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Whos afraid of the

big bad lone wolf?

ESSAY: Frank Furedi on how Western societys panic about lone-wolf
terrorists ends up empowering sad individuals who want to do harm.

22 FEBRUARY 2012

n a lecture given at Groningen University in Holland this week,

Frank Furedi critiqued the idea of the lone wolf terror threat. His
lecture is published below.
Terrorism is different to every other threat facing mankind, whether
those threats are physical, natural or manmade. Why? Because the
impact made by terrorism is determined in large part by our response
to it.
Terrorism involves a very subjective process of perception. How we
visualise terrorism is shaped by a cultural narrative, by a cultural
script, by signals telling us what a terrorist looks like and what
motivates his acts of destruction.
The way a community responds to an act of terror is mediated through
its perception of the threat, through its sense of existential security
and its ability to give meaning to the terrorist experience. And in turn,
these responses are influenced by societys broader cultural
perception of terrorism and how much of a threat it poses.
Cultural scripts provide citizens with ideas about the risks posed by
terrorism and about its likely impact on their daily lives. In
contemporary Western society, the signals sent about terrorism
influence peoples view of their own vulnerability and of their capacity
for resilience. Today, terrorism is frequently presented to us as a force
that cannot be stopped. It is often said that it is not a case of if but
when the terrorist will strike again. It is claimed that society is
confronted with a new breed of terrorist, one who has the capacity to
inflict not just harm but catastrophe on society.
The shifting narrative
Since the start of the twenty-first century, there has been a dramatic
shift in the way that the threat of terrorism has been understood and
At the beginning of the century, terrorism was conceptualised as
something that had its origins over there usually in the Middle East.
When former US President George W Bush raised the question Why
do they hate us?, it was widely assumed that they were from
somewhere far away. The people who hated us, and who threatened
us, were very much seen as being external to Western societies.
However, since 9/11 it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the
fact that the threat may not simply be an external one, but a domestic
one, too. In America and Europe, the realisation that there are people
who do not like their societies, who do not want to be American or
Dutch or whatever, has made the terror threat feel more intimate. And
in response to this realisation, the cultural narrative has shifted its
focus on to homegrown terrorists and the radicalisation of young
people who feel existentially distant from their societies.
Almost seamlessly, the discussion about homegrown terrorism has
mutated into a debate about the threat posed by the lone wolf. It was
American law enforcement agencies who pioneered the construction
of a new threat facing Western society - that is, from people referred
to by the FBI as HGVEs: homegrown violent extremists.
Rise of the lone wolf
The terrorist threat facing the United States has evolved significantly
over the past 10 years, and it is still evolving. The main threat now
emanates from within the borders of the US, in the form of HGVEs. A
further development has been the emergence of the so-called lone
wolf: an individual malcontent with no connection to any organised
group, someone who is entirely off the radar; indeed, someone who
could be anyone.
The narrative of the lone wolf originated among American white
supremacists, who self-consciously advocated the tactic of leaderless
resistance. The label was subsequently embraced by law-enforcement
agencies and the media to refer to individuals who, acting on their own
initiative, attempt to inflict terror on their fellow citizens. So the
Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and the army officer Nidal
Malik Hasan, who shot and killed 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood
in Texas in November 2009, have been referred to as lone wolves.
And since last July, with the massacre of 77 Norwegians by Anders
Behring Breivik, the concept has become Europeanised.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the terrible attacks in Norway, the
European Union exhorted member states to be wary of lone-wolf
terrorism. The issue of lone-wolf terrorism [requires] increasing
attention, declared the EU. Numerous European security agencies
have subsequently become preoccupied by the lone-wolf terrorist.
Earlier this month, the London-based Royal United Services institute
warned that the UK faces a growing threat from lone-wolf terrorists
returning from fighting with radical Muslim groups overseas.
Apparently, returnees from wars in Somalia, Yemen or Nigeria might
apply their experiences to the streets of the UK. In response to these
claims, the Home Office confirmed that it would do more to try to pre-
empt the activities of lone wolves.
Official concern about the lone-wolf terrorist is even more pronounced
in the US. Last August, President Barack Obama said he feared a
lone-wolf extremist attack more than an al-Qaeda spectacular. He
said the most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now
ends up being more of a lone-wolf operation than a large, well-
coordinated terrorist attack. He clearly had the Norway massacre in
mind, talking about somebody with a single weapon being able to
carry out wide-scale massacres.
This point was echoed by the FBI last September, on the tenth
anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Our great fear is a self-radicalised
individual, or an individual who has been radicalised through modern
media, who makes a decision to act on his own, said one FBI official.
Numerous American officials describe the lone wolf as their worst
nightmare. It keeps me up at night, said Michael Leiter, director of the
National Counterterrorism Center, last year. Former Illinois governor,
James Thompson, who was joint head of the 9/11 Commission, has
said that stopping lone wolves is almost impossible. The lone-wolf
operative, a single person, radicalised by what they see on the
internet or hear at mosques, is going to be a greater threat to the US
today than on 9/11, he claimed.
So, whats behind the nightmare?
In the United States, some security officials argue that all four of the
operationally effective attacks on American soil since 9/11 have been
carried out by lone wolves. Similar conclusions have been drawn by
their counterparts in the EU, who point to the Norwegian massacre as
proof of the scale of the lone-wolf threat.
However, it is worth pausing to note that the fact that the lone wolf is
now considered the principal terrorist threat to the West could be seen
as good news. After all, the absence of effective, organised terrorist
operations in America and Europe suggests that, contrary to previous
analyses, the phenomenon of the super-terrorist has been massively
overblown. The rise of the lone wolf may also indicate that terrorist
groups capacity to inflict major attacks, such as the bombings in
Madrid and London, are actually fairly limited. It could even be argued
that formerly well-coordinated global networks have clearly become
disorganised during the past decade.
In comparison with the numerous doomsday scenarios about the
global forces of terrorism that were rolled out in recent years, the
threat posed by the lone wolf appears fairly insignificant. Individuals
who work alone tend to have a far more limited ability to inflict harm
than organised groups do. Most individual plots are never converted
into action. Breiviks massacre in Norway and Hassans attack in Fort
Hood should be seen for what they are - as being exceptional in terms
of the level of harm inflicted by individuals.
So what is behind the nightmares about an impending lone-wolf terror
attack? What did the director of Americas National Counterterrorism
Center mean when he said last September that one of the things he
was most concerned with was finding that next lone-wolf terrorist
before he strikes? To understand this fear, it is useful to explore the
modern cultural script about the lone wolf.
The failings of society
As the criminologist David Garland has noted, Our fears and
resentments, but also our commonsense narratives and
understandings, become settled cultural facts that are sustained and
reproduced by cultural scripts. The individual terrorist has always
served as the personification of danger. Crazed anarchist plotters in
the nineteenth century or terrorists with a nuclear bomb in a suitcase
(a panic that was widespread in the 1950s) have always excited the
imagination. The vicious individual terrorist in Hollywood movies often
resembles a superhuman character with a formidable capacity for
destruction. Moreover, although they are frequently portrayed as
lunatic megalomaniacs, theyre also seen to possess a faculty for
intelligent calculation.
Many of these attributes of the powers of destruction have been
transferred to the lone-wolf terrorist. However, there is one important
difference between old Carlos the Jackal-style characters and the
current cohort of lonely wolves. What is remarkable about the lone
wolf is that they are strikingly unremarkable. These are very average,
very normal individuals who are therefore very difficult to spot. They
are not just enemies within - they are also invisible foes.
The narrative of the lone wolf is closely related to one of the most
intellectually illiterate ideas in the world of counterterrorism today: that
of radicalisation. According to the official version of events, the lone-
wolf agent is likely to be an unexceptional and often socially
inadequate individual who becomes suddenly radicalised by what he
encounters on the internet or through some other outlet, such as at a
mosque. Official discourse often uses the term sudden radicalisation
to describe the unexpectedly swift process of the conversion of a
young person to the cause of terrorism. This implies that the threat is
not simply the lone wolf himself, but the powerful dark forces of
The lone-wolf terrorist is seen as lacking the superhuman qualities of
his predecessors. If anything, these are relatively low-achieving,
impressionable individuals. In a roundabout way, these apparently
vulnerable wolves-in-the-making represent the difficulty that modern
society has in motivating and socialising the younger generations.
That they choose to be radicalised into a worldview that is hostile to
the values of their society is not experienced simply as an act of
betrayal, but as an indictment of societys failure to give meaning to
peoples lives. So the phenomenon of the lone wolf speaks not just to
the isolation of these individuals, but also to the relative weakness of
the values that are supposed to bind society together. It is a
heightened sense of cultural disorientation that helps to empower the
lone wolf.
From a sociological perspective, it seems clear that threat
assessments of lone wolves really express a concern about the failure
of society to win the loyalty of its citizens. Americans who kill fellow
Americans, like Norwegians who shoot their neighbours, do not just
murder individuals - they also raise fundamental questions about the
integrity of the communities that they inhabit. Last year, an American
Congressional Report warned about homegrown Islamic terrorists
possibly including radicalised American soldiers who might target
American military communities. This was depicted as a severe and
emerging threat. If even your nations soldiers are at risk of becoming
radicalised, who can you trust? Those who have difficulty answering
this question are highly likely to internalise the cultural script of the
lone wolf.


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The idea of the self-radicalised individual says more about todays
terrorism experts and political officials than it does about the process
through which individuals really do develop hostile attitudes towards
Western society. Often, the official rhetoric of radicalisation echoes the
language of child protection. It warns that vulnerable and
impressionable young people may be targeted on internet sites,
campuses and at social venues, and be groomed by cynical
operators. Back in November 2007, it was reported that the UK
governments Research, Information and Communication Unit would
draw up counter-narratives to the anti-Western messages that
appear on some websites and which are designed to influence
vulnerable and impressionable audiences over here. The same point
was made in November 2006 by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the
former head of MI5, who said it is the youth who are being actively
targeted, groomed, radicalised and set on a path that frighteningly
quickly could end in their involvement in mass murder of their fellow
UK citizens.
This dramatic framing of the threat - sudden radicalisation allows
extremism to be seen as a kind of psychological virus that can afflict
the vulnerable and those suffering from psychological deficits. Yet it
overlooks the fact that the success of radicalisation may also expose
the relative weakness of societys moral and cultural resources. The
question that proponents of the lone-wolf thesis rarely pose is: why did
they reject our way of life in the first place?
A cultural rather than physical threat
In his statement about the threat of the lone wolf, President Obama
observed that when youve got one person who is deranged or driven
by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage. Yet experience
suggests that the damage and loss of life inflicted by lone wolves is
relatively small-scale. The number of lone wolves that have been
identified is miniscule and so is the physical threat they represent. Of
course, these days numerous episodes of violence that are actually
not linked to political radicalisation are interpreted as hate crimes or
lone-wolf behaviour. Yet even if every shooting spree gets rebranded
as an act of lone-wolf violence, still the threat posed by such people
need not make citizens feel insecure.
In fact, the way that society responds to acts of individual terror
represents a far greater threat than the destruction caused by the lone
wolf himself. The inflation of the threat empowers the lone wolf, who
may conclude that relatively modest acts of terrorism are likely to
achieve a disproportionate impact. The best example of this was the
Washington sniper in the summer of 2002, who literally managed to
terrorise the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth for some
considerable time. Constant live television coverage and political
discussion of the shootings unconsciously fuelled a palpable sense of
fear and anxiety, and served as an invitation to be terrorised - they
empowered the shooter, making him into a mighty threat to the capital
of the United States.
From time to time fortunately very rarely the lone wolf succeeds in
causing great physical damage. But it is not the scale of this damage
that endows the lone wolf with such significance. They are not simply
a physical but also a cultural threat. They serve as symbols of a
society that is not quite at ease with itself, one that feels culturally
fragmented and atomised. In the end the lone wolf works as a
metaphor, with the emphasis on the sensibility of being isolated and
alone. The image of a socially disconnected young man sitting in front
of a screen, lost in the world of online confusion, is one with which
society is all too familiar. Disconnected from us but not immune to the
virus of radicalisation, they become people whose behaviour can
easily become unrestrained and uncontained by social norms. That is
the threat they pose. It is the insecurity that surrounds Western culture
that has encouraged officialdoms dangerous dramatisation of the lone
Frank Furedi is author of Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire
of the Unknownby Frank Furedi is published by Continuum. (Buy this
book from Amazon(UK).)