Lone wolf (terrorism)

For other uses, see Lone Wolf (disambiguation).

A lone wolf or lone-wolf terrorist is someone who prepares and commits violent acts alone, outside of any command structure and without material assistance from any group. However, he or she may be influenced or motivated by the ideology and beliefs of an external group, and may act in support of such a group.

Origins of the term

The term "lone wolf" was popularized by white supremacists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger in the 1990s. Metzger advocated individual or small-cell underground activity, as opposed to above-ground membership organizations, envisaging "warriors acting alone or in small groups who attacked the government or other targets in 'daily, anonymous acts.'"[1][2]

Terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation prefers the term stray dog to lone wolf. According to Jenkins, most individuals involved in such attacks "skulk about, sniffing at violence, vocally aggressive but skittish without backup".[3]

Current usage

The term "lone wolf" is used by US law enforcement agencies and the media to refer to individuals undertaking violent acts of terrorism outside a command structure. The FBI and San Diego Police's investigation into Curtis' activities was named Operation Lone Wolf,[4] "largely due to Curtis' encouragement of other white supremacists to follow what Curtis refers to as 'lone wolf' activism".[5]

While the lone wolf acts to advance the ideological or philosophical beliefs of an extremist group, they act on their own, without any outside command or direction. The lone wolf's tactics and methods are conceived and directed solely on their own; in many cases, such as the tactics described by Curtis, the lone wolf never has personal contact with the group they identify with. As such, it is considerably more difficult for counter-terrorism officials to gather intelligence on lone wolves, since they may not come into contact with routine counter-terrorist surveillance.[6]

A 2013 analysis by Sarah Teich, a research assistant at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, found five emerging trends in Islamist lone wolf terrorism in North America and western Europe between 1990 and 2013:

In the United States, lone wolves may present a greater threat than organized groups, and terrorists have not been limited to Muslims. According to the Christian Science Monitor, "With the exception of the attacks on the World Trade Center, experts say the major terrorist attacks in the United States have been perpetrated by deranged individuals who were sympathetic to a larger cause – from Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to the Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad," both native-born Americans.[8]

Some groups actively advocate lone wolf actions. Anti-abortion militant terrorist group The Army of God uses "leaderless resistance" as its organizing principle.[9] According to The New York Times, in news analysis of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Al-Qaeda activist Samir Khan, publishing in Inspire, advocated individual terrorist actions directed at Americans and published detailed recipes online.[10]

List of lone wolf terrorist attacks

Africa, the Middle East and Asia


United States










See also


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Further reading

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