Lone wolves?

The recent attack on the Finsbury Park mosque by Darren Osborne has rekindled the whole argument regarding so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorists. The Times was the first out of the gate with the headline “Jobless ‘lone wolf’ Darren Osborne held over attack on Finsbury Park mosque”. Other media reports were quick to highlight Osborne as a troubled individual, and his family emphasised that whilst he had mental health problems ‘he was no racist’.

The concept of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist has an interesting history, and in many ways it was clear from the start that there were a number of inherent contradictions with this term. Take, for example, the Wikipedia article on lone wolf (terrorism): this begins by explaining how the term ‘lone wolf’ was popularised by the white supremacists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger in the 1990s who ‘advocated individual or small-cell underground activity, as opposed to above-ground membership organizations…’ And in their paper for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism Edwin Bakker and Beatrice de Graaf make a similar point, i.e. that the likes of Curtis and Metzger were encouraging individuals to act alone to commit violent crimes for tactical reasons.

The problem here is that although such individuals may indeed by physically acting alone they are essentially propagating a social cause, and nowadays especially, are already ‘inspired’ if not thoroughly radicalised by ideas they have absorbed online. For Curtis and Metzger the ’cause’ was white (male) supremacy. Nowadays it is either Islamic jihadism or its mirror image, far-right nationalism. Bakker and de Graaf goes as far to acknowledge that the term ‘lone wolf’ includes individuals who are:

…inspired by a certain group but who are not under the command of any other person, group or network. They might be members of a network, but this network is not a hierarchical organisation in the classical sense of the word.

The key point here seems to be that the (so-called) ‘lone wolf’ is not a member of a particular type of organisation, i.e. one characterised by hierarchy and strictly defined positions or roles. However, just because they are not, strictly speaking, members of such organisations, it does not follow that they do not share the same ideologies. In fact, it often transpires, after further investigation, that such ‘lone wolves’ were, at some point in their lives, actually part of a more ‘traditional’ radical or terrorist group, even if they subsequently parted company from them. This is something that Jason Burke emphasises in his article on the myth of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist. He cites a number of cases of so-called ‘lone wolves’ who turned out to be no such thing. For example, Thomas Mair, who murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016, had been involved with right-wing extremism for decades, albeit much of it online. And Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 young people in Norway in 2011, had long been in contact with a number of far-right organisations, including the English Defence League.

So perhaps we have to ask: what is the appeal, at least to mainstream media, of the term ‘lone wolf’? Why is the (apparent) social isolation of such individuals emphasised so much, and often very quickly, after they have perpetrated their acts? Perhaps one reason may be that the term ‘lone wolf’ resonates closely with the term ‘loner’, which in turn resonates with the idea of someone who is unable to form ‘normal’ social relationships and may (therefore) be suffering from some form of mental health problem. And this is where things start to get more complicated, because at first sight the evidence does seem to suggest a much higher prevalence of mental health problems amongst ‘lone wolf’ terrorists than those who are part of a more established group. For example, in their paper on lone-actor terrorism, Emily Corner and Paul Gill argue that the odds of a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist having a mental illness were 13.5 times higher than those who were part of a terrorist group. Interestingly enough, the evidence also suggests that members of more ‘traditional’ type terrorist groups are no more likely to be suffering from mental health problems than the rest of the population.

Another significant finding from the Corner and Gill paper was that those ‘lone wolf’ individuals who had a spouse or partner who were involved with a wider terrorist movement were 18 times more likely to have a mental health problem. What’s even more interesting, however, is how Corner and Gill interpret this particular finding: they argue that this suggests that ‘those with mental illness may be susceptible to ideological influences in their immediate social environment.’ Perhaps one of the important lessons here is not to ascribe causation to statistical correlation. In other words, we should be very wary of assuming that just because someone has a (recognised) mental health problem it does not follow that they are somehow more ‘susceptible’ to ideological indoctrination. The whole point about ideology is that it interpellates everyone, not just the psychologically ‘vulnerable’.

And another finding from the research, which again seems to reinforce the stereotype of the ‘lone wolf’ as being both psychologically and socially dysfunctional, was that over 50% of such individuals were deemed to be socially isolated. In Corner and Gill’s research, ‘social isolation’ was defined in terms of the individual being not being in a relationship, being unemployed, living alone at the time of the event, or ‘characterized as being socially isolated’. This last criteria in particular appears to be a tautology. Furthermore, if someone is about to perpetrate an act of terror it might make perfect practical sense to be on their own, because the less people who know their plans the better.

However, in the age of social media we need to be very careful by what we actually mean by ‘socially isolated’ in the first place. Corner and Gill seem to be relying on a rather outmoded concept of ‘the social’ which is essentially characterises by individuals being physically close to one or more people over a sustained period of time and engaging in some form of meaningful relationship. But nowadays, many day-to-day relationships are conducted online and at a (physical) distance, but are no less ‘social’ because of this. Ironically, perhaps, many people’s experience of ‘the social’ is through the very same mainstream media that seeks to perpetuate the myth of the ‘lone wolf’ in the first place. And this brings me back to the whole question of whether it makes any sense to talk about ‘lone wolf terrorism’ at all. In the era of globalised social media, no-one is really ‘alone’ and we are all being constantly ‘inspired’ by the never-ending flow of multi-media information and propaganda. In the age of the internet perhaps we are all ‘lone wolves’ now…