Lone-wolf terroristsAnalyzing lone-actor terrorism in context

By Noémie Bouhana

Published 22 April 2019

Assessing and managing the risk of lone-actor terrorism is a challenge, as events around the world continue to show. Noémie Bouhana of the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London suggests a shift in focus from “who and why” to “who and where.” This approach is captured in the S5 framework, which builds on the findings of PRIME, an international project led by Bouhana and funded by the European Commission to understand and counter lone-actor terrorism.

The PRIME dataset includes all suitable lone-actor cases for the period 1990 to 2016, in the United States and Western Europe. It stands at 125 individuals, which begs the question of ecological fallacy: should we make predictions about an individual’s risk level based on statistical treatment of sparse data gathered from such a heterogeneous population? However, while the data we have are not good enough for actuarial prediction, few would claim we should dispense with risk assessment.

Unstable indicators
Our findings suggests that lone actors are not that lone. We found that both physical and online links with other extremists are critical to the adoption and stability of the motivation to engage in terrorism, and the acquisition and maintenance of the capability to act.

To deepen our understanding, we studied the sequence in which indicators occurred. We focused on mental health-related proxies often associated with “individual vulnerability.” We found that the same indicators seemed to signal different processes at different stages. At times, they appeared associated with susceptibility to influence; at others, with exposure to radicalizing environments; at others still, with the event’s outcome.

Psychological distress sometimes seemed related to increased risk, while at other times it seemed to play a protective role, inasmuch as risk appeared to rise after treatment, suggesting that needs-based interventions, to the extent that they alter future interactions between person and situations, could have unintended consequences. For example, alleviating someone’s depression (a good thing) might do much to restore their desire to go out, thereby exposing them to whole new (potentially risky) social environments as a result.