It is not uncommon for inaccurate information to be held as accepted wisdom where no amount of data will convince people otherwise.
Examples of this would include the conviction that crime rates are soaring (they have actually been plummeting for years) or that e-cigarettes are ok (there is no data yet suggesting that they are harmless) or that Toronto has an NHL team (OK, THAT was uncalled for!).
When it comes to terrorism, there is a lot of mythology surrounding the fear of the “lone wolf” phenomenon. According to some, lone wolves really worry security and law enforcement agencies because they are hard to detect and even harder to neutralise (see yet another article on this here).
I beg to differ.
It’s not that I don’t believe that lone actors (btw a much better term than “lone wolves”) do not exist: they certainly do. It’s just that they don’t exist in a vacuum and are actually not that more difficult to locate than small groups or cells – if you have the resources (more on that below).
Let’s look at a few recent cases of lone actors in the West and how they were not that secretive after all.
– Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (the Parliament terrorist last October) may have acted alone, but he was very open about his radical views, so much that he was kicked out of a mosque in Burnaby.
– Martin Couture-Rouleau (the guy that ran over and killed WO Patrice Vincent last October) was known to just about everybody and received RCMP and religious counselling before his attack.
– Anders Breivik (the Norwegian who slaughtered 69 young people in 2011) was an active part of a pan-European anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim network.
– Dylann Roof (the white supremacist who killed 9 in a Charleston SC church a few weeks ago) told his friends he wanted to kill blacks.
What is it about these cases that is hard to grasp? In every instance, the perpetrators were known to someone, whether or not those in their environment chose to do something about it. So, do lone actors pose a unique terrorist threat?
The way I see it, there are two fundamental challenges with lone actors.
a) not all talkers are walkers. There are lots of people who boast about being extreme and who may even say they are going to do something and who in the end do nothing. Following them is ultimately a waste of time.
b) no security service or law enforcement agency has sufficient resources to identify and follow everyone who may possibly present a danger. Major investigations are a huge resource drain (personnel, money, time) and we will never get to the point where we are perfect in thwarting attacks. We as a society just have to accept that, on occasion, an attack will take place. To date, the successful attacks are rare and it is hard to imagine a scenario where, at least in Canada at any rate, we will see significant spikes in terrorist action (never say never – it is possible, just not probable). CSIS and the RCMP and other agencies are doing an amazing job but they are not invincible.
So yes, lone actors appear to be on the rise, and groups like the Islamic State are encouraging everyone to “just do it” (Nike should sue for copyright infringement!). But they do not rise out of the mist without warning.
Let’s not confine ourselves to unwarranted and inaccurate fears of the solitary threat.