ATbar Lone Wolves: Myth or Reality? – ICT16

Lone Wolves: Myth or Reality? – ICT16

12/09/2016 | by ICT16  

The session was part of the ICT's 16th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism: "Unpuzzling Terrorism". The term "lone wolf" is misleading as it is very rare that an individual plans and carries out an attack on their own. Countering this phenomenon, there should be a focus on the community level - governmental programs should work closely with moderate community leadersto solve grievances and prevent attacks.  It is still under debate whether marriage is a disincentive to commit terrorist acts in today’s environment, where radicalization can occur so quickly through the use of the internet. In conclusion, it was agreed that lone wolves do not exist in the sense the name alludes to, and each country has a unique set of local grievances which contribute to the susceptibility of its “at risk” population becoming radicalized.

Dr. Matthew Levitt
, Fromer-Wexler Fellow & Director, Stein Program on Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy & Member of the Professional Advisory Board, ICT, IDC Herzliya, United States of America

Prof. Ariel Merari, Research Fellow, ICT, IDC Herzliya & Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Prof. Assaf Moghadam, Director of Academic Affairs, ICT & Associate Professor and Director of the MA Program in Government, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy, IDC Herzliya, Israel

Prof. Fernando Reinares, Professor and Chair, Political Science and Security Studies, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos; Senior Analyst on International Terrorism, Real Instituto Elcano & Member of the Professional Advisory Board, ICT, IDC Herzliya, Spain

Moderator: Mr. Alon Ben David, Senior Defense Correspondent, Channel 10, Israel


The plenary session, “Lone Wolves: Myth or Reality?”, discussed the current modus operandi of terror attacks perpetrated around the world and the motivations behind these attacks. One goal of the session was to flesh out what exactly constitutes a lone wolf attack. The panelists also compared working definitions of the lone wolf phenomenon. Finally, the session participants talked about the motivations that attackers may or may not possess which may prompt them to carry out a terrorist attack. The panel consisted of a moderator, Mr. Alon Ben David, and four panelists, Dr. Matthew Levitt, Prof. Fernando Reinares, Prof. Ariel Merari, and Prof. Assaf Moghadam. The format of the plenary session was such that the moderator asked each panelist a question within a certain topic and the moderator framed each topic.

The first topic discussed by the panel concerned the accuracy of the term “lone wolf.” The majority of the panel agreed that an actual lone wolf attack is exceedingly rare in this day and age. The reason for this, as Dr. Levitt and Prof. Moghadam explained, is because there are many ways for terrorist recruiters to contact possible recruits. Furthermore, people who are interested in committing terror attacks have the ability, through new encrypted messaging technologies such as WhatsApp and Telegram, to contact terror agents for guidance and other resources. Dr. Levitt stressed the idea that if a person interested in committing a terrorist attack tells someone else, usually a friend or family member, then they are no longer a “lone wolf,” but a “known wolf.” A “lone wolf” attacker is someone who carries out a terrorist attack without contacting anyone about the attack, and the panel generally agreed that this situation does not occur very often.

Prof. Reinares stressed that “lone wolf” attackers often do not want to be “lone wolves,” but to be part of a cell that carries out terror attacks. He explained that since “lone wolf” attackers are much more difficult for security agencies to detect; this structure is preferable to the terrorist leadership than a cell structure. Prof. Moghadam further explained this idea by describing the Islamic State as a combination of formal actors (e.g. states) and informal actors (e.g. “lone wolves”) who commit terrorist acts.

The moderator, Mr. Ben David, then turned the conversation towards what Europe is doing to try to battle this phenomenon. Prof. Ariel Merari explained that terrorism is the oldest form of violent conflict, so, therefore, it can never be entirely destroyed. Dr. Levitt and Prof. Moghadam then explained that the best way to counter the “lone wolf” threat is to focus on de-radicalization policies at the community level, and to work with community members to identify people who may have been radicalized. Prof. Reinares discussed the fact that some communities are more at risk for radicalization than others due to multiple factors, most notably the presence of Salafist organizations. Dr. Levitt also explained how there is more cooperation between jurisdictions and security agencies in the U.S; making the U.S. better able to identify possible terrorists than Europe is able to.

Mr. Ben David then directed the discussion towards the motivations for the “lone wolf” attackers. Prof. Moghadam explained the extent of the influence that the benefits that a suicide attacker supposedly receives in the afterlife according to the Muslim faith and how that is often a strong motivator for people to carry out suicide attacks. Prof. Merari described how the families of suicide attackers will do everything in their power to stop their family member from carrying out a suicide attack if they find out about the plot before it has taken place. Prof. Merari then stated that a major deterrent for suicide attacks is the fear of what will happen to, and who will take care of, their family after they have carried out their mission. Dr. Levitt strongly disagreed, saying that terrorist organizations take good care of the families of suicide attacker and this, in many cases, is a motivator for a person to commit the attack. Prof. Reinares agreed, saying that marriage is generally not a disincentive for Islamic terrorists, which was the opposite in the case of the ETA militants in northern Spain.

The panelists generally agreed with each other in most of the discussion topics. Each agreed that pure “lone wolf” attacks are exceedingly rare due to the proliferation of encrypted messaging technologies. The panel generally agreed that most of the focus when countering this phenomenon should be on the community level and programs should work closely with community leaders. The final topic of discussion was the dramatic decrease in the amount of time needed to radicalize a person. In some cases, the “flash to bang,” meaning the time between the first contact with a recruit to the time when he or she carries out an attack, has been reduced to days. The plenary session ended with the moderator asking if any of the panelists have an optimistic forecast for the upcoming year, and the panelists had nothing to offer.