Lone Wolf Terrorism and Soft Targets: A Culture of Fear

Over recent years, and increasingly so in the past few months, the world has seen an increase in groups, such as al-Qaeda and now ISIL, endorsing and encouraging lone wolf attacks. As opposed to other forms of terrorism, which might focus on targeting larger groups of individuals, this strategy derives its strength from its unpredictable nature. Since lone wolves are generally only capable of targeting a small number of people, and are often individuals who suffer from social isolationism and mental health issues, it is often difficult to accurately predict and prevent these attacks from happening, which is in part what makes them so successful in diffusing fear and apprehension throughout the world. Some experts, such as Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremist Program at the British think tank Demos, claim that “a rise in lone wolf acts can be seen to represent an increased success in counterterrorism operations.” Since lone wolves are not directly linked to a major group, they lack experience and prowess, and commit acts that require low levels of preparation and training. Thus, the phenomenon of lone wolf terrorism can be seen as a restriction of power for major terrorist groups such as ISIL, since they are confined by the physical limitations of a lone wolf. However, regardless of the number of people impacted by these attacks, they still succeed in unleashing fear and creating division within societies. No act of terror is small enough to leave a society unfazed; lone wolf attacks are no exception.

Lone wolf terrorist attacks are becoming exceedingly difficult to predict and prevent, especially since groups like ISIL have encouraged its members to focus on hitting soft targets. This change in strategy makes it harder for governments and security forces to contain and prevent such acts from occurring. A target is soft when it is largely vulnerable and unprotected from outside forces. Hitting a soft target would be easy to replicate by other terrorists, since “low-tech attacks,” such as was seen in Nice, are “more difficult to thwart than conventional plots.” As a result, any small city or village will be less protected and susceptible to such attacks. However, the answer is not simply to increase the number of security officers and resources available, for doing so would only play into the hands of the terrorists. As Julian Lewis, a British Member of Parliament and the Conservative Chairman of the Defence Select Committee stated, “it will always be the case unless we become a police state — and thus help do the terrorists’ work for them.” The unfortunate reality is that these attacks are not easy to prepare for, unless countries overturn their deeply rooted values of democracy and give in to fear by increasing the power of the military and the state.

Home grown terrorism also adds to the difficulty in predicting lone wolf attacks. Since the perpetrators in question become radicalized within the borders of the country in which they will attack, intelligence forces have more trouble investigating and tracking the suspect. Recent events in the United States, Germany, and France demonstrate the dark consequences of such a phenomenon occurring, and the troubling reality is that it is unlikely to come to an end any time soon. In this age of global interconnectedness, where access to the internet is widely available, the possibility of individuals becoming radicalized is an ever increasing threat.

The effects of such acts of terror manifest themselves in the ever growing isolationist movements around the world. It is in ISIL’s interest for the world to be angry and polarized. Mistrust and division will only add fuel to the fires of the Trumps and the Le Pens of the world.

It would be hard to dispute the fact that our world has entered a period of great economic and political instability. Britain’s exit from the European Union is the most recent event to leave experts and pundits scratching their heads. As Canadian International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland claims: “we are living in a time when in many countries in the Western industrialized world […] there is a tremendous popular backlash against international trade, against immigration, against what you might call open society.” Mark Mackinnon of the Globe and Mail writes that Brexit was pushed by those who lost out on globalization, where “globalization has meant de-industrialization, the closing of factories and the transfer of work to cheaper locales overseas.” There is a growing camp of those who feel disenfranchised and defeated, cheated by the current capitalist system and left behind to watch those who have won move ahead. Europe has had to weather the brunt of the burden in the past year, as its shores have served as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing the war-torn countries of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Furthermore, the attempted coup in Turkey has torn the country in two. Beyond Turkey’s borders lies the gruesome conflict of Syria’s civil war, where the country is fractured “along ethnic and sectarian lines. Sunnis versus Shias. Arabs versus Kurds. And the so-called Islamic State against everyone.” Such divisions will only serve to perpetuate the conflict and further separate society.

Scholars, such as Prof. MacMillan, the warden of St. Anthony’s College at Oxford University, trace this period of instability back to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the following launch of the global “War on Terror.” She further argues that the 2008 financial crisis did nothing but give people a reason to lose their faith in their political and economic leaders, and to look elsewhere for leadership and guidance. Decline in the previous world order of American hegemony and a Western-led movement of globalization has made it easy for groups such as ISIL to “convert people to their brand of hatred.” Power vacuums now exit in places where they did not exist before, and the Trumps of the world are filling them swiftly. As Mackinnon writes, “radicals thrive when governments can no longer meet the standard-of-living expectations of their citizens.” The undertows of uncertainty and insecurity within a national or international context compel people to break away into their own camps, abandoning the American-style world order of free trade, open markets, and democracy.

That American power and influence on the international level has waned embeds the idea that we have entered a new period in history. The United States is no longer the global policeman that countries once looked upon for assistance. The previous style of American rigidity in foreign policy and diplomacy that was felt during the Cold War has been replaced by a country who “has lost its fear factor.” As Nick Bryant writes, “hopes of a new world order following the collapse of the Soviet Union have given way to widespread pessimism about the spread […] of global disorder.” The United States still boasts the largest budget for its military and armed forces, however, it has taken a backseat and lost its imposing nature of command under the Obama government in recent years.

Despite the changing world order and the growing undercurrents of isolationist rhetoric, we must not give into this culture of fear, for it only strengthens and invigorates those who wish to do away with the values of democracy and freedom. Giving up our voices as citizens undermines our fundamental democratic rights and further divides us within our nations. The answer is not to turn inwards but to look outwards to our neighbours and our countrymen. To take action collectively and engage in multilateral dialogue, to share intelligence and collaborate and communicate together in harmony is the only way that we will defy and defeat the new standard of disunity and discord.