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

Research has also shown that theories and assumptions about radicalization are not supported in many cases of violent extremism. The marginalization hypothesis that argues that radicalization is a result of individual frustration and alienation does not explain why some who have travelled to fight alongside the so-called Islamic State come from well-adjusted family backgrounds and were well integrated in the broader community.

Contrary to popular belief, ideology and religion play a less important role in radicalization. Current research by the Countering Online Violent Extremism Research Program at Curtin University, with which I am involved, indicates that the emotional appeal to personal identity and group solidarity are far more significant factors in radicalization.

The “lone wolf” theory
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.

We normally associate terrorism with large-scale or mass casualty attacks such as 9/11 and the Bali bombings in 2002 — attacks of the sort that require significant planning, resourcing, and coordination — often transnational.

But the strategy of leaderless or single-actor terrorism dates back to the nineteenth century anarchists who carried out political assassinations and bombings. In the 1980s and 1990s the strategy of using single individuals to perpetrate attacks was adopted by the white supremacist movement in the United States as a way of thwarting government crackdowns on their activities.

In fact, the term “lone wolfism” was introduced by Tom Metzger, a white supremacist.

Over the past few years lone-actor attacks have become more and more prevalent. Lone wolves are individuals who commit acts of violence in support of a group, though they may have no formal links to that group. Examples include Canadian Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Anders Breivik in Norway, and Mohammed Merah in France.

Each case is unique, but all share the hallmarks of the lone actor. Breivik demonstrated extreme right-wing political views and wrote a 1,500-page manifesto rationalizing his attacks and his extremist ideology. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who shot a Canadian soldier earlier this year, had his passport cancelled and was suspected of planning to travel to abroad as a foreign fighter.

French gunman Mohammed Merah, who killed seven people in a shooting spree in France in 2012, claimed to be an associate of Al Qaeda. In each of these cases, including that of Monis, ideology or politics certainly appear to be the motivating force behind the violence, suggesting the actors were radicalized.

But there are also other factors to consider when distinguishing lone-wolf terrorist acts from similar attacks with no apparent motivation other than the actors own mental capacity or tendency for violence. Both Bibeau and Monis had criminal records and a history of violent behavior.

Reports on Bibeau describe his behavior before the attack as disturbing. Monis also exhibited erratic behavior and could possibly have had a mental illness.

Official reports on Brievik indicated that he developed paranoid schizophrenia. Like Monis, Brievik exhibited high levels of narcissism and grandiose delusions.

What these cases 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.

Anne Aly is Research Fellow in extremism, radicalisation and online extremism at Curtin University. This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).