On lone wolves and leaderless resistance

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

In the last couple of weeks, I have focused more heavily on coding and verifying cases taking place between 2012 and today. A growing trend I have noticed is the rise in number of leaderless attacks. According to “Lone Wolf Report,” a 2015 study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 74% of domestic terrorist attacks between the years 2009 and 2015 have been ones carried out by a single person acting alone. The report allows readers to visualize how difficult stopping these acts of terrorism has become.

Today, “lone wolves” or “leaderless resistance” do not tend to speak of their plans with anyone. Even if operating in small groups, the characteristics of these perpetrators are written by Lewis W. Dickson’s 2015 case study “Lone Wolf Terrorism” as isolated, impulsive, and pushed to violence without any assistance (Dickson 2015, p. 8). Further, while the planning of a terrorist attack by an extremist organization can be infiltrated, the planning conducted by lone wolves today can go completely undetected especially because of the growing predominance of the Internet (Dickson 2015, p. 9).

In the 2015 February summit, former President Barack Obama addressed the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France and the growing fear around jihadist threats. While the summit remained in the scope of all acts of terrorism, it is difficult to shake acts committed in furtherance of al Qaeda, especially if their highly covered by the media. What I have found through tPP are how much more complex the non-religious attacks are. In most cases, the assailant is taken down by police, and if not cooperating, killed at the scene to protect those around him. The tPP is focused on the prosecution of domestic terrorist acts, so individuals such as Larry Steve McQuilliams, a claimed disciple shot down to protect those he believed were slandering the name of God, are not included in the dataset.

An example of this difficult issue is the case of Brent Douglas Cole. He was a claimed sovereign citizen who was charged with the assault of police officers who questioned him on his illegally parked motorcycle. We found him to have no apparent socio-political motive because the attack was out of anger, not to further his sovereign citizen idealism. Because he had no prior agenda to inflict harm and survived his take down, the reasoning behind his attack on authority has been determined as someone who was mentally unstable.

The theories behind all these motivations are interesting ones. In my previous blog post I wrote of the stereotypes of mental health and these crimes. McQuilliams believed he was doing good, and if alive, could have been diagnosed to better understand his decision of action. The reason why lone wolf perpetrators are so tricky is because of how undetectable they are, the intentions they may not be able to announce, and their belief system. While Cole was reckless and impulsive, his temper and irrationality got the best of him. This unknown of how to handle either of these cases could simply be because of the stigmas surrounding mental health clouding the ability to treat those who present signs of an illness. If properly educated, a path to decreasing the growing amount of lone wolf attacks could potentially be uncovered.

 - Brenda


Dickson, Lewis W. (2015). Lone Wolf Terrorism. A Case Study: The Radicalization

Process of a Continually Investigated & Islamic State Inspired Lone Wolf Terrorist. Malmo University, 1-40. Retrieved from https://muep.mau.se/bitstream/handle/2043/19258/Lone%20Wolf%20Terrorism%20-%20Masters%20Thesis%20-%20Lewis%20W.Dickson.pdf?sequence=2

Southern Poverty Law Center. (February 11, 2015). Lone Wolf Report. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/20150211/lone-wolf-report

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