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RadicalizationRadicalization and the lone wolf: what we do and don’t know

By Anne Aly

Published 19 December 2014

Even with the growing body of empirical research contributing to understanding radicalization, cases such as that of Man Haron Monis raise questions about whether individual actors, known as “lone wolves,” are terrorists, violent extremists, radicals, or simply lone gun men. Contrary to popular belief, ideology and religion play a less important role in radicalization. Current research indicates that the emotional appeal to personal identity and group solidarity are far more significant factors in radicalization. What recent lone-wolf cases — Man Haron Monis in Sydney, Canadian Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Anders Breivik in Norway, and Mohammed Merah in France — tell us is that, unlike the strategic model of terrorism as a rational choice to carry out acts of violence in the name of a cause, these modern-day lone-wolf terrorists may be more like lone gunmen than terrorists.

The events of the Sydney siege this week evolved amid a torrent of speculation and theorizing about the motivations and intent of the hostage-taker Man Haron Monis. Some media reporting during the Sydney siege even sought to compare the incident to America’s 9/11 and the London bombings in 2005.

The fact Monis forced his hostages to raise the flag bearing the Islamic testimony of faith certainly suggested that he may have been a radicalized violent extremist acting with a political or ideological motive.

The process of radicalization
Violent extremism describes a situation in which the extreme belief in a social, political, or ideological cause is coupled with a belief that violence is necessary and justified as a means to further that cause. Very few extremists actually become radicalized to the operational phase where they carry out acts of violence — but those that do can perpetrate horrendous crimes in the name of their adopted cause.

Terrorism is a form of violent extremism. Although there is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism, most definitions include elements of violence or the threat of violence carried out for the purpose of spreading fear (or terror) and coercing governments and societies.

There is still much we do not know about the exact nature of radicalization to violent extremism. That is because there is no singular profile to explain who becomes a violent extremist and why. Most theories or models of radicalization concur that it is a process, not necessarily linear, by which an individual progresses through a mild interest in a political, social or ideological cause to accepting the use of violence as a valid means of furthering that cause.

The factors that result in radicalization are complex and varied. They include individual psychology, personal and group identity, demographics, individual circumstances, and contact with radicalizing settings or influences, including personal contact with recruiters or influential people.

What about the Internet?
Research suggests that the Internet plays some role in radicalization though assumptions about the role of the Internet in self radicalizing individuals are overstated. Empirical evidence supports the assumption that the Internet creates more opportunities to become radicalized and serves as a space for individuals to find support for their ideas among like-minded individuals.

But there is no support for the assumption that the Internet accelerates radicalization and promotes self-radicalization without physical contact.