Lone offender attacks — sometimes called “lone wolf” attacks — make headlines fairly regularly. It’s not just the single shooter killing dozens and injuring hundreds in Las Vegas, but also shootings in Washington and Texas shopping centers. In Nice, France; Orlando, Florida; and elsewhere, atrocities committed by individuals apparently acting alone have surprised and concerned the public and authorities alike.
Because just one person is at the center of the event, these sorts of attacks can seem more puzzling and be harder to explain than, say, bombings or shootings by organized terrorist groups. That also makes them more difficult to detect and prevent.
As law enforcement and military efforts attempt to reduce attacks from organized groups, lone offender attacks may become a more prevalent threat. My colleagues and I have worked to understand what we can about these attacks and the individuals who carry them out with the goal of helping to prevent them.
Although these recent attacks are troubling, the phenomenon of individual attackers acting largely alone is not new. In the late 1800s, anarchists (mainly Russian and European) were calling for individuals to target government, authorities and the bourgeois as a way to bring attention to their cause. They referred to this type of publicity-seeking violence as “propaganda by the deed.”
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What is new is uncertainty about the attackers’ motivations. Some, like the truck driver in Nice, appear to be inspired by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State group. Others, like most mass shooters, don’t have any obvious political or societal aim, though the attacks themselves do often sow fear. And some individuals will devise an attack and only then invoke an ideology or a “cause” as a justification, as some have suggested of the “last minute” 9-1-1 call by the Orlando nightclub shooter pledging his allegiance to ISIS.
In attempting to study lone-offender attacks, it can be difficult to find scholarship and data, much less observe patterns in the events.
Terminology matters, too. Personally, I try to avoid characterizing solo actors as “lone wolves.” That’s not just because it isn’t always an accurate metaphor, but also because I don’t think glorifying the acts or actors is helpful. The FBI and others (including the “Don’t Name Them” campaign) have encouraged media to be cautious about how and how much they focus their coverage on the attacker specifically.
It is not always easy to “make sense” of lone-offender attacks. But by understanding their origins, elements and context, we can avoid misconceptions and more accurately describe the problem. That will be a key to helping detect and prevent these kinds of attacks.
Randy Borum is a professor at the University of Southern Florida. This article was originally published in The Conversation.