Europe, the US, and the Middle East find themselves in a moment of unprecedented tension. In the face of rapidly changing alliances, they share one common enemy: the lone-wolf terrorist. Lone-wolf terrorists operate without constraints imposed by even a rag-tag organization of hierarchies and chains of command. Self-radicalized people commit acts of violence in the promotion of a cause or belief system. Acting in apparent isolation, lone wolf terrorists don’t raise the red flags which the identification and tracking of traditional terrorist groups do.
In the US and Europe where most terrorist groups lack a physical presence, lone-wolves can still radicalize others via the internet and social media. While not officially sanctioned by any terror organization, they often draw — and, indeed claim — inspiration from established terror groups, mimicking their tactics.
Lone-wolf terrorists generally lack the access to weapons, funding, and infrastructure that larger terrorist groups possess. Instead, they use what they can find — knives, guns, cars, homemade bombs — to orchestrate small attacks that inspire large panics. According to Rodger Bates of Clayton State University, “The power of the lone wolf terrorist lies not in the level of harm experienced, but the level of intimidation that the threat of random acts of violence can exert on a community.”
Lone-wolf tactics are so effective that ISIS and others have encouraged followers to pick up a gun or knife and become warriors for the cause, leaving potential victims worldwide in a state of constant worry. The media plays a critical role in feeding the panic terrorists seek. By focusing in extreme detail on attacks which affect only a small number of people, reporters unwittingly magnify the threat.
More ominously, extensive coverage of lone-wolf attacks encourages more attacks. Individuals disenfranchised from society, particularly isolated young men, behold the lone-wolf terrorist’s fame and notoriety and are moved to follow the lead. This creates a knock-on effect which increases the threat of terrorism in the long run.
In the quest to prevent such attacks, the challenge for law enforcement lies in the randomness. It is difficult to preemptively track lone-wolves, or anticipate the time of their attacks. Rather than prioritizing locating individuals who may be radicalized, it may be more productive to target the factor that most rapidly radicalizes them: the media.
Most lone-wolf radicalization occurs digitally through message boards, videos, and social media like Twitter. Efficiently policing these will eliminate major terrorist recruitment tools and it will decrease terrorism’s reach and membership in the long run. Private social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have stringent rules prohibiting content that encourages terror and violence. But for enforcement, they rely on a small team of moderators who respond to reports from members. Ultimately, this is self-policing in the social media community.
Federal legislation requiring each social media outlet to have a team of moderators proportionate to their user body would help solve this problem. It would ensure that radical posts are quickly removed. In addition to social media, extensive coverage in traditional media too can inspire people to join the terrorist organizations being reported upon. Networks should limit their extensive lone-wolf profiles. And lone-wolves should never be mentioned by name. We have the power to refrain from clicking and sharing articles about such people. This reduces their reach, and with that, the chance that they will inspire more extremist violence in the future.