Lone Wolf Attacks

Organized violent attacks on American people by groups allied to terrorist groups or otherwise has been greatly suppressed by security agencies, especially after the 9/11 event. In its place, lone wolves have increased and perfected the art with industrial efficiency. They are hard to detect and deter. As Spaaij (2010) notes, lone wolf attacks have been on the rise. They are the most disturbing security threats to communities in the United States. It is difficult to map out such individuals or their motives as asserted by Simon (2013). 

As defined by Dictionary.com, lone wolf actors are people who plan attacks and stage them alone. They do not operate within the confines of any command structures or with any significant assistance from any group. Such individuals are motivated by ideologies or beliefs from within themselves or from external groups, both within their reach or outside their reach. In this case, it becomes difficult to determine whether such individuals receive any support, either materially or intellectually.  This is because as Callimachi and Rukmini (2017) and Gartenstein-Ross and Daveed (2016) note, what seems like a lone-wolf attack might be a carefully designed scheme with outside help. 

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How Lone-Wolf Attacks are being addressed

Identifying lone wolves is highly complex, making the possibility of mitigating and stopping them before they swing to action highly elusive. With this in mind, the Department of Homeland Security, together with other security agencies as well as arms of government, should develop measures and mechanisms to deter and dissuade individuals with such intentions from actualizing them. Such deterrent actions include stiff court penalties. For instance, the courts handled 2013 Boston Marathon Bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar death sentences though, by the time they did, Tamerlan had succumbed to injuries after a gunfire confrontation with law enforcers. Such actions and sentences with far-reaching consequences are a major boost for in the fight against uncouth individuals. 

Lone-wolf attacks are mostly perpetrated in public areas or in places with high human traffic. As such, security needs in such areas are often evaluated before high traffic public events are commenced. Slight security lapses in such high public traffic events are detrimental if exploited by lone-wolf attackers. A good example is the mass shooting outside the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas in October 2017. The shooter, Stephen Craig Paddock, acted alone and by the end of the shootout, at least 58 people had lost their souls. He shot himself and died before law officers could get to him. The same had happened in December 2015, in San Bernadino where 14 people died, and in Orlando where in June 2016, 50 people died in the hands of a lone-wolf shooter identified as Omar Mateen.

One common thing with all the lone-wolf attacks is the weapon of choice and how to mitigate the same is a critical way of addressing the problem. Lone-wolf attacks with the high number of casualties use guns.  Hamm and Spaaij (2017) examined data relating to lone-wolf attacks, which revealed that six decades prior to 9/11, there were 144 recorded lone-wolf attacks. Interestingly, 47% were conducted using explosives while 42% used firearms. In the period post 9/11, data and dynamics changed as evaluated by Hamm and Spaaij (2017). In less than 15 years, the United States experienced 105 lone-wolf attacks, with only 11% being conducted using explosives and another 74% using guns. 

The downward shift in using explosives by lone wolves can be attributed to laws were enacted to mitigate bomb building by individuals. The same was triggered by the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma by Timothy McVeigh. In response, the Congress made an amendment to the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 to tighten the manufacture, sale, and transfer of explosives. Other amendments that were enacted in response to explosives use included the Antiterrorism and Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the Safe Explosives Act of 2002.

The control of guns has not received such kind of effective support from the Congress. This might explain why lone wolves are increasingly using guns to inflict such damage. This leads us to the gun control debate.  Anytime there is a mass shooting incident, the gun debate is rekindled. In the Obama administration, attempts were made to control the gun industry but there was significant resistance. Several laws have been passed making such amendments difficult. For instance, the Tiahrt Amendments protects manufacturers and dealers. The amendment bars law enforcement from releasing data detailing where criminals buy firearms to the public. The same law requires law enforcers to destroy all gun-purchaser records within 24 hours. Additionally, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act passed in 2005 handed manufacturers and dealers’ immunity from civil lawsuits. With such kind of resistance, it means that individuals can access high caliber firearms and use them to cause maximum damage, something that has been demonstrated often. With the increasing success of lone-wolf attacks, it means that those who have not yet started get a lot of morale boost and motivation to stage more attacks that are daring. With this, it means that there is a great need for improving the gun control mechanisms in the country.

Community policing or community outreach has been employed with success. Coultas (2015) explains that the concept is used to build trust within communities that are identified as at-risk. As such, there is the development of cooperation with community members effectively producing a high impact solution in a short period. The modus operandi of the concept involve a personal interaction between law enforcement and the immediate communities. Though the method is not likely to initiate contact with all the members of the community, it remains a strong and proven strategy to fight local crime and terrorism. 

Coultas (2015) observes that electronic surveillance with a mandate to focus on domestic targets such as the PRISM program and the meta-data collection of cell phone calls are critical n the identification of potential threats early enough before any damage is done. Electronic surveillance is an aspect that gathers too much data and sieving such data to come up with a narrow list that can be focused on is the major task. As such, such technique involve the canvasing of initial indicators as explained by Barnes (2012). Such programs are critical in providing excellent tools for tracking and deciphering the motives an already identified individual. 

The Department of Homeland Security has a slogan, “See Something, Say Something” which has turned out to be a campaign has provided the American populace with tip lines that they can contact if they notice something sinister. The model is premised on the concept of having reliance on grass root sources to gather and push information in small bits to the law enforcement. It is a perfect mechanism of providing oversight in the community since according to the Department of Homeland Security (2012), it encourages the public to report suspicious activities thus providing actionable intelligence. The benefits of the program is that it widens the scope of reach of intelligence agencies even where they would otherwise take long periods to penetrate. 

The implication of Lone-Wolf Attacks

Lone-wolf attacks have far-reaching and different implications. The first implication is the concept of security in schools and other social events. When it comes to schools, the impact is more psychological owing to the age of those who are affected. Beland and Kim (2016) examined the academic performance of high school students after a shooting incident in their school. The study identified that homicidal shootings by lone-wolf attackers significantly reduce student enrollment as well as student academic performance. It was further demonstrated that school shootings have negative effects on students for longer periods than previously thought. For instance, survivors suffer trauma that severely affects their school experience and achievement. 

Active shooters in adult set-ups, just like in school settings, leave their survivors with psychological consequences, most notably post-traumatic stress disorder. The incidences are near death experiences that make many feel unsafe in public set-ups and as such, will prefer to avoid public events. 

Active shooter events have financial implications. For instance, schools that are affected face massive transfers. This means that such schools lose important revenues from the departing students. The same happens to other institutions such as hospitals and hotels. The public avoids affected areas and this has a financial impact. Those who are survivors might have injuries, which require medical attention, which means that they incur heavy medical expenses. 

Research Question

The lone wolf concept is a disconcerting issue to security and state agencies that are mandated with ensuring the security of Americans. With this in mind, the urgency to prevent effectively lone wolf attacks keeps on disturbing with renewed enthusiasm. Considering the effects and destruction lone wolf attacks have on the society and its trust in security agencies, there is a need to develop concise mechanisms that will help in curtailing future lone wolf attacks. Further, lone wolf attacks can be explained as a chain that is exponentially lengthened with every actualized attack. Each lone wolf attack provides motivation to other potential attackers (McCauley and Moskalenko, 2014). Therefore, stopping a lone wolf attack today helps prevent others in the future. Developing mechanisms and policies is a concept that is fueled by information and deep analysis of past cases to identify patterns and clues that are often exploited by lone wolf attackers.

Addressing lone wolf terrorism is an issue of national importance. Hamm and Spaaij (2017) explain that since 9/11, there have been attacks on American people for 105 times with hundreds of people left dead and thousands of others with physical injuries. The implications of lone wolf attackers leave unimaginable psychological challenges to its survivors. All these implications point out to the unending motivation to the security agencies have to pursue and stop lone wolves before they strike. 

Connections between various variables that define lone wolf attacks need to be identified to ensure that next time red flags are raised and effective action taken. Such variables include the work dynamics that define lone wolves. Lone wolves prefer operating alone, just as their name suggests. Gaining some ground with respect to the individual difference variable that defines lone wolves is momentous in ensuring that they are identified right before they strike. Such a case is strongly demonstrated in a case such as that of Tim McVeigh who sought a solitary lifestyle early in life. Defining lone wolf characteristic is an important element that should be critical in ensuring that law enforcers and members of the public are thoroughly informed to ensure that they know the pointers to look out for and inform the relevant authorities to prevent further attacks. All these aspects need a thorough review of signs that are sentimental in profiling a terrorist with lone wolf tendencies. 

Understanding the lone wolf phenomenon is a critical aspect of this study. In previous studies, lone wolves have been presented as a mystery or a faceless concept that is confusing and difficult to comprehend. Sageman (2014) further explains that research has stagnated and has not been able to keep up with the changing face of terrorism. As such, unraveling the mystery of lone wolves remains an important question that has refused to go away from academic and security experts. The mystery that surrounds the concept is interwoven into multidiscipline concepts such as psychology, history, motivation, characteristics, connections, and demands. Unweaving all these concepts to provide a clear picture of the monster of lone wolf terrorism is a problem that will remain as long as lone wolf terrorism remains a threat to national security. 

Successes, mistakes, omissions, and commissions of law enforcement in combating previous forms of terrorism in the past need to be evaluated to determine important lessons that can be learned from such encounters. In addressing the problem of evolving terrorism, Sloan (1993) observed that there is a need for learning lessons. When such lessons are learned, it is possible to determine areas that need significant improvement before the adoption of solutions to the current problem. To be specific, terrorism is changing from a group affair towards a more decentralized affair characterized by lone actors. As such, there is a need to map out important methodologies, skills, and techniques that were employed in stemming the rise of organized terrorism. Such skills and techniques need to be evaluated for compatibility to the new threat. Areas of improvement in such techniques need to be identified to ensure that new threats are faced with renewed enthusiasm. Mistakes on the side of law enforcement include those committed during the investigations phase. Such mistakes include the application of double standards on similarly guilty individuals but with different cultural or racial backgrounds. The application of different investigative approaches has the ability to show the public and most importantly other potential terrorists that investigations are skewed towards or against some individuals. As such, those who feel privileged by such inclinations are likely to commit more atrocities. Those who feel alienated will add to their vengeance and possibly stage attacks that are more scathing.  

This study will attempt to answer the following research question. 

How can state security agencies stop lone wolves before an attack?


  1. Lone wolves can be stopped by adopting and improving techniques and methods used in combating organized terrorism. 
  2. There are certain identifiable characteristics of lone wolves that security agencies and the public can use to spot lone wolves before an attack.  

Annotated Bibliography

Spaaij, R. (2010). The enigma of lone wolf terrorism: An assessment. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33(9), 854-870.

In the article, the mysteries that surround lone-wolf terrorism are debunked. The article recognizes that the boundaries of lone-wolf terrorism are by no choice, fuzzy, and arbitrary. To debunk the enigma that surrounds lone-wolf terrorism, the study profiles major features and patterns that have been exhibited by lone wolves in fifteen (15) countries. The study makes a stunning discovery. Lone-wolf terrorism is more prevalent in the U.S. more than in any other country in the study, and that the phenomenon has risen dramatically over the past three decades, in terms of a number of attacks and their lethality. The study found out that it is not likely for lone-wolf terrorists to stage attacks using weapons of mass destruction, and motivations include white supremacy, Islamism, nationalism, and anti-abortionism. Common weapons used include firearms, explosives, and hijackings. Lone wolves were found to find motivation from personal frustrations combined with political, social, or religious concepts. The study confirms that there is a great deal of difficulty in handling and mitigating lone-wolf terrorism. 

Beydoun, K. A. (2017). Lone Wolf Terrorism: Types, Stripes, and Double Standards. Northwestern University Law Review, 112, 1213.

The study starts by appreciating that October 1, 2017, Las Vegas shooting was a wake-up call that brought the American people to the realization that lone wolf violence is worth their attention. The study is premised on the religious and racial double standards that arise from investigations and prosecution of both white and Muslim lone wolves by different government authorities. To do this, the study zeros in on the Las Vegas shooting of 2017 and the Orlando Nightclub Shooting of June 12, 2016, to examine how authorities treat differently white and Muslim lone wolves. The study revealed that state agencies demonstrated blatant double standards in the treatment of both cases and that Muslim lone wolf is perceived as actors rising from a flock of radical wolves while white lone wolves are perceived to act solo, and in isolation of the flock they resemble. 

Coultas, B. T. (2015). Crowdsourcing intelligence to combat terrorism: harnessing bottom-up collection to prevent lone-wolf terror attacks. Naval Postgraduate School Monterey CA. 

Traditional methods of intelligence gathering have been identified as ill-equipped to prevent terrorists who have chosen to use the lone-wolf tactics. As such, the study proposes a paradigm shift in intelligence gathering and suggests the use of crowdsourcing as a means to prevent lone-wolf terrorism. The study identifies how signals that surround lone-wolf attacks are different from those signals from attacks mounted by organized terror groups and goes further to examine how crowdsourcing intelligence can be beneficial in preventing lone-wolf terrorism. Crowdsourcing has been premised on the fact that the current world is extremely interconnected and complex for one agency or organization to provide answers to a social problem internally. The study exudes confidence in crowdsourcing intelligence from different facets of the community and in so doing; such intelligence can be used to stop lone wolves right on their tracks. With crowd-sourced intelligence, the study finds that it is easy for local law enforcers to thwart attacks before they happen. 

Springer, N. R. (2009). Patterns of radicalization identifying the markers and warning signs of domestic lone wolf terrorists in our midst (Doctoral dissertation, Monterey, California. Naval Postgraduate School).

The study scrutinizes the histories of the three largest lone wolf attacks i.e. those perpetrated by Tim McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, and Eric Rudolph. The study attempted to profile their ideological beliefs, psychology, attributes, traits, and training of the three in an attempt to identify a pattern of radicalization. The study identified that for the three, their childhood, family life, and home environments were damaging. Their isolation from the normal world has been found to be a critical contributing factor to the development of their individual ideologies. The other common aspect about the three is the desire to be part of a group. After failing to be part of groups, their radicalization spirits rose high. All the three struggled further all their lives to get female companionship. Additionally, they all fashioned themselves as survivalists and feel that they have the moral authority to counter moral corruption in the society or those who oppose their ideologies. The study wraps up by observing that for the three, developing the ideologies took years and these compounds the ability of state security agencies from detecting the lone wolves in the making. 

Lee, W. A. (2015). Finding the Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Ways to Distinguish and Deter Lone-Wolf Terrorists. Naval Postgraduate School Monterey CA.

Lone wolves have always been elusive despite the rise in the threat. The study appreciates that academic researchers and counterterrorism practitioners have continuously given the subject a blind eye despite the fact that the lone wolf concept has always been a source of new challenges to national security. The study explores ways and means of exploiting policies that have been employed in combating organized terrorism. Such policies, from an American point of view, including sharing information among security agencies, use of local cyber assets to assess terrorism nexuses online, use of community outreach programs and tools and lastly the use of FBI as the lead agency for countering domestic terrorism.   

Arguments for the Hypothesis

Previously, the sustained war on terrorism has been won; lone wolves need to be defeated too. The National Institute of Justice (2017) appreciates that acts of violence by lone wolves are far much similar to organized terrorists. There are similarities in just the same way there are differences between them. As such, similar threat and risk assessment strategies can be applied in both as enumerated by the National Institute of Justice (2017), which recognizes that both categories of terrorists publicize their acts, though their motivations are different. With this in mind, it remains the work of researchers and security experts to identify methods that work for both categories of terrorists. Modifications that might be needed to address the lone wolves with techniques adopted from organized terrorists should be mapped and done. 

Improved investment in research, personnel, equipment, and other means of countering organized groups has been perpetually high with each passing year. The group dynamics of organized terrorism has been successfully dismantled with time. In its place, lone wolves have crept in. Fundamentally, besides the prevention of organized terrorist attacks on American people and property, such investments have not been exploited fully. They can yield positive results through manipulation to fit the current threat. This implies that investments that the country and states have put in place to dismantle group terrorists need to be diverted to the new ‘job’. Liu, Mumpower, Portney, and Vedlitz (2018) explained that there is a positive relationship between perceived threat of terrorism and spending in America. This indicates that the spending habits of the American public is flexible and should be capitalized to help in the diversion of resources from group-based anti-terrorism campaigns to lone-wolf campaigns.  

Lone wolves have characteristics that they depict. Take McVeigh for instance, he bought tons of fertilizer and other explosives without detection. The law officers could have used this lead, alongside other cues that he was leaving. For instance, he used to write very cunning letters to government officials yet nothing was being done. The National Institute of Justice (2017) explains that all terrorists leak their information and if the security agencies are fast enough, they can catch up. As such, it is necessary to have their characteristics mapped out to enable security agencies to connect the dots. The same knowledge can be used by the public to help in sourcing for information. 

Lone terrorists have ideologies, especially about the public, the state, or the social set-up of societies. Understanding the type of ideologies that terrorists use to motivate themselves can be critical in shooting down their ambitions. With this, it will be possible to form mechanisms, both offline and online to spot possible lone wolves. In the current days of social media and internet blogging, it is possible for terrorists to leak their ideologies online and there are mechanisms such as algorithms that can pick up such ideologies and help in the identification of such individuals for further processing. Zeman, Břeň, and Urban (2017) acknowledge that there is an overreliance by lone wolves on the internet. As such, with the identification of their particular online behavior, it is possible to follow up and curtail plans that are aimed at wreaking havoc on the public.  


Beydoun, K. A. (2017). Lone Wolf Terrorism: Types, Stripes, and Double Standards. Northwestern University Law Review, 112, 1213.

Beland, L. P., & Kim, D. (2016). The effect of high school shootings on schools and student performance. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis38(1), 113-126.

Callimachi and Rukmini (2017, February 4). “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar”. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/world/asia/isis-messaging-app-terror-plot.html

Coultas, B. T. (2015). Crowdsourcing intelligence to combat terrorism: harnessing bottom-up collection to prevent lone-wolf terror attacks. Naval Postgraduate School Monterey CA. 

Department of Homeland Security. (n.d). If You See Something, Say Something. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/if-you-see-something-say-something

Dictionary.com (n.d) Define Lone Wolf. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/lone-wolf

Hamm, M.S. & Spaaij, R. (2017). The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism. Columbia University Press. New York.

Gartenstein-Ross and Daveed B., Nathaniel (2016). The Myth of Lone-Wolf Terrorism. Foreign Affairs, U.K. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/western-europe/2016-07-26/myth-lone-wolf-terrorism

Liu, X., Mumpower, J. L., Portney, K. E., & Vedlitz, A. (2018). Perceived Risk of Terrorism and Policy Preferences for Government Counterterrorism Spending: Evidence From a US National Panel Survey. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy. doi.org/10.1002/rhc3.12154

Lee, W. A. (2015). Finding the Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Ways to Distinguish and Deter Lone-Wolf Terrorists. Naval Postgraduate School Monterey CA. Retrieved from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a620655.pdf

McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S. (2014). Toward a profile of lone wolf terrorists: What moves an individual from radical opinion to radical action. Terrorism and Political Violence, 26(1), 69-85.

National Institute of Justice. (2017). What Can We Learn From the Similarities and Differences Between Lone Wolf Terrorists and Mass Murderers? Retrieved from https://nij.gov/topics/crime/terrorism/Pages/lone-wolf-terrorists-and-mass-murderers.aspx

 Simon, J. D. (2013). Lone wolf terrorism: Understanding the growing threat.  New York: Amherst.

Spaaij, R. (2010). The enigma of lone wolf terrorism: An assessment. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism33(9), 854-870.

Sageman, M. (2014). The stagnation in terrorism research. Terrorism and Political Violence, 26(4), 565-580.

Springer, N. R. (2009). Patterns of radicalization identifying the markers and warning signs of domestic lone wolf terrorists in our midst (Doctoral dissertation, Monterey, California. Naval Postgraduate School).

Sloan, S. (1993). US anti-terrorism policies: Lessons to be learned to meet an enduring and changing threat. Terrorism and Political Violence, 5(1), 106-131.Zeman, T., Břeň, J., & Urban, R. (2017). Role of internet in lone wolf terrorism. Journal of Security & Sustainability Issues, 7(2)

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