A Lone-Wolf Terrorist Is Never Quite Alone

How social media changed terrorism.

Omar Mateen.

Reuters handout

As of late Sunday night, it appears that the slaughter of 50 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was the work of a so-called lone-wolf terrorist. Omar Mateen may have pledged allegiance to ISIS before his rampage, but he also seems to have worked alone, rather than with a leader or within a terrorist cell. Such figures may seem relatively common now, but lone-wolf terrorism is in fact a departure from most of the terrorism we have seen over the past half-century. It is also, in some ways, harder to stop.

After the attack in Orlando, I spoke with Jeffrey Simon, a visiting lecturer in the department of political science at UCLA and the author of Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat. During the conversation, we talked about what makes these attacks so hard to prevent, ISIS’s depressingly masterful use of social media, and the types of people drawn to lone-wolf terrorism. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Chotiner: Can you explain the thesis of your book, and how it fits—or doesn’t—with what we saw this weekend in Orlando?

Jeffrey Simon: The books deals with what I see as the growing threat of lone-wolf terrorism, which is different from organized terrorism, and the type of terrorism we got used to through the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and even the first decade of the 2000s. Basically the lone wolf is an individual—or it even could be two individuals—working alone without any significant outside logistical or financial support given to them. They are basically working by themselves. They are very difficult to identify or capture since there are no communications to intercept, no members of groups to arrest.

One of the major theses of my book is that the internet is a game-changer. It provides a lot of opportunity for lone wolves to learn about terrorist tactics and targets and to become radicalized via reading ideological web pages and tweets and blogs. But it can also sometimes provide authorities with a way to learn about lone wolves because they like to talk via the internet. A lot of lone wolves blog or send out messages before an attack. The problem, as we are seeing in Orlando, is: How do you separate those who may be espousing extremist views from those who will actually follow through?

Can you talk about some of the differences between lone wolves and other terrorists?

One difference we found is that they are very innovative. Basically the lone wolves are very dangerous and also very creative. There is no group decision-making process, so they are basically free to act upon any scenario they think up. There is no constraint on the level of violence, because they are not concerned with alienating supporters. Some groups definitely have supporters. They are not concerned with a government crackdown after an event. They are difficult to identify and capture working alone. The lone wolves are basically growing in terms of numbers, and in terms of the devastation.

Is the lack of infrastructure and propensity for violence ever a problem, or is their ability to act freely really allowing them to do things we never could have imagined?

Yes, basically, because they don’t get approval from higher-ups and don’t have to go through group decision-making processes and things along those lines. There are so many people in the world, and especially with the internet, they are able to learn about various causes and act on their own. Many lone wolves have personal issues, they may be mentally unstable, they may have had financial problems, and they can latch on to an ideology and use that to justify their actions. It is both a personal grievance and a self-identification with a cause.

How does the alleged attacker in Orlando fit into your paradigm?

It is still unfolding in terms of what motivated him. We know he had talked about Islamic extremist views a number of years ago and was interviewed by authorities. He apparently had very minimal ties with an American who had gone overseas to Syria. But through all the investigations by the FBI, they determined he didn’t warrant being put under severe surveillance. So basically they were convinced that he was not a threat. We still don’t know if something triggered him in the last month or two. His father said he was anti-gay. But in terms of the effect this has on our country, it doesn’t matter what target was struck. It shows that we are getting horrific attacks by lone wolves who can strike anywhere, anytime, because you just cannot protect every single facility.

Is the profile of lone wolves generally more or less ideological?

Non-lone wolves who join a group may be the true believers, or could have been recruited and indoctrinated, but it is hard to measure. Many of the lone wolves would have trouble trying to get into a group, and now don’t really even have to try, because via the internet and social media they can feel part of one. Virtual reality. In the old days the lone wolf was the loner. Now, as this individual apparently pledged allegiance to ISIS, they can feel they are carrying out the work or a particular group, even if they have never met with the leaders or members.

That seems perfect for the group, too. It gets the publicity and the gruesome rewards but doesn’t run any risks or spend any money.

Exactly. We have had many incidents like this. Just a couple months ago an ISIS spokesman called for attacks during Ramadan. He said now was the time for people to take action. I look at these messages like spam email. You can send them out, and you just need a very small percentage to take the bait and be very effective.

So how do you catch the wolves?

It’s a unique threat. Even though a number of them will express certain things on the internet, we have free speech. We live in an open democracy. With organized groups or cells, you have opportunities with communications, or someone may get arrested. If a lone wolf does keep to himself or herself, it becomes a problem.

It seems like a tough line for the FBI. Some of these guys slip through the cracks, but at the same time it often seems like the feds prosecute people who were likely not that dangerous.

It’s a very hard situation. It’s that balancing act. We just have to realize unfortunately that with so many lone wolves, it is going to be a trend we are going to see in the coming years. 

It does seem like there is a little bit of a feedback loop with the amount of publicity we give ISIS, thus raising their profile.

ISIS is one of the most technologically and media-savvy groups we have ever had in the history or terrorism. They perfected using the internet. Al-Qaida had used it, but ISIS took it to a whole different level. So in this case we still don’t know what is going to come out in the next few days, and whether this lone wolf had contact with someone in ISIS. But it appears that he most likely did not. So, a lone wolf pledges allegiance, and ISIS gets the global publicity. And then they can claim—as apparently they did—that an ISIS fighter or sympathizer perpetrated the attack. They are a step ahead of us in terms of the media battle.

You also have to realize ISIS is suffering major losses on the ground in Iraq and Syria. We may see the day in the near future where they are actually defeated, but they will continue, as a decentralized global force, to use the internet and social media to get different individuals to commit violence in their name.

When Obama or Hillary Clinton or Trump discusses these lone wolves, is there a particular way they should talk about them or refer to them that would be helpful in preventing future attacks?

I don’t think so. Obviously, if you use inflammatory rhetoric that can make the situation worse. Most of the discussion has been about how to handle ISIS, but they have name recognition now. And whatever terminology we use to describe them, they are still going to get the publicity. Even if the mainstream media didn’t report on ISIS or talk about the group, they are getting effects through social media and that’s something you just can’t stop.

Well that’s depressing.

Terrorism is not an uplifting topic.

Read more from Slate on the Orlando nightclub shooting.