2014 Was the Year of the 'Lone Wolf' Terrorist

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Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his wife Margaret lay wreaths at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the fatal siege in the heart of Sydney's financial district, Dec. 16, 2014. Credit: AFP

Man Haron Monis was no stranger to Australian law enforcement authorities. The man who made the city of Sydney freeze up in fear Monday as he held some 20 hostages in a café for 16 hours, ultimately resulting in the death of two of them, was just the final extreme act that followed years of behavior that could alternately be described as abusive, violent and simply unbalanced. Monis’ former lawyer, Manny Conditsis, told the BBC he had become "unhinged" but was not a jihadist.

It is always difficult to determine who will snap, and who will move from extremist opinions – which in some countries are protected under freedom of speech laws – to extremist actions. And yet, this is exactly the challenge we now face as 2014 hurtles to a close: It might be considered the year in which we witnessed the rise of the lone wolf terrorist.

Terrorism almost always used to indicate a violent act of a non-state group motivated by political, religious or other ideological reasons. But what happens when the terrorist is a one-man show? If the perpetrator is unstable, unconnected to a larger movement, and most importantly, acts alone – does he get classified as a terrorist simply based on the fact that he made his hostages hold up a black-and-white flag with the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith?

The definitions of terrorism are changing, with once-accepted definitions fading as quickly as the border between Iraq and Syria. “Terror has an address,” Ariel Sharon liked to say in a quote that was reiterated by Israeli politicians after him. But that quip goes back to 1983, and in kind, it’s three decades out of date. The challenge of terrorism now is that it's a more unpredictable phenomena in which players feel no need for the support or green-light of a larger organization, though they may take inspiration from ISIS and groups like it.

In Canada in October, a man named Martin Couture-Rouleau killed a Canada soldier in an ideologically inspired hit-and-run attack. A few days later, another Canadian soldier was shot and killed outside the parliament in Ottawa by a man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who then almost succeeded in reaching lawmakers attending caucuses before he was cornered and killed. In the same month, a man named Zale Thompson attacked four New York City police offices with a hatchet, injuring two seriously before being shot. In September, Alton Nolen beheaded a former co-worker at a food processing plant in Oklahoma. All three men were recent converts to Islam. In Europe, police are still not positive whether French-Algerian national Mehdi Nemmouche, who shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May, acted alone, though it’s known he received training in Syria.

Closer to home, almost all of the intifada-like attacks by Palestinian on Israelis in the last six months have also been committed by men who acted alone or in a pair at most.

For too long, acting as a lone wolf was treated as some sort of “get out of jail free card” – as was being mentally unbalanced, as if the only act that could be deemed politically motivated terrorism was one committed by an unassailably sane individual who is a card-carrying member of group on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. But the rise of so-called lone wolf terrorists, be they putatively lucid as the string of Palestinians who have run over or stabbed Israelis in recent months or as loony as Australia’s Monis appears to have been, is a growing threat throughout Western countries in part because the acts of such individuals are so much harder to foil than those of bigger groups like Al-Qaida.

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, a world expert on terrorism, says that he is spending more time now studying people who in the past would have been considered too unimportant for scholars like him to bother with.

“When we say lone actors, we have to ask, are they completely isolated and don’t act with any community and connectivity?” Ranstorp, the Research Director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College, says in an interview. “The thing with lone actors is that there are so many different levels of it. Some of them are entirely self-radicalizing. And then there are those that act out individually but who may have some contact with ideologues and take inspiration from them.”

One landmark moment of the year which may explain for some of the recent uptick of lone wolf terrorism came in September when Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a spokesman for the Islamic State group, said that killing any member of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS was a laudable act, and he encouraged Muslims worldwide to do so at any opportunity.

"If you can kill a disbelieving American or European, especially the spiteful and filthy French, or an Australian, or a Canadian...including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), then rely upon Allah, and kill him," al-Adnani said in a message. "Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military,” the message said. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”

“That,” says Ranstorp, “is the speech that everyone is worried about.”

Ranstorp compared it to the phenomenon of school shootings. They are so difficult to predict that the emphasis has to be on stopping them quickly rather than preventing them from occurring. “We’re now seeing some law enforcement people approaching this from a school-shooter perspective,” he says. “The focus is: how actively can you take out an individual who is carrying out an attack.”

The bottom line is that no amount of intelligence can predict with any great level of accuracy who among an otherwise law-abiding population will take the leap into extremism. And that is perhaps where the word terrorism is most appropriate of all. It is not just in the innocent lives lost – but also the success in making us fear each other – where terrorism has its most twisted success.

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