Munich, Nice, Dallas: Are Lone-Wolf Attacks Becoming a Pattern?
Traditional narrative on terror attacks has often misunderstood them as always perpetrated by well-trained militants.
Friday’s attack in Munich, which followed last week’s Nice attack on Bastille Day, and interpreted in the context of Omar Mateen killing 49 at a gay club, and Micah Johnson killing five police officers in Dallas, are indicative of a changing paradigm – one that needs urgent attention.
Although the term ‘lone-wolf attack’ cannot be generalised, it usually refers to any attack where a single person has been instrumental in perpetrating an act of violence. The definition, however, has evolved to also include individuals helped by associates (beta wolf).
Lone attacks are not new, but they are becoming common. Are lone attacks a tactic that has escaped our attention? Are they becoming a pattern? Are they radically different from organised acts of terror?
Past Attacks and Their Implications
The Nice attack is being touted as the deadliest vehicular attack in France, but the country has braved similar attacks in the past.
In 2014, three lone men carried out three attacks in quick succession. The first was a knife attack on the police in Tours. Then a truck attack in Dijon and the next day, a van attack in Nantes.
France is not an exception. The Dallas shooting, Orlando massacre and California attacks in the last one year in the US have been lone attacks.
Israel, too, has been a victim of several lone attacks in the past. In the summer of 2008, three attacks were carried out by Palestinians against Israelis. In the fall of 2014, another series of three vehicular attacks were carried out in Israel.
There is a global pattern here, even if unrelated. What motivates these attacks is therefore, an obvious question.
A lone attacker can be politically motivated, driven by a personal goal or, in some cases, a complex mix of both.
However, involvement of an organisation or a terror outfit is not a pre-requisite to call an attack organised. Even lone attackers can thoroughly map their course of action before perpetrating it.
All Lone-Wolf Attacks are Not Terror Attacks
While a narrative of lone attackers being affiliated to extremist groups has been legitimised by several scholars working in the field, the argument can be dangerously misleading.
In the case of Mateen, the ISIS conveniently appropriated his attack, but his “allegience” to the outfit is still a conjecture. There hasn’t been an obvious goal stated for his attack and an assumption made in hindsight is not argument enough to term it a ‘terror attack’.
Similarly, the Nice carnage being termed a terror attack is problematic, because there hasn’t been any conclusive proof of the attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s affiliation to a terror outfit.
Strong Sentiments Against White Supremacy
In his research about lone-wolf attackers, sociologist Ramon Spaaij has stated ‘white supremacy’ as the chief inspiration for lone perpetrators.
In his book Understanding Lone-Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention, he traces the history of lone attacker from the 1950s to 2011 and gives the following reasons as the motivation for the attacks in the context of the US:
- Right-wing extremism & white supremacy: 17%
- Islamism: 15%
- Anti-abortion: 8%
- Nationalism/separatism: 7%
These statistics emerged before the rise of the ISIS and before attackers like Bouhlel or Johnson entered the narrative. The conclusion therefore cannot be used to generalise motives in the current state of affairs.
In the case of the 2015 California mass shooting, suspects Tashfeen Malik and Shehzad Ahmed were believed to have acted upon their belief that Western ideas pose a threat to their Islamic values. Mateen too made a series of Facebook posts against the “filthy ways of the West.”
One cannot, however, verify these claims.
Lone Wolves and Mental Illness
In his analysis, Spaaij concedes that while it is difficult to analyze the mental health of lone wolves with precision, these lone actors are “relatively likely to suffer from some form of personality disorder.”
Spaaij’s findings are consistent with other academic treatments of lone-wolf terrorism and mental illness.
Researcher Paul Gill of University College of London, who compiled a database of more than 100 lone-wolf attacks in Europe and the US since 1990, concluded that one actor attackers were 13.5 times more likely to have a mental illness than a member of an organisation engaged in political violence
But again, the study does not include many of the recent incidents and cannot become an index to draw a single profile of a lone-wolf attacker.
There Aren’t Any Easy Answers
Research studies, analysis and psychological profiles of lone attackers can never be exhaustive enough to draw a conclusive behavioural pattern.
The most they can do is provide an insight into the psyche of some of them.
The Nice truck attack is still a mystery but one thing is clear – the tactic of lone-wolf attacks is becoming more common, deadlier and the risk of their emulation is real.