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The Psychology of a 'Lone Wolf' Terrorist

The "lone wolf" attacker has recently been connected to radical Islam, but the full explanation is more complicated.
Image: CBC News

"Anyone is capable of being a Lone Wolf." —Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance

On Sunday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released further details about the psychological profile of lone gunman Michel Zehaf-Bibeau, who took the life of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and then his own during a shooting attack at the Canadian Parliament.

Zehaf-Bibeau was "driven by ideological and political motives," the RCMP declared, echoing what other outlets had already said: the shooter's affiliation with radical Islam was the motivation for his actions.


But from what we know of Zehaf-Bibeau, politics may have played a small part in his psychology. Rather, the shooter shows more characteristics of what authorities commonly call the "lone wolf" threat.

After a deranged gunmen in Norway shot up a summer camp in 2011, President Barack Obama defined the 'lone wolf' as "one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology," who, using small weapons, "can do a lot of damage." Furthermore, "it's a lot harder to trace those lone wolf operators."

The RCMP defines the lone wolf a self-radicalized extremist, attacking in homage to his terrorist heroes, carrying out a small scale operation unbeknownst to authorities. Commissioner Bob Paulson recently told a Senate committee in Canada that they're a greater threat to Canadians than an elaborate act of terrorism.

As the popular theory goes, the lone wolf's independence allows for easy evasion of traditional authorities and signals intelligence networks, making them almost undetectable.

In light of the latest tragedies in Canada, lone wolfism has been connected with radical Islam.

But even then, the lone wolf profile is varied and obviously involves more than just radicalization within militant Islam. In fact, research suggests being a lone wolf involves a variety of factors, not simply one religious perspective.

There's no denying at least some sources confirming the shooter was a follower of online jihadists, and listened to the calls for attacks on Canadians in light of Canada's increased involvement in the war on ISIS in Iraq.


Zehaf-Bibeau also prepared a video recording of himself prior to the attack. That video reportedly shows the shooter denouncing Canadian foreign policy and praising "Allah," and is apparently persuasive enough evidence for the national policing agency to say Zehaf-Bibeau underwent apparent radicalization via Islamic extremists.

But merely connecting the shooter to online jihadism may be an oversimplification. Zehaf-Bibeau may be part of a larger psychological narrative of lone wolves, who often have a lot more in common with each other than Islam or mass shootings.

As it stands, the oft described 'lone wolf' has a more established reputation among psychology experts, who say political struggle has a limited role as the catalyst of atrocities committed by a single actor.

Thousands of western Muslims carry radical views, and yet don't carry out attacks because "opinions are cheap, action is costly," noted professor on the psychology of terrorism Clark McCauley wrote in Psychology Today after the attacks.

Moreover, he said that Zehaf-Bibeau fits the role of a lone wolf terrorist with the "disconnected-disordered" profile, where the role of political and radical beliefs is only part of the force driving an attacker.

According to McCauley, a lone wolf is an "individual with a grievance, especially a personal grievance, who has little to lose and a lot to escape from in perpetrating an act of violence." That type of attacker is usually "a loner, often with mental disorder, and weapons experience outside the military."


By all accounts, Zehaf-Bibeau was a misfit, used drugs, had a string of armed crimes under his name, and wanted help for his own mental anguish. The call to arms from ISIS may have been just the spark of justification, rather than the chief catalyst for his actions.

In the abstract of another paper with co-researcher Sophia Moskalenko, McCauley also shows that lone actors tend to carry out their attacks with moralistic justifications in mind.

Part of these attacks carried out by loners is an evolutionary "willingness to punish moral transgression" even if that means punishing another individual with lethality. Then, something called "group identification" enables the attacker to justify "self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, including actions against those who threaten the group."

Attaching themselves to a pan-political movement like global jihad or nationalistic and racial war, as in the case of Anders Breivik in Norway, falls into that kind of profile.

The history of lone wolves has also confused both law enforcement agencies and social scientists alike. The issue stems from whether or not you can legitimately call them a terrorist entity, or a single actor with mental illness. Further confusing the issue are the similarities between the so called lone wolf terrorist and a hate crime offender.

While President Barack Obama and former CIA director Leon Panetta have both identified the lone wolf as a major national security threat to Americans, a Homeland Security study from 2013 shows those types of attacks are more in line with classic hate crime attacks like abortion clinic bombings.


"On the surface it appears that lone actor terrorists and hate crime offenders share certain tendencies," said the study. "Hate crime offenders are rarely part of an organization, and hence perpetrators are not embedded in a hierarchical structure, akin to lone actor terrorists."

Neither Zehaf-Bibeau nor Martin Couture-Rouleau (another ISIS inspired attacker who killed a Canadian soldier in Montreal last week), had any distinguishable connection to any terror networks—yet both readily displayed anger toward the state and a history of violence.

The study holds that hate crimes fall within the same context, "each type of behavior also expresses a prejudice against the target or what the target stands for, and each transpires with intent to intimidate a broader group."

Homeland Security also found that KKK bombings and White Supremacists in the US are reportedly the biggest perpetrators of these sorts of attacks.

On the surface it appears that lone-actor terrorists and hate crime offenders share certain tendencies

The larger comparison between hate crimes and lone wolves, or even fringe passion crimes driven by political anger, isn't just an American phenomenon. One example is barely six months old and was even more lethal.

In June, Justin Bourque, a 24 year-old shooter with fringe right-wing beliefs and a gun enthusiast, shot five RCMP officers and killed three of them. His attacks, pre-meditated and without rhyme or reason other than a hatred for police, have been called some of the worst in the history of Canada, but neither garners attention as a terrorist attack nor the surveillance questions that spawned from Zehaf-Bibeau's actions.


In the end, law enforcement, intelligence, and even academia is in aggreeance: policing lone wolves is near impossible. Especially as private intelligence firm Stratfor maintains, because "the lone wolf threat can be generated by a broad array of ideologies, not just jihadism."

In that context, think of Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, or in this case, Zehaf-Bibeau: loners who planned attacks outside of a traditional illicit network. All driven by anger, with a history of violence, mental issues, and a political movement they considered the moral high ground eventually sparking their actions.

In other words, the concept of the lone wolf is so nebulous, pooling from a variety of psychological, political, and social reasonings, that to defend against such an attack seems impossible. As evidenced by Zehaf-Bibeau, nothing is stopping any individual from carrying out an attack against the state with a hunting rifle and some audacity.

The only thing that could guarantee that kind of preventative safety is for there to be an all-seeing state. And while technologically we're nearly at the point that such state mechanisms could watch over us all with an all seeing eye, do we really want that?

In the end, the rise of the lone wolf attack is likely a byproduct of the success signals intelligence agencies and domestic law enforcement has had policing radical groups from fraternizing with one another—further isolating individuals with radical views and the boldness to attack.