Radical Right Terrorists Are Usually Self-Radicalized

With access to online resources and communities, "lone wolf" terrorist incidents are increasingly prevalent among radical right extremists.
Anders Behring Breivik performs a Nazi gesture during an appeal at Telemark prison in Skien, Norway, on January 10, 2017 (NTB Scanpix/Lise Aaserud via Reuters)

Anders Behring Breivik performs a Nazi gesture during an appeal at Telemark prison in Skien, Norway, on January 10, 2017 (NTB Scanpix/Lise Aaserud via Reuters)

This article is an excerpt from Matthew Feldman’s new collection of essays, Politics, Intellectuals and Faith, edited by Archie Henderson. A fully-referenced version of ‘On “lone-wolf” terrorism’ can be found in chapter 13 (Columbia University Press, 2020).

What is unhelpfully called “lone wolf terrorism” is rising by every metric, no matter how it is defined. Unfortunately, for those determined to carry out premeditated acts of political violence, logistically alone, there are unprecedented resources available. Perhaps the most notorious examples from the 2010s, ten years in which there have been scores of attacks, were committed by radical right extremists.

This includes the murder of 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand by a radical right extremist on 15 March 2019; and the other end of the decade, another anti-Muslim identitarian, Anders Behring Breivik, detonating a nail bomb in the heart of Oslo at that killed eight people on 22 July 20111. This fascist mass-murderer then went on a shooting spree that left 69 innocents – overwhelmingly teenagers, executed at close range – scattered dead around Utøya Island. Chillingly, this murder of 77 people, moreover, may well have been to draw attention to Breivik’s first act of terrorism, the dissemination of his 1516-page tract, 2083: A Declaration of European Independence, a terrorist do-it-yourself kit. These disasters are just the tip of the iceberg. For one thing, the roots of this phenomenon remain much misunderstood.

It is clear that, given the increase in these solo actor terrorist attacks, both conceptual refining and a better understanding of this type of terrorism are urgently needed. If anything, this has become even more urgent with the maturation – if that is the right word – of new technologies; above all the internet. In discussing this resurgent genus of terrorism, I understand this self-directed form of terrorism this as attackers trying to individually go through the “terrorist cycle” (target selection, operational planning, deployment, the attack, escape, and exploitation). Sometimes called “leaderless resistance” or even, in the case of violent Islamism, “personal jihad”, these diverse terms center on the key feature of this kind of terrorism: a single actor attempting or undertaking ideologically motivated violence (especially political and/or religious) without external direction or coordination. But why has this spiked so massively this century; and in particularly, how does lone wolf terrorism relate to radical right extremism?

So why are we seeing this spike of lone wolf incidents now? Unfortunately, responses to this question are not helped by a slender history of scholarship in this area. Although now changing quickly, initially publicly available analysis on lone wolf terrorism is to be found not in academic research but in reports by think tanks. One reason is that self-directed terrorism challenges some of our assumptions about terrorist violence itself. One early study from 2007, for instance, argued that terrorism is generally understood to be a communal act licensed by an outside agency—clearly a view having little room for individually planned and undertaken violence:

The imbalance between the perceived threat of lone-wolf terrorism on the one hand and the almost exclusive scholarly focus on group-based terrorism on the other hand indicates the need for more conceptual and empirical analysis to enable a better understanding of lone-wolf terrorism.

Just such a “better understanding” matters more than ever today.

Briefly, this form of terrorism emerged from nineteenth-century anarchism, specifically owing to Mikhail Bakunin’s “propaganda of the deed,” as announced in his 1870 “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis” [e.g., the Paris Commune]: “we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.” Over the next 60 years, anarchist bombings—peerlessly fictionalized in Joseph Conrad’s 1907 The Secret Agent—were directed at royal, bourgeois, and economic targets. The most shocking of these extended to the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy in 1900, and a 1920 bombing on Wall Street in New York, killing 33 people and wounding more than 200. In one notorious case of self-directed anarchist violence—in a case championed by John Merriman as one that “arguably ignited the modern age of terrorism”—Émile Henry bombed the Café Terminus adjacent to the Gare Saint-Lazare in France on February 12, 1894, killing one and wounding 20. At his widely-reported trial, the 21-year-old terrorist proclaimed:

In the merciless war that we have declared on the bourgeoisie, we ask no mercy. We mete out death and we must face it. For that reason I await your verdict with indifference. I know that mine will not be the last head you will sever…You will add more names to the bloody roll call of our dead.

A similar apologia for this war on one’s own society was eerily echoed in Breivik’s closing trial statement on June 22, 2012, claiming that “what happened on July 22nd was an act of barbarism.” This “merciless war,” Breivik then continued, was a “preventative” one against the multicultural “treason” of the Norwegian—and more broadly, European—postwar establishment of “cultural Marxists”:

The attacks of July 22nd were preventive attacks, serving the defense of the Norwegian indigenous people, ethnic Norwegians, our culture, and I cannot declare myself guilty before the law for conducting them. I was acting in defense of my people, my culture, my religion, my city, and my country. Therefore I demand to be acquitted of all charges.

Since the 1980s, this tactic has been almost single-handedly revived by the radical right. Between 1980 and 1986 a long-term neo-Nazi ideologue named James Mason produced a monthly newsletter called Siege, which explicitly called for “lone eagles” and “one man armies”. More recently Siege has been collected and reprinted over four growing editions in 1992, 2003, 2017, and 2018, in both print and .pdf editions that are currently widely-read.) For his part, Mason has been a stalwart on the neo-Nazi scene since 1966, when he joined the American Nazi Party aged 14. In the years after the murder of the group’s first leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, a disillusioned Mason gravitated to the terroristic cell, the National Socialist Liberation Front (NSLF), where Mason came to reject all political approaches for fascist revolutionaries. In consequence, Siege is less engaged with theoretical discussions of fascism or the history of National Socialism than with strategies to replace the “mass movement” strategy of the American Nazi Party and others. Suggested tactics in Siege include white separatism; survivalism personal withdrawal from the liberal-democratic “System”; and political violence through self-directed or small cell terrorism. Siege’s encouragement of political violence were consistently formulated in support of National Socialist ideology.

Yet in James Mason’s Siege, these standard neo-Nazi themes came with an ideological addition that very few fascists could endorse, either at the time or since. Shortly after the first instalment of Siege in summer 1980, according to Mason, he met the notorious American convict, Charles Manson, and changed the name of his organisation to Universal Order, with the following logo:

In Siege, a September 1981 text explained this change as simply a changed context for National Socialism after 1945: “The One Truth came to be called National Socialism by Adolf Hitler in 1919. Today, under a different setting it might be called Universal Order, or something of the like”. In February 1983 another entry addresses these points more expansively – like that from September 1981, reprinted in all subsequent editions of where the section “Universal Order” is foregrounded over 35 entries and more than 60 pages’ discussion in the following terms:

Manson’s Idea is the same as the NS Program only that it is, understandably, intended for THIS TIME and THIS PLACE. The vast differences in times and places fully account for the seemingly vast discrepancies between Manson and Hitler. Adolf Hitler was the LAST to offer the world workable, orderly and just solutions AND – most importantly – be in a position to actually deliver.

In celebrating political violence, contemporary neo-Nazis see in James Mason’s Siege an early advocacy of the doctrine of more recently dubbed “acceleration”; that is, direct attacks on innocent people, national infrastructure or symbolic sites. Put simply, Mason was the first to systematically advocate what are now understood as “lone wolf”, or self-directed, terrorist attacks by fascist revolutionaries.

One key element in Mason’s turn away from the mass strategy of the American Nazi Party and its successor groups is his championing of ‘live wires’, whereby all volumes of Siege provide an section on “Lone Wolves and Live Wires”. Isolated, contemporaneous instances of extreme right-wing extremist murderers are frequently singled out for praise in Siege, including the 1970s racist killers Fred Cowan and Joseph Paul Franklin, as well as the 1980s radical right murderers Gordon Kahl and Frank Spisak. This extensive discussion of self-directed terrorism provided in Siege thus represents the earliest systematic fascist or neo-Nazi engagement with this tactic. As the additional examples bear out still further, Siege may be considered highly significant for the then-unprecedented attention given to what Mason dubs a ‘one-man army’:

Let us instead fully enjoin the concept of the One-Man Army and bring the struggle to the Enemy. Wherever you may be at this moment, let the revolution be there also. Spread a little revolution wherever you go! Never gripe about the System; project the Revolution! Get the people around you thinking in terms of TOTALITY, and not in terms of inches and degrees. Point out the real Enemy and not just the noisy, obnoxious symptoms – tell everyone it is the System itself that must go! Convey the feeling that it will be good to have all true White Men and Women as Comrades-in-Arms in the Revolution! Don’t try to promulgate a “faith”- there’s already too much of that. Be a spark for revolution.

The lone wolf cannot be detected, cannot be prevented, and seldom can be traced. […] For his choice of targets he needs little more than the daily newspaper for suggestions and tips galore. For his training the lone wolf needs only the U.S. military or any one of a hundred good manuals readily available through radical booksellers [….] His greatest concern must be to pick his target well so that his act may speak so clearly for itself that no member of White America can mistake its message.

If I were asked by anyone of my opinion on what to look for (or hope for) next I would tell them a wave of killings, or “assassinations,” of System bureaucrats by roving gun men who have their strategy well mapped-out in advance and well-nigh impossible to stop. […] You must understand that this is something altogether NEW that they have never had to face.

Given the way in which white supremacist literature circulated underground in the 1980s, it is likely Mason’s individual call to arms was then popularised by two more recognised leaders drawing upon his inspiration: Louis Beam and “Andrew MacDonald”. The latter was the pseudonymous author of the 1989 novel Hunter—who penned the notorious author of The Turner Diaries – the National Alliance ideologue William Pierce. The book itself is dedicated to Joseph Paul Franklin, the neo-Nazi serial killer who acted alone in trying to start a race war in the United States between 1977 and 1980. Hunter fictionalizes several of these episodes, before Oscar Yeager (based on Jäger; German for “hunter”), the novel’s protagonist, moves on to targeting government officials. The book concludes with the following call to arms:

By killing [FBI agent William] Ryan he had substantially increased the potential for flux. There certainly must be other men in key positions whose deaths also would influence the course of events. Both the worsening economy and the Black uprising would lead to a more unsettled climate in the country, the sort of climate which he ought to do everything in his power to exacerbate. Only in such a climate could the League hope to begin competing effectively with the Jews for the hearts and minds of the White public. He sighed. Well, he would be very busy during the next few days discharging responsibilities he already had incurred. But after that it would be time to do some more hunting.

This method for political violence was given theoretical impetus by an widely-circulated 1992 essay by the leading Ku Klux Klan activist, Louis Beam, entitled “Leaderless Resistance”:

It is the duty of every patriot to make the tyrant’s life miserable. When one fails to do so he not only fails himself, but his people. With this in mind, current methods of resistance to tyranny employed by those who love our race, culture, and heritage must pass a litmus test of soundness… participants in a program of Leaderless Resistance through phantom cell or individual action must know exactly what they are doing, and how to do it. It becomes the responsibility of the individual to acquire the necessary skills and information as to what is to be done. This is by no means as impractical as it appears, because it is certainly true that in any movement, all persons involved have the same general outlook, are acquainted with the same philosophy, and generally react to given situations in similar ways.

Beam argues that pervasive state power made traditionally structured, pyramidal revolutionary movements too easy to penetrate and disrupt. “Leaderless resistance is a child of necessity,” he argued:

Utilizing the Leaderless Resistance concept, all individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization.

In the wake of FBI shootings at Ruby Ridge and Waco in the early 1990s—exercising the imagination of the radical right in the United States around this time, with specters of a New World Order—in Jeffrey Kaplan’s words, “suddenly the term leaderless resistance was on everyone’s lips.” Particularly influential lips were those of American-based neo-Nazis Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, leading proponents of lone wolf terrorism as a tactic—while the growth of the Internet has ensured its continued circulation among the far right in the US, Europe, and beyond. In fact, populist right fears of a US government conspiracy to round up “patriots” at the end of the Cold War seems to have contributed to the spike in American militias and acts of terrorism in the 1990s —most horrifically, Timothy McVeigh’s murder of 168 people at the FBI’s Alfred P. Murrah building on April 19, 1995, of which more below. Exemplifying the way in which pre-Internet radicalization typically took place at this time, McVeigh had decided to turn some 50 tons of fertilizer into a truck bomb, in part, after coming into contact with The Turner Diaries.

Although profiling is a profoundly risky business, recent scholars have observed that self-activating terrorists tend to be overwhelmingly male, under 50, and have principally operated in the US and Western Europe. Usually, mental illness or reactive spree killings are distinguished from self-activating terrorists, who—despite being undertaken by an individual rather than by a terrorist movement or small cell—must plot, prepare, and prime in a manner familiar to counterterrorism experts. Second, and correspondingly, unlike “emotional” mass murderers, or those driven by a specific personal grievance, these are actions undertaken by calculating, determined individuals. Whatever the psychological world of lone wolf terrorists, consequently, it is both tautological and unhelpful to simply describe them as “crazy” following attacks that, seemingly, only a lunatic would envision. On this point, Fred Burton and Scott Stewart have separated an alleged prevalence of some form of severe psychological disorder—such as depression or lack of social skills—found in self-activating terrorists by usefully distinguishing between “lone wolves” and “lone nuts”.

Another key ingredient this century has been the irresistible rise in digital technologies (especially the Internet and, more narrowly and pertinently here, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and others). Through often-anonymized websites and postings, the radical right was an early adopter of this technology, stretching back to Don Black’s Stormfront website, first founded in 1995 and today home to hundreds of thousands of radical right activists. In turn, extremist groups ranging from the “new far-right” counter-jihad movement—whose prejudice against European Muslims is typically manifested culturally rather than racially—to more traditional neo-Nazi forums exist principally online. All of these groups may be considered radical right, in large measure, due to the illiberal stereotyping of all members in a given group (such as Muslims; the religion of more than a billion persons around the world). The historically significant trope of antisemitism, that long-standing shibboleth of the radical right also remains very powerful today. Broadly put, the white supremacism so characteristic of the “Fascist Epoch” before 1945 seems to be in the process of giving way to smaller, more overtly terroristic forms.”

As Ramón Spaaij’s superb academic study of this phenomenon since the 1970s emphasizes, the American radical right remains the most enthusiastic proponent of self-activating terrorism. If solo-actor ideological murders of pro-choice doctors are included as radical right actions, then roughly half of known “lone wolves” have derived from radical right ideology since 1968. Spaaij places this type of political violence at 1.8 percent of all terrorist attacks in the 15 Western countries included in the investigation (including five percent in the US during this time). Since the turn of this century, this previously little-used tactic has been measurably on the rise—and not just by American radical-right extremists. Yet at the same time, it is clear that the latter group and geographical area remains the epicenter. To reiterate, radical-right militants have been the most consistent champions of both lone wolf terrorism and online extremism. Short of the more overtly violent trade in terrorist manuals or weapons conversion kits, this radical-right milieu daily traffics in a kind of online incitement to hatred that has been ignored for too long.

A comparatively mild example derives from the aforementioned American Nazi Party website, White Revolution—proudly carrying the banners “EXTREME VIOLENT RACISM” and “WHITE REVOLUTION IS THE FINAL SOLUTION”—which claimed in 2009 that nearly half of informal poll respondents identified as lone wolves:

Your Involvement in a Pro-White Organization:
#1 – 47% said “Lone Wolf”
#2 – 34% said “Looking to Join, But Not Sure Which Org is the Best for Me”

That same year, a declassified Intelligence and Analysis report by the US Department of Homeland Security concluded: “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” If anything, this is more true now than it was in 2009.

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Part II

In the most destructive case study of self-activating terrorism to date, the leading trends touched on already—radical right extremism, the use of new media over time, and self-defined acts of asymmetrical warfare against unsuspecting targets—were horrifically exemplified by Anders Breivik’s rampage on 22 July 2011. Even the date chose was symbolic: on July 22, 1095, Jerusalem was sacked by the Ottoman Empire— which prompted the Crusades and, for Breivik, represented the first of the three so-called Muslim invasions of an allegedly homogenous Europe. Yet 2083 is also more than a radical-right manifesto. The final part, “A declaration of pre-emptive war”, provides a step-by-step manual for self-activating terrorism.

This ranges from instructions for obtaining weapons, constructing explosives, securing materials, the use of Google Earth for logistical support and target acquisition, instructions for hiding IP addresses, and, crucially, summaries of many of the “bomb-making recipes, guides and other relevant instructions on the internet.” Under the section ‘‘How to disassemble an AK47’’, for instance, Breivik’s answer is simply ‘‘See Youtube”. Elsewhere, the use of “an internet cafe which facilitates multiplayer Modern Warfare 2 simulation”” is recommended, while the manifesto also claimed that in the “first week of my ‘explosive research phase’ I googled for 200 hours over the course of 2 weeks.” In other words, the internet provided motive, means, and opportunity for Breivik’s terrorist attacks.

Undoubtedly, the internet also provided the platform for Breivik’s statement. Intended a sadistic template for the 21st century online world, , the dissemination of this terrorist DIY kit may yet have the most far-reaching impact. Chilling as it sounds, in a horrific inversion of the publicity sought as part of the normative terrorist cycle—exemplified, for instance, in the Unabomber’s 35,000 word anti-technology rant published near the end of his 16-year bombing campaign—Breivik’s acts may be understood as a kind of “terrorist PR.” Beyond his own (largely online) community of support, who else would have read Breivik’s approximately 775,000-word conspiratorial analysis about the Islamification of Europe, had the document been released a year’ or even a month, beforehand? Put another way, unlike terrorists seeking an ex post facto justification of their violent actions – seen, for instance, in the behavior of the 1970s Baader-Meinhof Gang (or “Red Army Faction”) terrorist organization – Breivik’s Norwegian attacks were intended, on the contrary, to create a readership for his manifesto as well as his 12-minute, summative online video. This was less “propaganda of the deed” than murderous deeds intended to draw attention to radical right propaganda – and tactics:

Following this table, Breivik’s final sentence in makes plain that his last acts before launching his mass murders were the completion of this mammoth work and sending it to hundreds of European “patriots” in the minutes before undertaking his terrorist attacks. Just as revealing—frightening, even—is Breivik’s conclusion that self-activating terrorism is both the least complicated to logistically undertake and most promising path for terrorist actions:

The old saying; “if you want something done, then do it yourself” is as relevant now as it was then. More than one “chef” does not mean that you will do tasks twice as fast. In many cases; you could do it all yourself, it will just take a little more time. AND, without taking unacceptable risks. The conclusion is undeniable.
I believe this will be my last entry. It is now Fri July 22nd, 12.51.


Sincere regards,
Andrew Berwick
Justiciar Knight Commander
Knights Templar Europe
Knights Templar Norway

Yet these are not the writings of a crazy man. However much Breivik’s actions smacked of delusion, it takes rational thought to publish more than 1,500 pages of text—let alone to successfully work through the terrorist cycle with such inhumane effectiveness. Although a vexed area perhaps best left to psychologists, individuals with severe mental illness are typically excluded from constructions of lone wolf terrorism. By contrast, the “exploitation” phase of the ‘terrorist cycle’ corresponds closely to the extensive justification for action in 2083. It forms part of an online sewer, where 2083 and other paramilitary manuals have created, in Raffaello Pantucci’s excellent phrase, the potential for autodidactic extremists:

“The loner leaning towards violence can now easily teach himself the extremist creed, and then define his global outlook along the same lines, using it as a justification when carrying out an act of violence.” These terrorist tutorials online stand out in Breivik’s case—for example, he claims to have started working on manufacturing explosives by spending a fortnight scouring the Internet—and his lessons were meticulously compiled and simplified for use by other self-activating terrorists:

If I had known then, what I know today, by following this guide, I would have managed to complete the operation within 30 days instead of using almost 80 days. By following my guide, anyone can create the foundation for a spectacular operation with only 1 person in less than a month even if adding 2 “resting” days!:-)

So, can a freely downloadable, easily accessible manifesto be considered as an act of terrorism? Without in any way intending to diminish Breivik’s subsequent actions and especially their heart-breaking consequences, it must be acknowledged that these acts of terrorism were intended as a sick form of publicity for 2083.

Nor did Anders Behring Breivik operate in a vacuum, but drew upon currents of populist racism against already-disadvantaged Muslims that has broken out like a rash in Europe and the US in our century. This raises an point raised in Gerry Gable and Paul Jackson: “far-right terrorists are not lone wolves but are connected with, influenced by and often helped by organizations whose beliefs they share.” Earlier approaches to lone wolf terrorism often failed “to understand both the particular context from which ‘lone wolf’ ideology comes, and the community of support that backs up such solo actor terrorism.” How societies respond to radical right extremism is likely to be severely tested in the years to come, as I have noted elsewhere in Politics, Intellectuals, and Faith.

As a primer, this over had identified several characteristic features of this ‘fifth wave’ of terrorism. Whether targeting the bourgeoisie or multiculturalism in Europe and the United States, self-activating terrorists have tended to see their acts as symbolic strikes in a war against parts of their own society. Targets are chosen and attacked logistically alone. As an essential tool, the Internet offers terrorist, training, manuals, and not least, radicalization and endorsement. That said, connections with like-minded individuals and movements does invalidate the concept, as some critics suggest (if complete and total isolation were a definitional feature, perhaps the only lone wolf terrorist since 1945 would be Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber).

Likewise, even if lone wolf terrorism’s most enthusiastic supporters in the last few years have been extreme-right activists, the tactic is promiscuous— there have also been individual acts of “eco-terrorism” against symbolic targets, “single issue” animal rights or abortion activists, and even, with sad irony, anti-war campaigners. That is to say, self-activating terrorism is a terrorist method, and racist fantasies by no means the defining feature of all self-activating terrorism. To take an emergent trend, Raffeallo Pantucci identified “influential ideologues” on behalf of jihadi Islamism, like the now-deceased Anwar al-Awlaki and Abu Musab al-Suri – the latter a prominent jihadi Islamist and author of the Breivik-length call for self-activating terrorism, The Global Islamic Resistance Call – to promote solo attacks. “Similarly,” writes Pantucci, “Al Qaeda’s American spokesman Adam Gadahn openly praised Nidal Hassan Malik (the man who opened fire at Fort Hood).”

Seen in this way, self-activating terrorism is a 21st century return to ideological violence by lone actors, undertaken through the “terrorist attack cycle” and with a variable amount of external influence and context rather than external command and control. This characterisation excludes impromptu acts of violence, even if they are politically or religiously motivated. By focusing more squarely motives and logistical capabilities, it is hoped that this definition of self-activating terrorism will go some way toward comprehending new tactics and help formulate better prevention mechanisms. Both are long overdue.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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