Narcissism, ideology, delusion: what’s motivating lone wolf attackers?
13 Oct 2016|

Lone wolf attacks are nothing new, but they’ve become more common and increasingly harder to predict over the past 12 months. The threat picture is disparate; some plots show evidence of external direction and coordination, others of collaboration with contacts abroad, while some are one person attacks. For the authorities, a major concern is the low-level of sophistication needed to plan an attack that requires barely any funding, little knowledge of sites and venues, and only rudimentary weapons such as kitchen knives, home-made explosives or motor vehicles. These low barriers to entry have contributed towards copycat attacks.

The profiles of recent attackers and their connection to their purported organisation have called into question our understanding of lone actor terrorist attacks, and how they should be responded to. We need to better understand how these different types of attacks are triggered and how to identify key factors that can prevent similar attacks.

Lone wolf attackers are very different from those participating in organised or directed terrorist cells. Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul and Ankara bombs can all be described as directed attacks. Man Haron Monis (Sydney), Omar Mateen (Florida), Thomas Mair (Yorkshire), Anders Breivik (Oslo), Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel (Nice), Ihsas Khan (Minto)—to name but a few—were all lone actors, and probably not part of a wider cell in their countries.

Directed attacks have been more lethal (PDF). The perpetrators appeared to be working together, demonstrating a strong network of committed radicals across the cities. Unlike lone actors, they possess relevant training, access to materials and in-depth knowledge of how to operate lethal weaponry. In the Paris and Brussels cases, the attackers were previously known to the authorities for various degrees of criminality. The fact that they weren’t considered priority cases raises concern over who the authorities are focused on, and perhaps warrants re-examination.

Clearly there’s no specific profile of a terrorist. Moreover, the degree to which an attacker is politically or ideologically motivated should be reflected in our response to the incident. All the lone actors named above appear to have been motivated by a mixture of political and personal grievances, sometimes combined with possible mental health issues. Some were fascinated with mass murder, some with the myths of jihadi heroism, and some fuelled by anger at Western foreign policies. So it’s difficult to draw a clear line between those using terrorism to air grievances and anger and those who are fully radicalised and committed to a particular ideology or cause. It’s just as important to unpack the motivations behind an attack as it is to respond to it, for this might help identify how to strengthen authorities’ approaches towards preventing future incidents.

For example, the appeal of ‘jihadi cool’ provides an incentive for an individual to morph into the hero figure portrayed in ISIS propaganda. That has enabled lonely, angry and volatile individuals to attach their grievances to a bigger cause, and then to seek retribution whilst attaining grandeur and status. Testimonies from friends, diary entries, internet search histories and galleries of selfies, suggest perpetrators closer to narcissistic adolescents than radical followers of a faith to which they pledge their souls.

Man Haron Monis is a clear example of an individual with a great propensity to showcase himself as being part of something bigger and greater than his reality. His actions prior to December 2014 exposed him as a relentless attention seeker who conflated his personal grievances with his view of the heavenly glow of Islam. The performative nature of his protests unfortunately culminated in the Lindt Café siege. Similarly, Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to Hezbollah during his 911 call, exhibiting not only his confusion about what he was doing, but also demonstrating the incoherent nature of these attacks. Lahouaiej Bouhlel was notoriously promiscuous, irreligious, and only recently interested in radical Islam. Jessica Stern’s research found that often the attacker starts out feeling humiliated and angry that they are viewed as second class. It validates their desire to take on a new identity, often on behalf of a purported spiritual cause; ‘the weak become strong…rage turns into conviction.’

Those individuals exhibit delusions of grandeur and elevated personal grievance, with a willingness to exploit others supported by a sense of entitlement. An ideology such as jihadism is one that lends itself to this narrative and becomes an enabler to justify the narcissist’s actions to the point of violent extremism. Narcissism becomes deadly when destructive impulses are transformed into noble, moral acts.

Rather than being ideologically committed to the cause, the current wave of lone actors is motivated by the ease with which they can attain a symbolic status, justifying an attack by attaching it to a wider cause. It works for both parties; not only does it give the attacker more perceived individual importance,  it also adds to the perceived influence of the organisation as more dangerous and more of a threat through racking up numbers of attacks.

Trying to thwart unpredictable attacks is complex and challenging for authorities. Distinguishing between lone attackers who are deeply committed to the ideology of their chosen organisation and those who are franchising the organisation to exorcise personal demons is important, so we don’t contribute to the propaganda being disseminated. Waiting for, and expecting, terrorist organisations to claim an event may unduly—and paradoxically—give a longer lease of life to both the organisation and the perpetrator.