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Lone Wolf Terrorists and Why They Are a Threat

Updated on January 3, 2015

The Looming Threat of Lone Wolf Terrorism

The murder trial of accused 2013 Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston in January 2015 provides a textbook example of lone wolf terrorism and shows why it is an ongoing threat to Western countries.

Lone wolf is a term used by U.S. law enforcement agencies referring to extremists acting alone to plan and launch violent attacks. They have no organized support and are not managed by anyone else.

The term lone wolf came from white supremacists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger in the 1990s, who encouraged small cells of people to act alone in striking their enemies. Metzger referred to them as lone wolves.

FBI agents who investigated the white supremacists referred to their investigation as Operation Lone Wolf.

The FBI acknowledges that tracking and stopping lone wolves is extremely difficult because of the way they carry out their plots in isolation.

The International Institute for Counter Terrorism has identified trends among Islamic terrorists striking western countries: (1) the number of countries they target is rising; (2) the number of people killed or injured by lone wolves is increasing; (3) U.S. law enforcement agencies are becoming more effective in stopping lone wolves; (4) military personnel are increasingly the target of lone wolves.

Typically, the lone wolves suffer personal tragedies, such as divorce, psychological problems or career failures, that drive them to extremism, according to the International Institute for Counter Terrorism.

Media reports leading up to the Tsarnaev trial in Boston identified another terrorism threat: a conviction of an Islamic terrorist could make him a martyr, leading to further attacks.

Three people were killed and about 260 injured when two blasts ripped through the crowd near the marathon finish line on April 15, 2013.

Defense attorneys said media reports in the Boston area that compared Tsarnaev to members of Islamic State made it impossible to get a fair there.

However, U.S. District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. said the defense had failed to prove pretrial media reports had prejudiced the jury pool enough rule out the possibility of an impartial jury in Boston.

Some national security experts say the trial could incite other attacks far beyond Boston, perhaps even hitting the nation’s capital in Washington.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned about the threat of terrorism when he said recently the rise of Islamic State poses a long-term challenge for the United States. Islamic State fighters have been joined recently by sympathizers from the United States and other Western countries.

Those folks can go home at some point, Dempsey said during a Pentagon press briefing. It’s why I have conversation with my European colleagues about their southern flank of NATO, which I think is actually more threatened in the near term than we are. Nevertheless, because of open borders and immigration issues, it’s… an immediate threat.

Do you feel personally threatened by lone wolf terrorism?

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