The Myth Of Lone Wolf Terrorism

Why the misguided belief in the "lone wolf" creates ineffective counterterrorism policies.
Proud Boys in Raleigh, North Carolina – November 28, 2020. (Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Proud Boys in Raleigh, North Carolina – November 28, 2020. (Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Sara Kamali is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and an expert with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. She is also the author of Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War against the United States (University of California Press, 2021) available at Amazon and Bookshop in the US and Waterstones and Foyles in the UK.

This year marks twenty years since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. In a few months’ time, the United States will also observe the first year of the January 6th, 2021 insurrection. As the country reflects on the sacrifices made by those who were protecting democracy and the innocent lives lost, the Biden administration must also re-evaluate America’s approach to national security. While the acknowledgment of White nationalism as the greatest threat to the United States is a recent and seismic shift in the understanding of terrorism, the myth of the lone wolf, or the solitary individual who may carry out an atrocious act against fellow citizens at any moment, remains.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reiterated the centrality of the lone wolf to the counterterrorism framework in March during his first congressional hearing in March. He stated, “The lone wolf … is our greatest threat in the homeland right now.”

The lone wolf myth in the post-9/11 era has created uncertainty over fellow citizens, particularly Americans of color and Muslim Americans, resulting in the constant questioning of Muslim Americans over their faith, American identity, and right to belong in the United States. For the last twenty years, the erroneous notion has persisted that any Muslim American, including one’s co-workers and neighbors, could somehow be triggered into perpetrating an act of terrorism at any moment.

Socially, the stigma is attached to practicing Islam by engaging in the rituals of prayer and fasting, and to appearing visibly Muslim either by donning a beard or hijab. Legally, the discrimination manifested as mass surveillance by networks of law enforcement agencies at places of worship, workplaces, and schools. The myth of the lone wolf depicts Muslim Americans as the Other, unpatriotic to the United States and never able to reconcile their Muslimhood and Americanness.

More than a decade ago as I set out to research and write my book, Homegrown Hate, comparing militant Islamism and White nationalism, I was often met with disbelief and questions over my patriotism, because I sought to examine how terrorism could also be perpetrated by White Americans. Since then, the January 6th attack on the US Capitol and on democracy itself has forced our national consciousness to reckon with this type of political violence.

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My research has also shown how the lone wolf is a construct made up by Louis Beam, a prominent white nationalist, in his essay describing “leaderless resistance” and then borrowed by Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, a militant Islamist ideologue to promote “single operations” carried out by individuals.

On the other hand, the idea of the lone wolf has actually diminished the threat of White nationalism by allowing security forces, the media, and the public to downplay the complexities of the online and offline networks. By linking this myth of a dangerous and solitary individual primarily with militant Islamists, specifically, and Muslim Americans, generally, the focus was taken away from the understanding the full scope of White nationalism in the United States that has been omnipresent since the nation’s founding. More recent incidents include the 2017 Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville to the 2020 and 2021 Save America rallies led by President Trump that culminated in the January 6th insurrection.

Even when President Obama, for example, remarked on lone wolves at the National Defense University in 2013, he mentioned White nationalist cases, but did so in a speech about militant Islamist threat to homeland security. White nationalists, like Dylann Roof or John Earnest, were portrayed and perceived as lone wolf terrorists instead of part of packs who found virtual dens online. Certainly, like-minded communities they each found online shaped the manifestos they posted before committing their respective acts of terrorism.

Their online writings and offline violence, in turn, are part of a continuum of White nationalist terrorist violence that is motivated by the political aim of a white ethno-state as well as a hatred of people of color, Jews, Muslims, women, and Queer people. Their shared worldview is one that dehumanizes people of color – as well as other marginalized communities – throughout the twentieth century, and is evident in the writings of eugenicist Madison Grant, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and – of course – Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto, The Great Replacement, in the twenty-first century.

When it comes to securing the homeland, both in terms of national security and the social fabric, the future of our democracy depends on acknowledging the depth and breadth of the White nationalist threat to the homeland by dispelling the myth of the lone wolf in order to recognize and address the imbrication of White nationalism within the political fabric of the United States.

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. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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Opinion // CARR / Counter-Extremism / Domestic Terrorism / Radical Right / White Nationalism / White Supremacist Terrorism