Real lone wolves do exist, and they do present a threat. Only three terrorists have succeeded in killing Americans on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks, and all three were arguably lone wolves, albeit with complications:
- Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, appears to have acted on his own initiative and using only his own resources. He was in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, the late Yemeni-American cleric, which muddies the issue, but no evidence has emerged so far to indicate Awlaki specifically directed Hasan's actions.
- Carlos Bledsoe similarly carried out a shooting attack in Little Rock, Arkansas, with no apparent assistance from any other individual. Bledsoe claimed he was affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but no concrete evidence has surfaced to support his claim. He did spend 16 months in Yemen prior to the attack, so it's difficult to completely dismiss the possibility of a link.
- Hesham Mohamed Hadayet shot and killed two people at the El Al airline ticket counter at the Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. No evidence has ever emerged to suggest Hadayet had an organizational link, but the case is rarely cited by those who would warn us of the growing threat of lone wolves.
Other genuine lone-wolf incidents do exist, and we should be concerned about them. Naser Jason Abdo was allegedly planning to attack Fort Hood soldiers based in part on guidance from al Qaeda's Inspire magazine, and he appears to have acted entirely on his own. This case is exactly what al Qaeda has in mind when it encourages lone-wolf activities.
But the most terrifying lone wolf in recent history was not a Muslim extremist -- quite the opposite. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik made exorbitant claims about a secret organization that backed his anti-Muslim agenda, but no evidence has emerged to suggest this is true. Breivik documented his activities in such detail that it's clear he pulled off the July 2011 terrorist attack in Norway on his own initiative and using his own resources, and he succeeded because of his careful planning. Breivik epitomizes the kind of lone-wolf terrorism that is most dangerous, but also extremely rare.
At this point, you might be thinking, "Who cares? This is all semantics." But there is peril in describing the recent string of individual actors as lone wolves. It's about how we classify and respond to threats.
The primary threat presented by a lone wolf is the difficulty of detection, and that threat is significant. If someone truly acts without any support or significant contact with other conspirators, it is very hard to identify him and prevent him from carrying out an attack.
To combat that tactic, we have to understand it. Lumping all individual actors -- such as El Khalifi, Pimentel, Martinez, Mohamud, Ferdaus, and Shahzad -- under the same heading as genuine lone wolves -- like Hasan, Bledsoe, Hadayet, Abdo, and Breivik -- creates a distorted profile that will frustrate our efforts to identify the threat.
The lone wolf we need to worry about is truly solitary and self-motivated: someone who doesn't talk to people about his plans and doesn't require meaningful assistance from informed accomplices. Anyone who fails to meet those conditions is a different kind of threat.
Dangerous? Yes. Lone wolf? No.