The Threat of Lone Wolf Attacks

Dr Shreya Upadhyay
December 13th, 2020


Image Courtesy: Amar Ujala

In November 2020, the United Nations threats and security agency warned the rising threat posed by the lone-wolf attackers. The advisory also noted that the threat could extend to the commercial and educational establishment and was linked to France. In the past, acts of lone wolf terrorism have been reported in the United States, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, Great Britain, Denmark, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, Bangladesh, etc. Lone wolves challenge the police and intelligence community as they are extremely hard to detect. There has also been a rising threat about the Do It Yourself (DIY) model of terrorism using straightforward logistical ways to commit attacks designed to kill and create mayhem. This article traces the lone wolf attacks in the recent years, the modus operandi of the lone wolfers, the role of internet in radicalising individuals to take up lone wolf attacks, and threats of bio attacks undertaken by the lone wolfers. 

A lone wolf is an individual or a small group of individuals who uses traditional terrorist tactics – including the targeting of civilians – to achieve explicitly political or ideological goals, but who acts without membership in, or cooperation with, an official or unofficial terrorist organization, cell, or group.  

A recently released Global Terrorism Index 2020 report by the Australian think tank Institute of Economics and Peace stated that deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year, after peaking in 2014. The fall in deaths was mirrored by a reduction in the impact of terrorism, with 103 countries recording an improvement on their GTI score. The global economic impact of terrorism was US$16.4 billion in 2019, 25 per cent lower than in 2018. However, one of the worrying trends is the rise of lone wolf terrorism incidents. According to the GTI 2020 report, there has been a rise in far right terrorism, which are likely carried out more likely to be carried out by individuals unaffiliated with a specific terrorist group. Nearly 60 per cent of far-right attacks from 1970 to 2019 were carried out by unaffiliated individuals. Along with that, the Islamic State’s global reach has steadily expanded with attacks recorded across seven regions: Asia Pacific, Europe, MENA, North America, Russia and Eurasia, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, there are concerns that the deteriorating economic conditions worsened by the ongoing pandemic will lead to more people getting alienated and susceptible to the extremist propaganda.

Are Lone Wolves Really Lonely?  

It is often assumed that lone wolves are devoid of contact with the others. However, even as “lone wolf” attacks might appear to be a single individual’s undertaking, the role of forum and communities on the internet communities plays a crucial role in radicalizing individuals to engage in lone wolf terrorism. The community of “virtually like-minded” but geographically, geopolitically and socially scattered individuals come together for information and awareness of activities, something that was not possible earlier. It also provides anonymity to users whereby encouraging people to put forth their views without the fear of backlash. The Internet also helps in creating an “us” versus “them” narrative in order to legitimize violence.   

Lone wolfers occasionally are closely associated with radical/ terrorist groups They get material and logistical support, instructional support on how to make firearms and explosives. Internet video games such as the Clang of Swords or Quest for Bush provide visuals for attacking the streets of major western cities. Groups usually encourage lone wolf attacks when they are too weak to carry out organized attacks by themselves. In May 2016, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani implored followers in the West to attack in their home countries, rather than join the fight in Syria and Iraq. “The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us,” he declared. 

There have been examples of lone wolfers being associated with established organisations. The 2015 Paris attacks, for example, in which terrorists killed 130 people, involved a relatively large network of individuals operating in Belgium and France. ISIS fighters had trained many of them in Syria, and the group’s leadership coordinated the operation. The San Bernadino killers on the other hand were inspired by the lectures of the US-born al Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki. They had no direct contact with the Islamic State but pledged loyalty to the group’s leader (whose name they had looked up on the Internet only that day). Another example is that of the Nice, France attack in 2016 where the attacker, a Tunisian living in France, drove a 19-tonne cargo truck was deliberately into crowds of people celebrating Bastille day resulting in the deaths of 86 people and the injury of 458 others. The ISIS took responsibility after the attack. And then there are examples of the ‘Unabomber’ — Ted Kaczynski, who killed three people and injured more than 20 others during a 17-year campaign of mail bombings. Kaczynski lived alone, had no ties to any organized group, and formulated his own agenda.  

It has been said that lone-wolf attacks in many cases flop or the casualty is low because the perpetrators are untrained in violence. However, these have the capability to frighten people because they can strike anywhere. A massacre at a nightclub or an office party hits much closer to home. There has also been a greater trend of internationalization of lone wolf attackers, along with collaboration among terrorists for DIY tasks. The perpetrator of New Zealand mosque shootings had over years met several like-minded extremists. He, in turn, motivated the El Paso shooter. There has also been a rising trend of broadcasting terror acts on social media, gamifying the terror acts. 

The year 2020 has witnessed multiple lone wolf attacks despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns and restrictions on movements. Some of the places where these attacks have taken place are the UK, France, Austria, etc with individuals using everyday items such as knives to create havoc. In Austria, however, the gunman used sophisticated weapons to kill indiscriminately. There has also been a rising fear of bio-terrorism route taken by the lone wolfers. The germ warfare can be used by the terrorist groups, the non-state actors, and the lone wolves. The Global Fatwa Index, Egypt’s official Fatwa issuing body in a report issued in Mar 2020 stated that radical groups were using the pandemic to promote their ideas, agendas, and ideologies and in order to spread fear among their enemies. The most dangerous consequence of this phenomenon are the calls by members of the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood to those who have contracted the coronavirus to take advantage of the fact that they are contagious in order to advance the respective aims of the organizations. Bioweapons offer terrorist groups and ‘rogue states’ to wage unconventional war against India as an affordable way to counter India’s military superiority. Sophisticated use of social media, YouTube and other online channels can be used by Al Qaida and ISIS to encourage lone wolf attacks.  It, therefore, becomes pertinent to work across states and departments to develop preparedness and knowledge of ‘insider threats’ to manage increasingly unpredictable terror attacks.


** The author  is Assistant Professor, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Uttarakhand **