Ferhani and Mohammad Mamdouh targeted Jews to advance their radical ideological goals, several reports erroneously described them as “lone wolf” terrorists, apparently basing the description on the fact that they had no direct ties to Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization.

A “lone wolf” is an individual extremist who seeks to commit violent acts on his own without belonging to an organized extremist or terrorist group or cell. While the “lone wolf” description in this case does not fit – Ferhani and Mamdouh conspired together, according to authorities – understanding this phenomenon is critical to responding to the serious threat it poses.

“Lone wolves” often operate by different dynamics than groups or cells - even cells of two. Most terrorist plots and conspiracies in the United States are detected and prevented by law enforcement officers before their planned acts of violence can be carried out precisely because they are not “lone wolves.”

When extremists plan and execute attacks alone, as individuals, there are far fewer opportunities for law enforcement to detect them in advance and they are much more difficult to prevent. Consequently, “lone wolf” actions tend to be more deadly.

Two shooting incidents against military personnel in 2009 demonstrate the particular danger posed by “lone wolf” extremists who, though unaffiliated with terrorist groups, nevertheless share their ideological goals. In November 2009, Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at the Fort Hood soldier readiness center, killing 13 people and wounded 32 others. The shooting at Fort Hood followed a separate incident in June 2009 when Abdulahakim Mujahid Muhammad allegedly shot two uniformed American soldiers, killing one of them, at a military recruiting center in Arkansas. 

While Hasan and Muhammad were motivated by radical interpretations of Islam, “lone wolves” can be motivated by beliefs across the ideological spectrum. James Von Brunn, who opened fire inside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, killing a security guard, was a white supremacist. Scott Philip Roeder, who fatally shot a physician whose clinic provided abortions, was an anti-abortion extremist and sovereign citizen.

While there are no easy ways to prevent terror attacks, true “lone wolves” present a special problem for security officials. Because lone wolves are far less likely to be caught in the earliest stages of planning an attack, the opportunity to stop them often occurs well after they have moved from thought to action – and usually no earlier than when they are surveilling or approaching their targets.  This means, among other things, that the responsibility for identifying a potential perpetrator or even initially responding to such an attack may well fall to the institution being attacked, not with law enforcement. Simply put, “lone wolves” are very different than small groups or cells – and we confuse the two at our peril.


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