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Lone wolf terrorism in Europe, understanding the Motivation

Nov 25, 2021 | Studies & Reports

Andie Flemström

Andie Flemström

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

By : Andie Flemström – Stockholm Sweden  – Researcher in extremism and terrorism issues

The stabbing of British Conservative MP David Amis and the bloody attack in Norway using a bow and arrow resulted in killing 5 people last month brings to mind the so-called lone wolf attacks that have targeted Europe since 2015.

The terrorist operations that have hit Europa in recent years are a “slap” to the European security and intelligence agencies, which realized their “security failure” in analyzing and anticipating this type of operations that perpetrated by lone wolves. Although security experts had warned of the occurrence of terrorist operations following the cartoons published by the French Charlie Hebdo magazine, the European security and intelligence agencies were not prepared enough to confront the successive terrorist attacks.  Thus lone wolves remain a challenge to the European intelligence community, despite the successful measures and policies they have been taken on in the fight against terrorism.

Defining Lone Wolves?

The phenomenon of “lone wolves” is not new. Throughout the history there have been individuals who perpetrated independent terrorist attacks without any support or operational involvement from terrorist organizations.  The term “lone wolf” was popularized in the late 1990s by white supremacists Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis as part of an encouragement of fellow racists to act alone in committing violent crimes for tactical reasons. However, the development of technology and using the internet has significantly contributed to the growth of lone wolf phenomenon. Internet has empowered terrorists around the world to be part of virtual communities of like-minded people, contributing to the radicalization of their members, educating each other on planning and executing terror attacks without ever to meeting one another in reality[1] .Mark Sageman says that the Internet has created a new generation of terrorists who execute a “leaderless jihad”.[2]

However, the term “lone wolf” can be defined as a phenomenon wherein an individual terrorist carry out an attack on his/her own without order from – or even any operational connection to any specific terrorist organization. In other words, even if the terrorist was in contact with others (online or in person) and was inspired by a given terrorist organization, or even if individual terrorist see himself/herself   as its operative, still, as long as no terrorist organization was involved in any of the stages of the attack perpetrated—the initiation, planning, preparation, or logistics of the attack—it will be considered under the suggested definition as a “lone wolf” attack. [3]

Here it is important to illustrate the difference with a sleeper cell. A sleeper is
an operative who infiltrates the target society or organization and stay dormant until a group or organization orders them into action. In contrast, “a lone wolf is a standalone operative who by his very nature is embedded in the targeted society and is capable of self-activation at any time”. [4]

However, as jeffrey Simon says that “it would be wrong to assume that lone wolf terrorism is the exclusive domain of Islamic extremists.” [5] Lone wolves seem to come from all kinds of ideological and religious extremist corners. The strategy of lone wolf has been used by right-wing supremacists, separatist movements and anti-abortionists in many different ways.  Even there a growing fears of lone wolf attacks perpetrated by right-wing extremists. In a study conducted by Raffaello Pantucci in 2011 examined Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attack in Oslo and Utøya (Norway) on 22 July 2011. He argues that Breivik fits the “lone wolf” by profile and has connections to far-right communities worldwide. [6] This supports the view that the existing typologies of “lone wolf” terrorism should be reconsidered with greater attention given to the new phenomenon of “right-wing single actors.”[7].

Breivik case indicates how internet has a powerful role in empowerment and disseminating extremist ideologies that motivate like-minded individuals to carry out terrorist attacks. Technology plays a crucial role in today’s lone wolf terrorism. These terrorists are using the internet as a source of inspiration, get advice, or to create linkages and connection to like-minded extremists. Today’s lone wolves are increasingly dependent on the internet, and use new technologies to disguise their identities online to avoid detection.

Lone wolves in Europa

Despite the loss of Islamic state its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, it still poses a regional and international threat, inter alia, Europe despite the state of alert it has been experiencing since 2015 until now.

In Recent years terrorist attacks that took place in Europe reveal to what extent Islamist militants and extremists have penetrated local European societies. Extremist Islamist groups have become a direct threat to Europe. Given the spread of extremist ideology among the Muslim communities in Europe, European governments sought primarily to undermine this type of thought in order to maintain “societal security” and to avoid terrorist attacks, especially what is known as lone wolf attacks.

Al-Qaeda’s weakness and the defeat of Islamic state in Syria and Iraq in Syria have led these organizations to call upon independent lone actors to carry out attacks inspired by or even on behalf of these organizations. However, these organizations strive to create an atmosphere that supports “lone wolf” attacks via stimulation and propaganda disseminated online, and encourage their supporters around the world to commit acts of violence locally. [8] Ramon Spaaij claim that the number of attacks carried by alone wolves inspired by radical Islam has been on the rise due to the terrorist organizations’ call to execute such attacks. [9]

On the other hand, the “lone wolf” operations appeared at the end of 2009, as an alternative to the operations of the central al-Qaeda organization. It was unable to execute organized attacks, i.e., attacks that are the culmination of initiative, preparation, and involvement of terrorist organizations in Western countries, after being subjected to strong blows and attacks by the United States and its allies in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001.

In this context, many experts agree that Al-Qaeda is no longer that central organization that gives directions and provides funding, as much as it has turned into a “intellectual” ideology that is difficult to control by conventional wars, an ideology that can be adopted by a group of young people everywhere and at all times. The “jihadist” groups today are no longer a central organization, as was the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But they have turned into an extremist ideology based on transforming Salafism into a mechanism of atonement and killing. In other words, they made of the Salafist creed an organizational template under the name of “unity and jihad.” [10]

The groups most vulnerable to this ideological “jihadist” danger are the unassimilated immigrants in Europe, particularly young Muslim immigrants. Many European Muslims feel that they are underprivileged, and that their host society does not accept them. Consequently, many young men have been radicalized by Muslim clerics who warn them against integration and instead offer them a Salafist or jihadist vision of Islam. These young men suffer identity crisis. Most of the lone wolf operations that were reviewed, they would be subject to this possibility.  Therefore, “jihadist” websites provide detailed information in many and a variety of foreign languages, as part of their constant endeavor to target young people in Western societies

On the other hand, the conflict zones that the world is witnessing are a source of “inspiration” for young people, because of the horrific images of victims and human right violations that are displaying and circulating on the internet can charge and stimulate the thinking of many young people to turn, at some point, into individual booby-trapped cells to carry out suicide operations in the societies in which they live and feel alienated. Among the most prominent areas of conflict now are Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.

Therefore, the philosophy of lone wolf terrorism today addresses young people of Arab-Islamic origin in the West, as well as young people who have recently converted to Islam, to be “jihadist” engines in their societies. Here emerges the role of religious institutions in the west in confronting this ideological extremism and these cancerous groups, by holding forums through which to expose the falsehood of this “jihadist ideology.” [Ibid]

In this context,  many observers believe that the possibilities for the escalation of the operations of lone wolf attacks  in Europe and the United States due to “jihadist” charging via the Internet and social media are many and on constantly growing. Especially since the nature of the confrontation and conflict between jihadist organizations and their opponents has turned into unconventional intelligence confrontations, in which modern technology is used.

No Single Profile – Commonalities

The above mentioned definition of lone wolf terrorists embraces a wide diversity of violent extremists. Among them are religious zealots of all faiths, white supremacists Islamist jihadists. Observably, there is no single, standardized profile of a lone wolf. Notwithstanding, it is possible to distinguish between diverse categories of lone wolf terrorists based on their ideological or religious background and tactics.   Besides, there are a set of commonalities shared amongst the different types lone wolves. One common characteristic is that they do not “work and play well with others”.  An example is Ted Kaczynski who lived deep in the Montana wilderness and rejected any form of contact with outside world. This case does not mean lone wolves do not have connection to organization or networks. . Another commonality is, in spite of their operational reclusion they often distribute their ideas or manifestos to the outside world, in some cases before their attacks.  Today, the internet allows anyone to post his/her extremist ideology. Jessica Stern claims that lone-wolf terrorists tend to create their own ideologies that combine personal frustrations and revulsion with political, social or religious grievances. In addition, a shared trait is the fact that in spite of that most  terrorists  do  not  suffer  from  any “ identifiable  psychopathology,  the  rate  of  psychological disturbance and social ineptitude among lone wolves is relatively high” [Bakker and Graff, 2010].  All these commonalities are very important because they help to identify and provide understanding the process of radicalizations.  Observably these traits can be generalized to all the attacks in Europe – and in particular England and France in the past six years.

These terrorist lone wolf attacks raise the specter of copycat attacks, a phenomenon observed by criminologists, usually among young males who are influenced by mass murder propaganda, who exhibit a combination of severe mental illness, criminal records, or a history of violent behavior. However, lone wolf terrorism researchers Mark S. Hamm and Ramón Saaij claim that of the 12 lone wolf terrorist copycat attackers who included in their study, only three were young and only three suffer mental illnesses. Motive appears to be the biggest difference between copycat mass murderers and copycat lone wolf terrorists. Copycat mass murderers pursue fame for themselves, while copycat lone terrorists want to promote a political cause.

Another study conducted by researchers Paul Gill and Emily Corner at University College of London to identify common characteristics among 119 lone wolf attackers since 1990 in the U.S. and Europe and which they compared against a similar set of group-based terrorists. The study resulted in that lone wolf terrorists revealed a higher incidence of documented mental illness than those who were group-based terrorists. They also found that for many lone wolves, personal grievances were as much an incentive as politics. More than half of the lone actors also experienced social isolation. However, terrorist attacks carried out by lone actors are still relatively rare and much less common than group terrorist attacks. [11]

Difficult to Detect and Pre-empt

To develop a credible personality profile of a typical lone wolf terrorist has always been difficult to identify, target and arrest a lone wolf. Even such profiling has not been so especially helpful to security and intelligence agencies because the most common characteristic exhibited by these individuals; male socially isolated or excluded are so common in the overall population that they useless in trying to identify who is or will become violent lone wolf terrorist. In other words, it is very difficult to very hard to foretell from which disenfranchised, alienated or depressed environment they stem. They manifest a diversity of backgrounds with a wide spectrum of ideologies and motivations. In addition, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between those extremists who propose to commit attacks and those who just express radical beliefs or issue hollow threats [Bakker,Graaf 2010]. In the West the freedom of speech is an essential freedom restricts possibilities to investigate non-violent radical views. Knowing that all terrorists are radical but that most radicals are not terrorists, thus it will be very difficult to point out the potential lone wolves before they attack, even with the using the most sophisticated intelligence gathering tools.

Lone wolf attacks have historically been difficult to reveal and prevent mainly because the perpetrators operate on their own and are not communicating their intent with collaborators. The tools and mechanism used by of security and of intelligence agencies are much less effective against an individual who operates on his own and is not communicating his plans to others.  In addition to that these individuals belong to the category of normal personalities who do not raise doubts about their daily behavior and movement. Besides, these individuals do not necessary go to mosques or have an extremist Islamist appearance. They deal with modern technology and means of communication and they also speak more than one language. As the information provided to them by the “Internet”, on how to be transform from a normal citizen into a “jihadist bomb”, is considered a valuable material from the point of view of terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, IS and the “jihadists”.  [12]

Today, these individual cells or lone wolves represent the greatest challenge for Western intelligence agencies and law enforcement, because they are non-hierarchical and non-traditional cells, and cannot be accessed through discovering the involvement of one of their actors.

 Recommendations—- Prevention Strategies

Despite the successful measures and policies intelligence agency and law enforcement has been taken to fight against terrorism, there is no absolute security and lone wolf operations remain outside the calculations and expectations of the intelligence services. So how to deal with the threat of lone wolf terrorism and the challenge to identify and arrest lone wolves terrorists, especially when the fighting of them remain to be reconciled with principles of freedom.  Knowing commonalities and challenges can provide us some clue as where to start with to counter this kind of terrorism.

In addition, understanding and mapping the pathway of lone wolves radicalization process, helping with the identification of suspected behaviors and recognizing patterns of indoctrination. Understanding these processes provide possible ways for more effective measure to prevent or counter lone wolf terrorism. There is a need to adopt an effective counter radicalization strategy that depends on more effective community engagement, especially with the help of influential members of relevant communities.


Andie Flemström –  Twitter : @AndieFlemstroem – FB : Andie Flemström | Facebook@AndieFlemstroem

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European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI



[1] Tomáš Zeman, Jan Břeň, and Rudolf Urban, “Role of Internet in Lone Wolf Terrorism”, Journal of Security and Sustainability Issues7, no. 2 (December 2017).

[2] Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[3] Boaz Ganor, “Understanding the Motivations of “Lone Wolf” Terrorists: The “Bathtub” Model”, Perspective in terrorism, Vol. 15, No.2 (April 2021).

[4] Edwin Bakker and Beatrice Graff, “lone wolves: how to prevent this phenomenon”, ICCT (November 2010).

[5] Jeffrey D. Simon, Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2016).

[6] Raffaello Pantucci, “A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), (March 2011).

[7] Florian Hartleb, Lone Wolves: The New Terrorism of Right-Wing Single Actors (Cham: Springer, 2020).

[8] Miron Lakomy, “Recruitment and Incitement to Violence in the Islamic State’s Online Propaganda: Comparative Analysis of Dabiq and Rumiyah”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, (February 2019). Retrieved from: Retrieved on 29 Oct.2021

[9] Mark S. Hamm and R. F. J. Spaaij, The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[10] Jasem Mohamad, “Lone wolves still worry European intelligence services”, European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, (Dec 2019). Retrieved from: Retrieved on 01 Nov.2021

[11] Emily Corner and Paul Gil,l “A False Dichotomy?, Mental Illness and Lone-Actor Terrorism” (2015).   Retrieved from: Retrieved on 01 31Oct.2021

[12] Jasem Mohamad, “Lone wolves in Europe remain outside the capabilities of the intelligence services”, European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies (2020). Retrieved from:  Retrieved on 08.nov.2021


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