The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism (Book Review)

By Mr. James Mis PRISM Volume 7, no. 3

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The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism

By Mark. S. Hamm and Ramón Spaaij
Columbia University Press, 2017
336 pp., $ 35.00
ISBN: 978-0-23154-377-4

Reviewed By James Mis

Colonel James Mis, USA (ret.) is a faculty member in the College of Special Operations at the Joint Special Operations University.

The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism by Mark S. Hamm and Ramon Spaaij provides the national security professional with an exceptional overview and appreciation of this growing problem facing the United States and its partners. Detailed in their compilation of the 123 incidents of lone wolf terrorism from 1940–2016, the authors examine the incidents against 20 variables to help identify trends in backgrounds, modus operandi, and motivations. Hamm and Spaaij, a professor of criminology and a sociologist respectfully, then devise a radicalization model that provides an evidence-based explanation for select case studies of lone wolf terror incidents.

The authors’ findings are hindered by their broad definition of lone wolf terrorism that is misaligned with their constricted definition of a lone wolf terrorist. Hamm and Spaaij generalize, defining lone wolf terrorism as “terrorist actions carried out by lone individuals, as opposed to those carried out on the part of terrorist organizations or state bodies.” The authors associate terrorism with political violence—making the lone wolf terrorist a “political creature”—based on “strong ideological or religious conviction,” but this characterization allows the authors to include a wider population, including assassins, such as Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray, abortion clinic bombers, and anti-civil rights fanatics. Yet, their hard-and-fast criteria of being a singleton discounts others such as Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, in San Bernardino, California in 2015, or the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, Massachusetts in 2013, although the authors point out valuable commonalities to the lone wolf in terms of motives and other variables. The friction in definition may add clutter in its broadness, while excluding valuable data and case studies that would assist in clarity.

While the reader can judge the overall uniqueness and applicability of the Hamm and Spaaij’ model, it does meet the authors’ intent to illustrate “push-pull factors,” and serve as a suitable analytical tool in the absence of others. The model starts with a personal or political grievance that launches an “affinity with on-line [like-minded] sympathizers or external groups.” It then moves onto being further influenced by enablers such as people—what Hamm and Spaaij call “model heroes”—or information on tactics or techniques for terrorist acts. The cycle continues with a broadcast of the lone wolf terrorist’s intent, followed by trigger events that serve as the catalyst for the actual terrorist action. The cycle is then refreshed by a copycat or copycats with similar personal or political grievances.

However thorough their research or sophisticated their model, Hamm and Spaaij fall short in support of their argument that incidents of lone wolf terrorism are preventable since “violent radicalization is a social process involving behavior that can be observed, comprehended and modeled.” Radicalization is a social process, but it is the individual—the lone wolf—who goes through the process. Humans are complicated, individually processing and reacting differently to such inputs as world events and social media posts, while existing within the complexity of the human domain. It is within the context of this complex system that trends based on a compilation of past events do not always lead to a predictable outcome.

The authors do, however, provide useful insight into the pools of individuals who may be susceptible to the influences of known enablers that serve as catalysts toward acts of lone wolf terrorism. For the national security and law enforcement professional, predictability is therefore facilitated by a narrowing of focus on a more select group; although some might describe this as “profiling”—a term and technique that may not be appealing in today’s social environment, no matter its proven value.

For those readers who are in search of solutions to lone wolf terrorism, the authors’ recommendations may disappoint. The authors state that one of their goals is to illustrate how the law enforcement and the intelligence communities can deal with this challenge. However, Hamm and Spaaij approach this by critiquing what they call the United States’ three-pronged approach for combatting lone wolf terrorism,” namely, the U.S. Department of State’s digital diplomacy, joint U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation efforts to forge ties with Muslim community leaders, and the FBI’s sting program—arguably the United States’ leading approach. Critiquing a current approach is a critical first-step in developing a more effective strategy, yet the authors over editorialize and offer little in the way of viable alternatives.

Spending two chapters on the subject, the authors are critical of the FBI sting program, calling it the “practice of creating crimes to solve crimes.” Clearly the authors are not alone in their criticism, with others labelling the program as “entrapment.” However, no judge has thrown out a case for this reason, while the program provides the proactive prevention expected by law-abiding citizens. The authors instead recommend a softer approach of intervention, stating, “There comes a point in each sting when FBI agents might have called on a family member, a psychologist, or a member of the clergy to provide counseling in a secure setting, instead of encouraging a person to kill innocent Americans with a bomb.” To most readers the idea of FBI agents or any law enforcement entity serving as social workers undertaking interventions seems ridiculous.

There are other options in preventing lone wolf terrorism. Proactive law enforcement that utilizes the community as additional sensors is one option, ensuring that the focus is not on a specific religious or ethnic group community to avoid driving a wedge between the community and law enforcement. Increased and consistent intelligence-sharing among and between local, state, and federal agencies has also proven effective in prevention, with very recent lapses such as the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada last year having catastrophic consequences. Monitoring of social media or the utilization of the community-based network will also be beneficial at the point when the lone wolf broadcasts intent, an opportunity that the authors themselves label as “the key to preventing lone wolf terrorism.” Though many will disagree with the authors’ recommendations and editorializing, non-traditional, alternative views and approaches are always beneficial, especially within an academic or theoretical setting meant to generate educational discourse in pursuit of better methodologies. There is no disputing that the law enforcement and intelligence communities have the most experience in effectively preventing such attacks, despite the tragic incidents that do and will occur.

Hamm and Spaaij meticulously demonstrate how the threat of lone wolf terrorism is ever-constant, manifesting itself in numerous forms of individuals with differing motives and backgrounds. The book’s database, case studies, and modeling—despite the authors’ political, or at least philosophical, slant—are valuable references and tools for the critical thinker’s understanding of this problem set, while challenging some of today’s approaches to defeating it. The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism serves as a reminder for constant study, vigilance, and innovation.


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