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What’s to Stop a ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist?

The recent shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., have sparked a wave of discussion about “lone-wolf terrorism” in America. But even before those incidents, the federal government in 2009 announced the Lone Wolf Initiative, in response to what national-security experts see as a growing threat to our safety. Maybe it’s time for the American people to continue to pay attention after the headlines fade.

Although the number of lone-wolf attacks has spiked in recent years, spectacular terrorist assaults, like those on September 11, 2001, seem to have gone down. After 9/11 the United Sates erected an enormous homeland-security apparatus. Sharing intelligence with other nations has foiled a number of terrorist plots; so has an effort to overcome the American tradition of federalism and to coordinate federal, state, and local law-enforcement information. As a result, the world is becoming a less congenial place for clandestine terrorist groups.

The Internet, however, has provided individuals with no formal connections to terrorist movements with the means to build a sense of collective identity not unlike the “imagined communities” that the political scientist Benedict Anderson wrote about in his study of how people construct a sense of nationalism. Online, representatives of extremist movements exhort sympathizers to operate on their own initiative, without the direction of a formal organization.

Today’s leaderless resistance can be traced back as far as 1983, when Louis Beam, a former Klansman and member of the Aryan Nations, released his essay “Leaderless Resistance.” He argued that traditional hierarchical organizational structure was untenable under current conditions. In its stead, he recommended a phantom cell network of unaffiliated individuals, united by ideology, who would attack targets as they saw fit. Beam was a pioneer in exploiting computer networks to disseminate his essay.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a Syrian member of al Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Suri, advanced an operational strategy of decentralization to fit contemporary conditions. His online work, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, seeks to provoke a global Islamic uprising led by autonomous cells and individual jihadists. Videos from al Qaeda, available on jihadist Web sites and even YouTube, reflect his strategic approach.

For instance, in March 2010, al Qaeda’s media arm, As-Sahab, released a videotape praising the Fort Hood, Tex., shooter, calling him an “ideal role model” whose solitary action should be emulated by other jihadists in America. Last year another video urged Muslims in America to take advantage of lax firearm laws to purchase guns and carry out attacks on their own initiative.

Yet despite episodes of sporadic violence, some observers dismiss the notion of leaderless resistance as primarily a nuisance: It poses no substantial or existential threat to the nation, they say, and is more aptly consigned to the field of abnormal psychology. To be sure, some of the more notable perpetrators of lone-wolf violence had histories of mental illness and showed little or no ideological motives. James Holmes, the shooter at the movie theater in Aurora, certainly experienced some academic and personal problems and exhibited some bizarre behavior, like identifying himself to the police as “the Joker.” Wade Michael Page, the Army veteran who killed six worshipers at the Sikh temple, had a drinking problem that ended his military career and cost him his job as a trucker.

Nevertheless, even persons who may have psychological problems can commit acts of violence motivated in part by political ideologies. In fact, they may prove to be most susceptible to extremist exhortations to violence. After all, people with a stake in the system, who have something to lose, may be less likely to risk death or a long prison sentence. Consider that Page had been active in the “white power” music subculture, where rhetorical calls to “Rahowa” (racial holy war) have broad currency.

As the terrorism analyst Christopher Hewitt has noted, extremist violence often occurs within a context of the political zeitgeist. Klan terrorism in the South was part of a broader pattern of white resistance to the civil-rights struggle. Black terrorism, including killings by the Black Panther Party, was associated with the rise of the black-power movement. Leftist terrorism emerged in the context of widespread student opposition to the Vietnam War.

The new media have the potential to rapidly polarize segments of society and create an atmosphere conducive to violence. For example, after the president of Chick-fil-A expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, a man armed with a handgun and carrying a satchel with a bag from a Chick-fil-A restaurant entered the headquarters of the Family Research Council—a conservative political organization that opposes abortion and same-sex marriages—made disparaging remarks about the group and opened fire.

So far most episodes of lone-wolf terrorism have been planned haphazardly. But the concept is gaining popularity in terrorist and extremist subcultures. As our world becomes more and more interconnected, a few determined lone wolves have the potential to cause greater mayhem. Perhaps we should we should begin to have a sustained discussion about what that means.

George Michael is associate professor of nuclear counterproliferation and deterrence at the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College. His new book, Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance, is out this month from Vanderbilt University Press.

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