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What Makes Solo Terrorists Tick?

December 15, 2011

New report sheds light on the growing threat of terrorist attacks carried out by individuals

The double terrorist attack in Norway last July, which claimed 77 lives, has moved violent acts committed by single individuals up the political, media and now research agendas. Known as “lone wolf terrorism,” these acts are carried out independently of established terrorist organizations. In his new report Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism, Dr. Ramón Spaaij, from La Trobe University in Australia and the University of Amsterdam, examines this so-far largely unexplored phenomenon.

According to Ramón Spaaij, “While lone wolf terrorism incidents still account for only a very small percentage of the total number of terrorist attacks, the number of lone wolf incidents has been on the rise in recent decades.” Indeed, the report shows that international security agencies now consider acts of terrorism carried out by individuals as one of the most likely forms of terrorist attack.

Spaaij’s report examines and maps the extent and nature of lone wolf terrorism, by drawing on a combination of international data from terrorism databases and high-profile case studies, including Anders Behring Breivik’s acts in Norway last summer. Such acts tend to be carefully planned and prepared.

For the first time, an in-depth analysis is provided of the key features of lone wolf terrorism worldwide over the last four decades. The report provides insights for those working to prevent or minimize the effects of terrorism and political violence, by exploring what drives the lone wolf terrorist to commit mass violence and discussing how this phenomenon can be countered effectively.

Dr. Spaaij said, “Overall, a significant discrepancy exists between the recent political and media attention for lone wolf terrorism on the one hand, and scientific investigation of this phenomenon on the other. Systematic research projects into lone wolf terrorism have been few and far between.”

His report focuses on six key dimensions of lone wolf terrorism: its definition; where, how, and how frequently it occurs; what motivates lone wolf terrorists; radicalization and potential links with other terrorist networks or ideologies; how the acts are planned and carried out; and what lessons can be learned from government responses to these acts over the last 40 years.

Ramón Spaaij is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University, Australia, and the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He has published on various aspects of terrorism and counter-terrorism in books, articles and reports. His work has appeared in a wide range of academic journals and international media.

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