Lone Wolves and their Enabling Environment

29 Jul 2011

By Prof. Dr. Beatrice de Graaf and Eelco Kessels (Former ICCT Programme Manager)

Every era knows its own types of terrorism: they come and go like the waves, so argues the famous UCLA Professor David Rapoport. On Friday 22 July 2011, the world was confronted with a type of terrorist attack that looked new at first sight, but in fact was a continuation of a wave that already started in the 1990s: that of right-wing extremist lone wolves. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in a government building in Oklahoma City, aimed at hurting the “Zionist Occupation Government”. In 2006, an 18 year-old man strolled into the centre of Antwerp and started shooting at immigrants and foreigners with a newly bought rifle. Anders Breivik is the first to execute a lone wolf type terrorist attack in the pursuit of an anti-Islam and -immigration crusade in Europe. Hence, he has added a new dimension to the threat of right-wing extremist lone wolves – almost exactly ten years after 9/11, which caused a similar paradigm shift in the perceptions of terrorist attacks and political violence.

However, first of all, it is important to be clear about our understanding of the term lone wolf, since divergent definitions thoroughly muddle the discourse. A lone wolf denotes a person who acts on his or her own without direct orders from an organisation. Indeed, the lone wolf may be inspired by a certain group, may be a member of a network, but this is not a hierarchical organisation (including a command structure) in the classical sense of the word.

Types of terrorist attacks come and go in waves. This does not only relate to the ideological inspiration for the attacks, but also to the modus operandi. Breivik, however, executed the first attack of this magnitude that combined the modus operandi of Jihadists, right-wing extremist lone wolves and school shooters – a new tactical mix. It is also the first terrorist attack that is aimed at stopping the influence of Islam instead of furthering violent Islamist ideals in Europe. Lastly, Breivik mixed existing ideologies to a completely new, deadly cocktail, which has led terrorism expert Dr. Magnus Ranstorp to call him a cut-and-paste terrorist. As such, this terrorist attack belongs to the very limited group of attacks that has completely new dimensions. Such an attack, of course, is hard to predict. Researchers and analysts rely on trends and patterns from the (near) past and try to fit a new incident within this framework. This makes sense, since the majority of terrorist attacks resemble previous ones. But this does not mean one should not be open to the possibility of deviations from the norm.

In embracing the novelty of Breivik’s attack – breaking away from the (perceived) norm of Jihadist terrorism – we should be careful not to exaggerate. An opinion now voiced widely is that this attack fits within the current trend of anti-Islamic ideology and that direct responsibility lies with those that are responsible for creating a climate of Islamophobia. It is not that simple. Although partly true, these statements ignore the fact that a direct causal relationship between ideology and political violence has never been established. Research has consistently shown that there are far more phases, triggers and influences involved in the process of violent radicalisation to reduce it to such a direct cause-effect relationship. Moreover, incidents of terrorism are so disparate and relatively few in number that statisticians label them “black swans.

Radicalisation leading to violent actions is generally analysed as a three layer model – regardless of whether one uses a pyramid, spiral or a three-stage rocket as metaphor. First, the bottom, macro sociological / political-cultural layer, involving a diversity of ideologies from left-wing to Jihadism to right-wing extremism. Terrorism needs a breeding ground, which may consist of existing ideologies or newly created world views based on them. This is, however, not sufficient to explain the move to violent action; two more layers are needed.

Secondly, a meso layer needs to be present, a so-called enabling environment involving in-groups, recruiters and/or entrepreneurs of violence who create stimulating surroundings that offer a sense of belonging, normalise violence and provide a higher goal in life. Through such ‘in-groups’, activists undergo a “risky shift” (increasing risk acceptance), develop ‘group think’ and proceed further on their path of radicalisation. Hence – and this is a critical point to take into consideration – although we might label Breivik a lone wolf, he certainly does not perceive himself to be a loner operating in complete isolation. Instead, he considers himself part of a group, a movement that strives to counter the alleged Islamist takeover of Europe. Breivik was perhaps alone during the practical preparation phase of his attack, but he derived his psychological inspiration, support and legitimation from an enabling environment consisting of inter alia right-wing extremist and anti-Islam forums, social networking sites and blogs, as well as the ‘mentor’ he refers to on multiple occasions in his manifesto.

The third and last layer is the individual, psychological level that determines susceptibility to certain influences, ideas and triggers, hence explaining why he in the end and at that time decided to utilise violence to further his cause. All in all, on a moral and metaphysical level, ideologies can be said to be in part responsible for acts carried out in their name – but not on an empirical, judicial or direct causal level.

According to the University of St Andrews Principal Professor Louise Richardson, terrorists strive for revenge, renown and reaction. They target different audiences with their actions – governments, society at large, their “enemies” – but they also call upon their potential supporters directly, whom they hope to mobilize to pick up arms and show their true colours. This was also Breivik’s aim; he clearly and explicitly considers himself to be the vanguard of a (reformed) order of Knights Templar. During the massacre on Utøya, he reportedly screamed that “this is only the beginning”.

This illusion has to be suppressed immediately; all potential copycats – and we know from the history of terrorism that there will always be – and those that feel part of the same cause that led Breivik to his devastating actions need to be discouraged instantly. Countering such extremist narratives of violence is most successful when the (potential) perpetrators’ own, self-selected heroes and examples distance themselves unequivocally from these kinds of deeds and motives and emphasise that they detest political violence. This has been done to great effect in the past, drying up the wells of famous terrorist groups such as the Rote Armee Fraktion and the IRA. Terrorism cannot be prevented effectively without involving the Umfeld, the (perceived) surrounding environment.

Hence, a heavy but necessary task awaits both security services as well as the political and media establishment. But the duty rests not solely with them. Society as a whole needs to consider how it deals with the freedom of speech, extremist thoughts and violence. Government initiatives such as increased monitoring, awareness programmes and information packages for high school students may perhaps be helpful. But much can be done outside of the governmental sphere. Politicians, publicists, internet editors and webmasters can reconsider the language used and messages contained in their comments and on their podia. Individuals and groups that Breivik specifically mentions in his manifesto have to condemn his violent actions and motives. They need to clarify that their ideology cannot be misused to legitimise such horrible deeds. In those cases that lone wolves were in fact apprehended, it was often not increased government surveillance but tips from family, friends and acquaintances that finally led to their capture. Ted Kaczynski, the UNA bomber, was detained at last after twenty active years because his family recognised his style of writing and beliefs and notified the FBI.

It would be unwise to move from one phobia (Islamophobia) to another (fear from right-wing extremists); irrational fear and exclusion are not the answer, but in a lot of cases actually the problem. Moreover, counter-terrorism policies based on such notions may run the risk of being biased and counter-productive. In any case, there simply does not exist a direct causal relationship between anti-Islamic ideologies and political violence. Every terrorism and radicalisation expert knows that a variety of different socio-psychological and individual-biographical links exist between barking and biting. Nonetheless, terrorist do attain inspiration and legitimacy from their alleged Umfeld. This then offers the best starting point for a successful strategy to prevent and counter violent political action – one that is not the sole responsibility of the security services.