Professor discusses ‘lone wolf’ terrorists

Carolin Goerzig, Ph.D., an assistant professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness in the  L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, said anyone with computer access can become exposed to the ideology of terrorists and terror organizations, but there are complicated forces behind why “lone wolf” terrorists are motivated to act.

United States Attorney General Eric Holder is concerned about lone wolf terror attacks against the U.S. conducted by individuals who are not connected with a larger terrorist group or cell and who are often self-radicalized. Holder shared his fears about lone wolf terrorists in an interview with CNN earlier this week.

Lone wolf terror attacks, launched by citizens with no apparent direct ties to terror groups, have taken place over the past two decades in the U.S., including April’s Boston Marathon bombings. Authorities have said the two brothers accused of setting off the pressure cooker bombs at the finish line acted without the support of a larger terror organization.

“Lone wolf terrorists seem to be self-radicalized and not influenced through relationships with other radicals or inspired by the contact to charismatic leaders,” Goerzig said. “The lack of relationships as an influential factor might tell us that the causes of self-radicalization must be powerful enough to convince the individual of a terrorist deed. Maybe, individual and psychological explanations or social psychology accounts centering on identity hold more weight to account for lone wolf terrorism than for members of larger terrorist organizations.”

Media reports indicate groups such as al-Qaeda clearly back the efforts of individual terrorists. The terror organization’s recruitment magazine called on followers to avoid plotting with others, strike near where they live and to use whatever weapons are available.

Goerzig said the emergence of lone wolf terrorists could either signal a weakening of al-Qaeda or demonstrate its influence.  

“Lone wolf attacks either reveal that al-Qaeda has lost in importance or, on the contrary, that al-Qaeda’s ideology is so strong that it does not need physical contact for recruitment,” Goerzig said. “Lone wolf terrorism could speak in favor of either al-Qaeda gaining in influence or against it.”

Counterterrorism forces have a tougher time stopping terrorists who act on their own because, unlike a planned attack directed by an overseas terror organization, there is less intelligence to detect and follow.

“Lone wolf terrorism is an evidence of the terrorism-counterterrorism conundrum, of the adaption of terrorism to counterterrorism measures such as surveillance and intelligence,” Goerzig said. “By making it harder for terrorist organizations to operate, counterterrorism measures might provoke lone wolf terrorism as an according adaptation and innovation of terrorism. Arguably, therefore, we might see more lone wolf terrorism in the future.”

Goerzig teaches and researches terrorism, radicalization, negotiating with terrorists, terrorist cooperation and cyber-terrorism.

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Carolin Goerzig, Ph.D.
Carolin Goerzig, Ph.D.