What Is ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorism in the Digital Age?

About Eli Lee

On July 23 of this year, John Russell Houser opened fire inside a Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater, killing two women and injuring nine others before turning his gun on himself. Houser was a disaffected loner with a history of publicly expressing Far Right views, although most of his political activity had taken place online. In January 2014, reacting to the arrest of a Greek neo-Nazi parliamentarian, Houser wrote on one of the party’s affiliated websites, “you must realize the power of the lone wolf.”

Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof

The concept of autonomous “Lone Wolf” terrorism as a dominant strategy for U.S. political extremists has been widely discussed recently, especially after the horrific mass shooting in Charleston earlier this year, which was allegedly planned and carried out independently by Dylann Roof. It is also the focus of Naomi Braine’s research report “Terror Network or Lone Wolf,” published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine. Braine demonstrates the tendency of U.S. law enforcement and media to frame Far Right terrorists as Lone Wolves, while Muslim militants who act similarly are usually described as part of international jihadist terror networks. She raises the question of whether the Lone Wolf paradigm is a realistic approach to combating right-wing terror: is a landscape of disparate Lone Wolves, standing apart from political networks, really the most accurate representation of domestic terrorism in the United States today?

Indeed, Roof’s case suggests that in the digital age, it may be easier than ever before for individuals to be turned towards political violence in a relative vacuum. But it also suggests that the very concept of what group membership means has shifted with technological changes, thereby blurring the distinction between Lone Wolves and traditionally organized political actors—a difference that is central to the Lone Wolf paradigm.

A long-running debate exists concerning what, exactly, a Lone Wolf is. The concept is linked to the notion of “leaderless resistance”—a tactic promoted by White nationalist Louis Beam in his 1983 essay of the same name. Beam suggests that, in order to avoid detection by the authorities, White nationalists should eschew traditional top-down organizational structures and instead form small “phantom cells,” which operate independently of higher leadership and are more difficult to track. To further enhance security, he also discourages communication between cells. In Beam’s formulation, both individuals and small groups can constitute cells. Lone Wolf terrorism represents an even more strictly decentralized variant of leaderless resistance: it refers to actions wholly planned and carried out by an individual working outside of any organized groups.

The best-known proponents of the strategy under this name were White nationalists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger; Metzger’s essay “Laws For The Lone Wolf” urges right-wing terrorists to avoid involvement with any and all “membership groups.”

While Lone Wolf terrorists are influenced by the ideologies of external groups, they cannot be affiliated with them in any significant way.

Defining and identifying Lone Wolf terrorism is important because, according to former PRA senior analyst Chip Berlet, “different investigative techniques with different levels of government intrusiveness are required depending on the type of target. Therefore accurate descriptions of target terrorist formations and potential terrorist cells are crucial for the effectiveness of stopping actual acts of terrorism.”

The matter quickly becomes more confusing, however. It is impossible to determine how many White nationalist Lone Wolves have existed who were directly inspired by these doctrines. It is also unclear how much contact Lone Wolves can have with their political milieu, and what forms that contact can take.  Beam, for example, said they could keep abreast of their movement through “newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc.”

The notion of the Lone Wolf has been adopted by right-wing monitors and academics and applied more broadly to include other political movements; it has also changed meaning. Some extend the term to describe people who are members of political groups, but acted alone in their crimes (such as Michael Wade Page, the Oak Creek gunman, who was a member of a Nazi skinhead gang). Others use it interchangeably with leaderless resistance, referring to the actions of more than one person. Some insist that to be true Lone Wolves or members of phantom cells, participants can never have had prior involvement in political organizations. Could a Lone Wolf ever have belonged to a membership group, and if so, how long in the past—one day or twenty years? Finally, the mainstream media has recently tended to erroneously use the term to imply that Lone Wolves are not ideologically motivated actors.

So, does Dylann Roof qualify as a true Lone Wolf? Thus far, under the traditional definition, the answer seems to be yes. Although he self-identifies as a White nationalist in his so-called “manifesto,” Roof was not a member of any organized racist group. The closest he may have come to formal participation was potentially commenting on the White nationalist website The Daily Stormer. And while Roof had expressed White supremacist views in pictures on his Facebook page and personal website, he did not inform anyone in advance of his attack that he was planning to commit racially motivated mass murder.

Nonetheless, something is different here: Roof’s manifesto reads like the testimony of a committed racist partisan, referencing organized White nationalist groups by name and weighing in on some of the movement’s internal debates. Even if he acted alone and never held group membership or had in-person social ties, there is more to the relationship between Roof and the larger White nationalist movement than simply referring to him as a Lone Wolf would suggest.

Tom Metzger

Tom Metzger

There could, perhaps, be a more complicated relationship between Lone Wolf actors and the larger political movements they are aligned with. In 2003, Simson Garfinkel, a researcher who has studied domestic terrorism, wrote that the de facto outcome of leaderless resistance was the division of the Far Right movement into two parts: one seemingly innocent element that publically expressed Far Right ideals, using coded language to name targets for domestic terrorism; and the other an underground element made up of phantom cells, that derived its objectives and views from the first group. The only connection between the two is that the second group is aware of the first’s opinions; the two elements do not communicate directly. (Braine’s article goes further, showing how many so-called Lone Wolves have longstanding social and political ties to larger political movements.)

Newer, Internet-based groups further cloud these questions about what “group membership” means. The Internet is filled with groups and organizations of every conceivable ideology and belief set, but each can have its own version of what constitutes “membership.” For example, the “hacktivist” network Anonymous presents itself as a membership group, but has no formal membership protocols and no membership list, public or otherwise. Inclusion in the group is contingent only on one’s awareness of its cause and willingness to identify as a member—journalist Carole Cadwalladr wrote that “if you believe in Anonymous, and call yourself Anonymous, you are Anonymous.”

Despite well-reasoned claims to the contrary, Dylann Roof may indeed have been what is traditionally considered a Lone Wolf terrorist—but that distinction is based on analytical frameworks developed before the rise of today’s Internet.1

Determining whether an actor fits into the category of Lone Wolf, or is better described as a participant in leaderless resistance or organized terrorism, is based on an outdated binary definition of group membership, in which actors and larger groups are unequivocally either affiliated or unaffiliated with one another. In the digital age, now that belief in the cause and self-identification as a group member can be the only prerequisites for inclusion, it might be entirely possible for a Lone Wolf to act completely independently and still be fully politicized members of political movements, participating in movement debates and interacting with other members online—indeed, for Roof, this seems to have been the case.

To best represent the new nature of domestic terrorism, a new set of terms and a new model of these concepts and acts may be necessary.

*PRA associate fellow Spencer Sunshine contributed to this report.


 

[1] It’s important to note that early proponents of leaderless resistance tactics, such as Beam and Metzger, were no strangers to the Internet’s potential benefits for Far Right political actors. In 1984, one year after publishing “Leaderless Resistance,” Beam established a computer bulletin board system (BBS) called “Aryan Liberty Net,” affiliated with the Aryan Nations white supremacist organization. Soon afterwards, Metzger started his own BBS—the “W.A.R. Computer Terminal,” affiliated with his White Aryan Resistance group. By posting racist literature on their U.S.-based BBSes, Beam and Metzger were able to disseminate White supremacist ideas to people in foreign countries where hate speech was banned or restricted. Despite these computer networks’ connections to the progenitors of Lone Wolf terrorism, however, one aspect of their implementation and content distinguishes them from today’s Far Right Internet: unlike the ubiquitous Internet of today, the narrowly focused BBSes were explicitly affiliated with established hate groups and primarily intended for use by group members; in an article in the Inter-Klan Newsletter and Survival Alert, Beam claimed to be implementing “special electronic code access available only to Aryan Nation/Klu Klux Klan officers and selected individuals.” Although Beam and Metzger employed the Internet for political purposes at the same time that they were promoting leaderless resistance and Lone Wolf terrorism, the engagement of White supremacists with early Far Right BBSes is significantly different from the relationship between the contemporary Internet and Lone Wolf terrorists. Whether users of those BBSes constituted Lone Wolves, under Metzger’s original definition, remains an open question.

 

Eli Lee is a junior at Harvard University, currently studying history. He was a PRA research intern during the summer of 2015, investigating labor rights and economic justice.