Trailing the Lone Wolf
Right after last month’s shootings in Aurora, Colo., I started reading George Michael’s Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance (Vanderbilt University Press) as well as a few recent papers on solo-organized political violence. It proved easy to put off writing a column on this material. For one thing, the official publication date for Lone Wolf Terror isn’t until mid-September. Plus, a single bloodbath is grim enough to think about, let alone a trend toward bloodbaths.
But the most pertinent reason for not writing about the book following the Aurora massacre was simply that James Holmes (whom we are obliged by the formalities to call “the alleged gunman,” though nobody has disputed the point) didn’t really qualify as an example of lone-wolfdom, at least as defined in the literature. In “A Review of Lone Wolf Terrorism: The Need for a Different Approach,” published earlier this year in the journal Social Cosmos, Matthijs Nijboer marks out the phenomenon’s characteristics like so:
“Lone wolf terrorism is defined as: '[…] terrorist attacks carried out by persons who (a) operate individually, (b) do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network, and (c) whose modi operandi are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or hierarchy' ... Common elements included in several accepted definitions [of terrorism] include the following: (1) calculated violence, (2) that instills fear, (3) motivated by goals that are generally political, religious or ideological. These guidelines help distinguish [lone-wolf] terrorist attacks from other forms of violence.”
The actions of Ted Kaczynski and Anders Breivik fall under the heading of lone-wolf terrorism. They had what they regarded as reasons, and even presented them in manifestoes. So far, James Holmes has given no hint of why he shot people and booby-trapped his apartment with explosives. If he ever does put his motives into words, it’ll probably be something akin to Brenda Ann Spencer’s reason for firing on an elementary school in 1979: “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Something about Holmes dyeing his hair so that he looks like a villain from "Batman" gives off the same quality of insanity tinged with contempt.
George Michael, the author of Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance, is an associate professor of nuclear counterproliferation and deterrence at the Air War College. He does not completely dismiss psychopathology as a factor in lone-wolf violence (bad neurochemistry most likely played as big a role in both Kaczynski’s and Breivik’s actions as ideology did, after all). But for the most part Michael treats lone-wolf violence as a new development in the realm of strategy and tactics – something that is emerging as a response to changes in the ideological and technological landscapes.
As it happens, the book appears during the 20th anniversary of the prophetic if ghastly document from which Michael borrows part of his title: “Leaderless Resistance,” an essay by Louis Beam, whom Michaels identifies in passing as “a firebrand orator and longstanding activist.” Fair enough, although “author of Essays of a Klansman” also seems pertinent.
Beam’s argument, in brief, was that the old-model hate group (one that recruited openly, held public events, and believed in strength through numbers) was now hopelessly susceptible to surveillance and infiltration by the government, as well as vulnerable to civil suits. The alternative was “phantom cells,” ideally consisting of one or two members at most and operating without a central command.
As Michael notes, Beam’s essay from 1992 bounced around the dial-up bulletin boards of the day, but it also bears mentioning that the boards were a major inspiration for Beam’s ideas in the first place. (He set up one for the Aryan Nations in 1984.) Versions of the leaderless-resistance concept soon caught on in other milieus that Michaels discusses, such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Islamicist/jihadist movements. It’s improbable that Beam’s writings were much of an influence on these currents. More likely, Beam, as an early adopter of a networked communication technology, came to anti-hierarchical conclusions about how risky activity might be organized that others would reach on their own, a few years later.
The other technological underpinning of small-scale or lone-wolf operations is the continuous development of ever more compact and deadly weaponry. Bombs and semiautomatic firearms being the most practical options for now, though the information is out there now for anyone trying to build up a private atomic, biological, or chemical arsenal. Factor in the vulnerable infrastructure that Michael lists (including pipelines, electrical power networks, and the information sector) and it’s clear how much potential exists for mayhem unleashed by a single person.
In the short term, Michael writes, “increased scrutiny by law enforcement and intelligence agencies will continue to make major coordinated terrorist activities extremely difficult, but not impossible. Although the state’s capacity to monitor is substantial, individuals can still operate covertly and commit violence with little predictability. Leaderless resistance can serve as a catalyst spurring others to move from thought to action, in effect inspiring copycats.”
And in the longer term, he regards all of it as the possible harbinger of a new mode of warfare in which a lone-wolf combatants have a decisive part -- with leaderless resistance already a major factor in shaping the globalized-yet-fragmented 21st century.
Maybe so. Something horrible could happen to confirm his beliefs before you finish reading this sentence. But just sobering are the findings from a study (available here) conducted by the Institute for Security and Crisis Management, a think tank in the Netherlands. The researcher found that lone-wolf attacks represented just over 1 percent of the all terrorist incidents in its survey of a dozen European countries plus Australia, Canada, and the United States between January 1968 and May 2007. “Our findings further seem to indicate that there has not been a significant increase in lone-wolf terrorism in [all but one of the] sample countries over the past two decades.”
Only in the U.S. did lone-wolf attacks account for more than a “marginal proportion” of terrorism, “with the U.S. cases accounting for almost 42 percent of the total;” 80 percent of them involved domestic rather than international issues. The report suggested the "significant variation" from the norm in other countries in the study "can partly be explained by the relative popularity of this strategy among white supremacists and anti-abortion activists in the United States." In any event, the researchers found that as of 2007, the trend toward lone-wolf terror had been growing markedly in the U.S., if not elsewhere.
Something else I'd rather not think about. A few days after I put Lone Wolf Terror to the side for a while, there came news of the shootings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. You can only tune these things out for just so long. They always come back.