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Lone Wolf Terrorism: Theoretical Analysis and Implications for Public Policy

Table of Contents
  1. Definition of Lone Wolf Terrorism
  2. Theoretical Analysis
  3. Implications for Public Policy
  4. References

Definition of Lone Wolf Terrorism

Terrorism does not have a universal legal definition. It varies from one organization to another as well as from country to country because the word remains a strong political pejorative associated with certain states, religions, and cultures. The UN identifies terrorism as “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons, or particular persons for political purposes, which are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the consideration of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them” (Hansen, 2020, p. 52).

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Although terrorist activities have been commonly associated with structured organizations, like ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the West has seen a resurgence of what is known as “lone-wolf terrorism.” This subtype of terrorism is classified by Bakker and de Roy (2015, p. 5) as “the threat or use of violence by a single perpetrator (or small cell), not acting out of personal material reasons, to influence a wider audience, and who acts without any direct support in the planning, preparation and execution of the attack, and whose decision to act is not directed by any group or other individuals (although possibly inspired by others).” The purpose of this paper is to provide a theoretical framework as well as implications of lone-wolf terrorism for public policy.

Theoretical Analysis

For this theoretical analysis, the working definition of lone-wolf terrorism by Bakker and de Roy (2015) will be accepted. The prominent concepts addressed by the theory would be motivations – the reasons to commit the act, and the instrumental choices – the ways one goes about to succeed in committing an act of terror. The two theories that explain the actions and motivations of terrorist organizations include instrumental and organizational ideas (Pisoiu & Hain, 2017). The former describes a terrorist act as a deliberate choice by a political act as a response to external stimuli. The latter claims that terrorism may be a result of the internalized fears and struggles of the organization for survival (Pisoiu & Hain, 2017). Lone-wolf terrorism may replicate these motivations on a smaller scale while sharing the overarching goals for the act of terrorist violence.

Lone-wolf terrorism is becoming increasingly popular in the West (and particularly in the US) for several instrumental reasons. The first and most prominent reason is that there are no active terrorist organizations that may support the viewpoints of the lone wolf and answer their belief for violence (Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). The second reason is the vulnerability of large-scale terrorist organizations in the West – the surveillance and the capabilities of secret services make group acts more likely to be detected and taken down (Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). Lone-wolf terrorist activities, on the other hand, are very difficult to prevent or predict. Finally, the individualist nature of western society makes for a psychological framework to operate either on one’s own or in small cells, disjointed from one another (Michael, 2017). Examples of lone-wolf terrorism in the West include the 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Breivik and the Christchurch Mosque shootings in 2019 (Hansen, 2020).

Implications for Public Policy

Countering lone-wolf terrorism is much more difficult than fighting organized terrorist activity, as it leaves a much smaller informational footprint. Expanding surveillance has proven inefficient and threatened many civil rights, such as the right to privacy. It can be concluded that increasing state surveillance would only increase social anxiety and give arguments to support violent actions. Instead of the messenger, public policy should focus on the message (Michael, 2017). Doing so would involve the organized actions of state and non-state actors. Names of lone-wolf attackers are to be forgotten, their message – prevented from being spread. News remarks about it should be brief or nonexistent. That way, the error message from the attacks will be minimized, making the practice pointless.


Bakker, E., & de Roy, V. Z. J. (2015). Lone-actor terrorism: Definitional workshop. Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism, 2, 1-19.

Hamm, M. S., & Spaaij, R. (2017). The age of lone wolf terrorism. Columbia University Press.

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Hansen, S. J. (2020). Routledge handbook of deradicalization and disengagement. Routledge.

Michael, G. (2017). Disturbing trends in lone wolf terrorism. Skeptic, 22(11), 13-19.

Pisoiu, D., & Hain, S. (2017). Theories of terrorism: An introduction. Routledge.

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