The Future of Disruption of Public Events

An analysis of the 'lone wolf' phenomenon suggests that to describe all such individuals as merely 'idiots', is to grossly underestimate what you might be dealing with.

A recent incident has provoked questions over how a possible breach of security could have happened in the midst of one of the most high profile events in the British Sporting and Social Calendar. Inevitably, official precautions over similar or more serious disruptions to the upcoming Olympics in the UK, are now being queried.

The security review which will already be underway, will be modelling what if someone with lethal intent undertook a disruption strategy.

Boat Race Director, David Searle is reported in the British Press to have explained that this kind of scenario was 'wargamed' last year, going on to defend the security arrangements by commenting that 'usually we get good police intelligence, but obvious this time they didn't hear anything'.

But the actions of alone individual may be driven by a very different set of motivational factors, as opposed to a protest group or terrorist cell.

Behavioural analysis of how antagonistic groups operate, and infiltrating them in order to gain intelligence so as to hamper their actions, is now at an advanced stage for intelligence and security services across the Western world. Yet how effective are they at understanding the psychology of the loner? Is it possible this is the last frontier of the battle against civil disruption and terrorism? Perhaps precisely because of the relative success of agencies against groups or cells, the action in the future could be moving to lone individuals, as posing maximum threat to social order.

Any dissident group becomes immediately vulnerable on several security fronts. Activists have to communicate with each other in order to plan actions, and these exchanges can be intercepted. A lone individual doesn't commune - taking him or her off the grid. While Blackberry, Twitter, Facebook and social networking were all partly blamed for the organisation of UK riots last year, they also later played a role in targeting the guilty.

Dissident groups can be infiltrated and clearly have been successfully in the past, the true extent of this is kept from the public to ensure it remains a potent anti-terrorist weapon. How to screen for double agents and the possibility that a loyal member might change sides because of blackmail or a change in sentiment, means terrorist cells are perennially hamstrung by apprehensions over trust and betrayal.

The ultimate future step in civil disruption and terrorism appears therefore to be the so-called 'micro-actor', a phenomenon the weekend has put under the spotlight, because of the implications for the Olympics. The term "lone wolf" seems to have become popular in the late 1990s amongst 'white supremacists' in the USA, who began to envision a lone individual as the more potent weapon against the Government compared with conventional terrorism.

In the USA there is increasing concern the key threat in the future is not going to come from an organised group, but more from a lone individual, a phenomenon that is now widely referred to as the 'lone wolf'. For example, CIA Director Leon Panetta stated in 2010 that "it's the lone wolf strategy that I think we have to pay attention to as the main threat to this country." President Barack Obama voiced a similar concern when he stated during an interview on CNN in2011: "The risk that we're especially concerned over right now is the lone wolf terrorist, somebody with a single weapon being able to carry out wide-scale massacres."

FBI director Robert S. Mueller III stated in 2003 that "the threat from single individuals sympathetic or affiliated with al-Qaeda, acting without external support or surrounding conspiracies, is increasing."

North America's intelligence community's mounting concern over the 'lone wolf' may have been so far successfully hidden from the public, not least because no official wants to admit the individual is so much more difficult to defend against than a terrorist group, but the signs are there for all to see. For example, the introduction of a "lone wolf provision" into the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2004.

Researchers specialising in this area wonder if the intelligence community, rather as the speculation over the weekend incident shows, has been caught floundering without an oar, because of the over-reliance to date on understanding terrorism or civil disruption as a group process.

The recently published book Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention argues terrorism is commonly understood to date as essentially a collective, organised activity and, so the psychology of group dynamics becomes the focus on understanding the individual journey into terrorism. Charismatic leaders, top-down or bottom-up recruitment, ideological training, indoctrination, moral disengagement, in-group solidarity, conformity, obedience, depersonalization, all become key factors the secret service are currently preoccupied with. Yet this form of thinking all has to be thrown over-board, when dealing with the 'lone wolf'.

But just because someone acts entirely alone doesn't mean they weren't motivated, inspired or sustained ideologically by others. Academic experts refer to 'ideologies of validation' whereby the lone wolf's beliefs and motivations are sustained by a collective's antagonism to ruling authority, while the actual acts of protest or terrorism are entirely down to the perpetrator acting alone.

But one of the problems of researching 'lone wolf' terrorism is knowing when someone really is acting completely alone. Perhaps sometimes an accomplice or collaborators melt away after a single culprit is captured, or it's difficult to know the influence and contribution of colleagues. Some rigid definitions of the 'lone wolf' would exclude the Oklahoma City bombing on 19 April 1995, when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb killing 168 people and injured over 800.

Although the actual attack was apparently carried out solely by an individual, an accomplice Terry Nichols appeared to have played a pivotal part in planning the violence. Given this was the most lethal terrorist incident in US history before the 9/11 atrocity, it's notable how unwise it would be to neglect the subject of the malcontent acting more or less alone.

Christopher Hewitt, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and teaching at the Centre for Security Studies at the Georgetown University USA, is author of Understanding Terrorism in America. From the Klan to al Qaeda. He argues in his book there are important geographical differences in the prevalence of lone wolf terrorism, with a suggestion that it's increasing in importance in certain parts of the West. For example, he finds that between 1955-1977, 7% of all victims of terrorism in the US were killed by 'unaffiliated' individuals, but during 1978-99 this proportion soared to 26%.

In response to this argument that 'lone wolf' terrorism might be increasing in particular regions, Spaaij's book Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention examined all terrorist attacks carried out by lone individuals between 1968 and 2010 in fifteen countries across the West. He found 'lone wolf' terrorism accounts for 1.8% of all terrorist incidents (198 of a total of 11,235 terrorist incidents ), suggesting a relatively insignificant phenomenon, perhaps explaining why security agencies may be looking the other way - towards understanding groups - when the lone individual penetrates a cordon.

But the study also found significant cross-national variations, with it being radically more prevalent in the United States. The US incidents (113 in total) accounted for almost 57% of all cases. The data also suggested that lone wolf terrorism could be increasing dramatically. The total number of lone wolf attacks grew from 30 in the 1970s to 73 in the 2000s, an increase of 143%. In Europe, the incidence of lone wolf terrorism more than quadrupled during this period.

The other reason lone wolf terrorism should attract more attention is its unpredictability based on the fact its perpetrators are probably significantly more likely to be suffering from mental disturbance or illness. This was Christopher Hewitt's conclusion and is supported by Spaaij's study.

Many of the most infamous 'lone wolf' terrorists received formal psychiatric diagnoses. But controversy has dogged conclusions about their mental states and motivations even after their arrest and extensive investigation by psychiatrists, suggesting this is a particularly difficult group to understand.

For example David Copeland (the London Nail Bomber) was diagnosed by five psychiatrists as suffering from paranoid psychosis following the 13-day London nail bombings in1999, killing three people, injuring 129. However, one other psychiatrist disagreed and diagnosed a personality disorder instead, but which wasn't so severe as to prevent him standing trial for murder. The jury went against the 'diminished responsibility' argument and he was sentenced to six life sentences for murder. Copeland apparently claimed sadistic dreams from the age of 12.

Theodore Kaczynski (a.k.a the Unabomber) also attracted a diagnosis of paranoia by court appointed psychiatric opinion, and was responsible for a US mail bombing campaign spanning nearly two decades, killing three people and injuring 23 others. But he himself rejected an insanity plea which his own lawyers tried to enter on his behalf.

Austrian Franz Fuchs deployed 28 homemade bombs in five series of bomb attacks between 1993 and 1996, killing four people, and later made suicide attempts possibly suggestive of mental illness. When arrested he detonated an Improvised Explosive Device which he was actually holding, while the suicide attempt failed, he lost both hands. He was eventually sentenced to a life term, but was later found hanged in his cell with the cable of his electric razor.

The consciously or unconsciously depressive or self destructive nature of the actions of the disruptive loner is also hinted at by incidents such as when James Miller para-glided into the Evander Holyfield v Riddick Bowe World Championship boxing bout in Las Vegas. Miller later committed suicide in 2002. Depression may be one of the commonest diagnoses in the perpetrator's past, but it remains unclear if, and if so how, this condition contributes to a causal explanation of lone wolf terrorism.

Volkert van der Graaf assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn on 6 May 2002 apparently because Van der Graaf believed Fortuyn was targeting Muslims as "scapegoats". Van der Graaf was sent for seven weeks of psychiatric assessment, but controversy dogged the use of 24 hour video surveillance during his observation. Eventually the psychiatrists concluded Van der Graaf could be held completely accountable for the killing, though they also conceded he suffered from obsessive compulsive symptoms and personality disorder which may have accounted for his rigid moral thinking style.

Specialists in this area conclude that although terrorists who operate within groups or who emerge from organisations do not generally suffer from any identifiable psychopathology, indeed they are frequently found to be surprisingly 'normal', the rate of psychiatric disturbance appears to be significantly higher among 'lone wolf' terrorists.

This factor might therefore need to be taken account of more by authorities when trying to ensure large scale disruption is avoided in the future to events which might be targeted for political or activists' ends.

British Olympic Association chairman Colin Moynihan is now reported, following the disruption at the weekend, to have admitted police and security chiefs "can never completely remove" the threat of London 2012 disruption.

He's quoted as saying; "It just takes, and is likely to be, one idiot...It's not likely to be a well-orchestrated campaign through Twitter or websites...It is likely to be some one similar to the idiot yesterday who causes major disruption...That is why all the security measures need to be put in place to minimise the chance of that happening...You can never completely remove it but you can do everything possible to protect the interests of the athletes by minimising it."

An analysis of the 'lone wolf' phenomenon suggests that to describe all such individuals as merely 'idiots', is to grossly underestimate what you might be dealing with.


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