The Different Breeds of “Lone Wolf” Terrorist

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Over the last years Lone Wolf Terrorists (LWTs) have been one of the biggest security concerns in the European Union, yet relatively little is known about them. One important question is how much they actually have in common with each other and if it’s possible to outline some generalisations about them or if we have to treat them individually. To answer this question, the author researched Islamist Lone Wolf attacks in the EU between 2012 and mid 2018 that left at least one victim injured (excluding the perpetrator). There have been 55 LWT attacks by 64 terrorists fitting the mentioned criteria. I included small, self-organised groups without help from a larger network and not single individuals since their methodology and radicalisation path don’t differ fundamentally from each other. The data was sourced primarily from the Global Terrorism Database of the University of Maryland to find past terrorist attacks and then used newspaper articles and other open source media describing the attack and the attacker to establish a profile of the perpetrator.1.University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database, accessed for research.

The aim of this research was to take a systematic look at the socio-economic conditions, radicalisation path, and prior lifestyle of various European LWT’s and see if there are commonalities between them. Upon interpreting the data it was possible to identify three subgroups of LWTs, each with its own similarities. Overall this is a qualitative study and as we are going to see, similar life choices and life paths were far more enlightening than demographic data in itself.

The similarities between Lone Wolf Terrorists

The overall categories for analysis were gender, age, nationality, ethnic & religious background, occupation, possible radicalisation process, stated motive, overall biographical background, and if they survived their terrorist attack.

Figure 1: Islamic LWT attacks between 2012 and May 2018.

All attackers were male except for one underaged girl who attacked a police officer with a knife in Germany.2.“German prosecutors: Teen who stabbed cop ‘supported IS'” : DW Furthermore, all perpetrators hailed from ethnic minorities and except for four converts, all of them were born as Muslims. Their status within their respective country is more diverse. It includes first generation immigrants, recent refugees, and born citizens who grew up in the respective EU country. Attackers were between 15 and 53 years old, though the median age is 27. The self-proclaimed motives were usually rather abstract, ranging from revenge for slain Muslims in Palestine or Syria to the defence of the Islamic State (IS). Overall there was no recognisable pattern for suicide attacks. Except for Ahmed Coulibaly in 2015 no attacker executed more than one attack.3.“Paris supermarket attacker claims allegiance to Islamic State in video” : The Guardian Biographical details were by far the most illuminating aspects in establishing a profile.

The differences between Lone Wolf Terrorists

After creating the profiles and rough biographies for the attackers it was possible to deduct certain similarities between them and establish three categories among LWTs. 5 perpetrators didn’t clearly fit into any category and for 19 people I didn’t succeed in gathering enough information to create a profile. The other 40 attackers fit into the three following categories: Seekers, convinced Islamists and Amok.

Seekers are modelled after Neumann’s categorisation of underprivileged persons in the West joining violent Jihadist organisations.4.Neumann, Peter R.: Radicalised. New Jihadists and the Threat to the West; 2016; p. 93-95 While Neumann modelled the category for Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) joining jihadist groups in Syria, this group of people is mirrored in LWTs. Overall, 20 LWTs are part of this group.

Seekers are devoid of a fixed social circle and have an easily moved self-perception. Given their lack of a stable social circle they were overall very mobile regarding their residence. 19 attackers were at least at some point in their life small-time criminals, some of them career criminals, and none held a stable job over a longer period of time. Given their career criminality prison sentences were common. 11 persons had a proven prison record, though the numbers are likely higher given the incomplete information I worked with. Six attackers came recently to Europe as asylum seekers, and all of those were rejected and awaited deportation. Usually very little is known about their life prior to their migration to Europe.

Those that went to prison were also radicalised while serving their sentence. A few Seekers tried to keep contact with radical Islamist circles but their apparent commitment was very low. Most seekers had experience with alcohol and drug abuse. Even those that sought membership within extremist Islamist circles, like Anis Amri who drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market, had problems staying away from substances forbidden within Islam, like alcohol and other drugs.5.“Gotteskrieger zwischen Zuhältern und Wodka-Flaschen” : Berliner Zeitung This might be an explanation for the question why some choose an attack in Europe over joining Jihadist groups in Syria. The latter would require far more discipline than most of these attackers have shown to be capable of. Two Seekers spent about a year each in Syria, probably with the Islamic State, while two others were stopped from travelling to Syria prior to their terrorist attack.

Neumann found that Seekers who went to Syria for Jihad had little knowledge about Islam and were strongly motivated by personal gain. In the West they form the deprived underclass while the Islamic State gave them power, fame and appreciation. 6.Neumann: Radicalized; p. 93 Seekers had an average age of 29. 13 Seekers died during their terrorist attack, which makes them the only category where more than 50% of the perpetrators died during their attack. All Seekers, unlike the following category, performed their attack alone.

The category of convinced Islamists comprises attackers which were active for several years in non-violent Islamist circles and were integrated into stable social circles together with other Islamists. In this context “Convinced Islamists” doesn’t mean hardened jihadists, it means participation in officially peaceful groups like “Al-Muhajiroun” in the United Kingdom or in the salafist “Lies!” (English translation: Read!) campaign in Germany. Perpetrators of this group are on average the youngest with 24 years and overall the youngest attackers fit this group. The reason for this is that many members have been recruited as teenagers, building their self-image and social contacts around fundamentalist Islamic groups and interpretations. 14 terrorist attackers fit into this group.

The link between ideological radicalisation and violent terrorism is controversial. While it’s a bad indicator to predict eventual future violent behaviour it is correct to say that for some people non-violent fundamentalism has a catalytic function.7.For the discussion on the radicalisation and terrorism see: Siehe Alonso, Rogelio; Bjorge, Tore; Della Porta, Donatella; Coolsaet, Rik; Khosrokhavar, Farhad; Lohlker, Rüdiger; Ranstorp, Magnus; Reinares, Fernando; Schmid, Alex p.; Silke, Andrew; Taarnby, Michael; De Vries, Gijs: Radicalisation Process Leading to Acts of Terrorism; A concise Report prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation; 2008; p. 7-11 What can be said with certainty is that groups like Al-Muhajiroun work on establishing a “radical milieu” from which home-grown terrorist violence originates.8.For the term „radical milieu“ see: Malthaner, Stefan; Waldmann, Peter: Radikale Millieus. Das soziale Umfeld terroristischer Gruppen; 2012 The individual motivation and justification for politically motivated violence is complex and can’t be broken down to a single cause. Ideological radicalisation is one factor among personal and individual issues, social environment, and psychological factors.9.Alonso, Rogelio et al: Radicalisation Process Leading to Acts of Terrorism; A concise Report prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation; 2008;10.Neumann, Peter R.: The trouble with Radicalization; In International Affairs, Vol. 89; No. 4; 2013; p. 873-893;11.Schmid, Alex P.: Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin? ICCT Research Paper; 2014

Convinced Islamists were more likely to act together with other people. Half the terrorist attacks by Convinced Islamists featured more than one perpetrator while among the Seekers and Amok none acted with accomplices. Despite this, attacks by Convinced Islamists weren’t any more deadly than others nor does it seem that more planning went into the terrorist attack. The actual attacks all looked very similar to each other no matter the perpetrator.

The third category are “persons running amok”. The six people in this group often had severe psychological illnesses or had mental health issues prior to their attacks. Their attacks were spontaneous and performed almost universally with melee weapons on police or random pedestrians. These persons didn’t have a reproducible radicalisation path, as they never were in contact with radical Islamists nor did they seek out radical communities. Several can hardly be called ideologically radicalised, and all of them were politically inconspicuous and never were under police surveillance like many of the attackers from the first two groups. They were loners and some have been solely inspired by seeing Islamic State online propaganda.

Given their severe psychological problems, missing contacts with extremists, and questionable radicalisation process their attacks could easily be described as a non-political rampage by a deeply disturbed individual. From the outside their attacks may look similar to that of other LWTs, but how they came to this situation is very different. Usually there is no political context in these attacks beyond the shouting of “Allahu Akbar!” and the discovery of IS propaganda on a personal computer. They are quickly associated with terrorism because they are put in the bigger context of a wave of LWTs doing similar acts, but looking into their detailed stories makes it a questionable decision to label them as terrorists.12.“Töten um zu sterben? Was Amoktäter wie Andreas L. antreibt und wie wir Warnzeichen erkennen können” : HuffPo DE13.“Was einen Terroranschlag von einem Amoklauf unterscheidet” : Suddeutsche Zeitung

Five attackers didn’t clearly fit into any category and for 19 attackers I couldn’t attain enough information to formulate an adequate biography. Therefore I didn’t want to force these attackers into any of the above categories.

What can we conclude from the data?

As shown there are some interesting commonalities behind the majority of Islamist Lone Wolf Attackers. Firstly we have the criminal young adult from the underclass which has been featured most often in the media. Secondly comes the ideologically radicalised Islamist which has worked for years within fundamentalist groups, and thirdly the mentally disturbed loner that became a copy-cat attacker after watching violent propaganda.

While the end result of terrorist attacks by either category of terrorist have looked the same, their own way towards this point has been very different. While Seekers have seen a life of crime, economic deprivation and frequent change of residence convinced Islamists had a fixed geographic and social location leading a relatively stable life. Amok runners became violent without clear ideological radicalisation in complete isolation in a relative short time span while Convinced Islamists have been ideologically radicalised for years with a stable social circle of like-minded people. In short, the paths leading to a terrorist attack are very different and sometimes antithetic between the respective categories.

This shows that in regards to the prevention of Islamist radicalisation and further violent actions measurements have to be differentiated between groups. The divestiture of Al-Muhajiroun might have put a bump into the formation of Convinced Islamists becoming terrorists, though it did little to counteract criminals from the underclass radicalising in prison and taking revenge on society as they never had any relevant contact with these groups in the first place. Likewise several of the amok runners seem like they needed mental health care and therapy more than the anti-terror police. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the prevention of violent radicalisation.

Disclaimer: This article is a summary of a longer paper that was written for a course at the Technische Universität Dresden.


Sebastian Gonano

Sebastian is a history student currently doing his master at TU Dresden. His focus at the International Review is the Syrian and Iraqi Civil wars, terrorism and the geopolitics surrounding it.

References   [ + ]

1. University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database, accessed for research.
2. “German prosecutors: Teen who stabbed cop ‘supported IS'” : DW
3. “Paris supermarket attacker claims allegiance to Islamic State in video” : The Guardian
4. Neumann, Peter R.: Radicalised. New Jihadists and the Threat to the West; 2016; p. 93-95
5. “Gotteskrieger zwischen Zuhältern und Wodka-Flaschen” : Berliner Zeitung
6. Neumann: Radicalized; p. 93
7. For the discussion on the radicalisation and terrorism see: Siehe Alonso, Rogelio; Bjorge, Tore; Della Porta, Donatella; Coolsaet, Rik; Khosrokhavar, Farhad; Lohlker, Rüdiger; Ranstorp, Magnus; Reinares, Fernando; Schmid, Alex p.; Silke, Andrew; Taarnby, Michael; De Vries, Gijs: Radicalisation Process Leading to Acts of Terrorism; A concise Report prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation; 2008; p. 7-11
8. For the term „radical milieu“ see: Malthaner, Stefan; Waldmann, Peter: Radikale Millieus. Das soziale Umfeld terroristischer Gruppen; 2012
9. Alonso, Rogelio et al: Radicalisation Process Leading to Acts of Terrorism; A concise Report prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation; 2008;
10. Neumann, Peter R.: The trouble with Radicalization; In International Affairs, Vol. 89; No. 4; 2013; p. 873-893;
11. Schmid, Alex P.: Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin? ICCT Research Paper; 2014
12. “Töten um zu sterben? Was Amoktäter wie Andreas L. antreibt und wie wir Warnzeichen erkennen können” : HuffPo DE
13. “Was einen Terroranschlag von einem Amoklauf unterscheidet” : Suddeutsche Zeitung