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The Myth of the “Lone Wolf” Terrorist


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In an interconnected world, so-called “lone wolf” jihadists are almost always part of a lethal pack. And they will continue prowling for prey, undeterred, until we recognize them as such.

Julie Lenarz

June/July 2017




It is important to understand the character of an insurgency. It is a movement that does not necessarily require a centrally planned or coordinated effort. But it cannot exist without a common denominator that creates a sense of belonging by ideologically connecting individuals from the Syrian Desert to the Palestinian territories to remote islands in the South-China Sea. Radical Islamist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda frequently evoke images of the ummah — the commonwealth of Muslim believers — to pull individuals towards them under the banner of defending Muslims against the unbelievers.


It is an uncomfortable truth to accept for it sheds light on the real magnitude of the threat that we face. It is easier to retreat to a comfort zone and convince oneself that a disturbed, perhaps even mentally ill, individual carried out an attack in isolation than to admit that it was linked to a rampage of bloodshed that is ripping through the world. Admitting this would mean that, no, we are not united and an individual born and raised in the West is prepared to blow up children in cold blood at a pop concert in the name of the global Islamist insurgency.


The “lone wolf” paradigm also allows politicians to escape thorny cultural and political discussions. By pushing the narrative that an individual acted alone, his act of violence is isolated from the extremist ideology that forms the backbone of groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda and, in return, does not raise difficult questions about how the violence we experience is linked to Islam and the security implications entailed. How Germany framed the debate over the wave of attacks carried out by Syrian refugees in recent months, in light of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur-policy, is an example of how a government can manipulate public opinion by refusing to draw a connection between different extremist attacks.


The “lone wolf” myth also helps security services, which are overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of information, explain serious failures in intelligence that might have prevented an attack from taking place. Intelligence officers have identified 23,000 jihadists roaming freely in the UK. Due to capacity constraints, however, only 3,000 of them can be permanently monitored. Unlike terror cells that have to meet, or at least have members communicate with each other, lone wolves can operate without leaving behind any traces and are difficult, often impossible, to catch.




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