The notorious precedent is the stabbing and shooting to death of Labour MP Jo Cox on 16 June 2016 by a neo-Nazi terrorist, Thomas Mair.
On 14 November, an explosion occurred in a taxi outside the Women’s Hospital in Liverpool. The cab driver, David Perry, was able to escape from his taxi before it was engulfed in flames. He was injured and the passenger, Emad Al Swealmeen, an asylum seeker from Iraq, died – having reportely prematurely detonated a homemade IED. It was discovered to have had ball bearings attached to it, prompting police to say it could have caused “significant injury or death.”
Both incidents appear to be classic examples of the so-called ‘lone wolf’ attack. Days after the murder of Sir David Amess, former counter-terrorism national co-ordinator for the UK, Nick Aldworth, said there was a “slowly developing wave of terrorism in Europe that’s starting to move towards the UK” and that authorities faced an “enormous challenge” to identify potential lone-wolf attackers.
The growth of clandestine online activity on the ‘Dark Web’ has heightened this threat and has thrust the type of disgruntled, often psychopathic individuals into committing acts which in the pre-Internet era would have been less likely.
The triggers in the age of social media, message boards and extremist forums are ubiquitous and the lone actor and his or her associates are a metaphorical time bomb waiting to be detonated.
The growing norm in terrorist trends is self-radicalisation. Mr Aldworth added that many will have been radicalised at home during the Covid-19 lockdowns – so-called “bedroom radicals” – in mainly jihadist and far Right activity. Intelligence agencies have echoed his warning.
These crimes are often committed by disturbed and mentally unstable individuals, who – depending on their level of intelligence and their background – are prone to extremism.
Peter Neumann, Professor of Security Studies at Kings College London, has said: “The security services should imagine the online world as a place, just like a radical mosque or a meeting place in the ‘real world’, although it is hard to distinguish between who is violent and who isn’t.”
Tracking lone actors
The lone actor threat is the hardest to track and predict. Often the authorities have to search through the perpetrator’s habits, contacts, and possible criminal record. Lone wolves are often not ‘on the radar’ of intelligence, counter-terrorism and police forces.
The UK counter-terrorist Prevent programme encourages ordinary citizens and professionals such as teachers, neighbours, social workers and the like to report suspect behaviour to a designated local panel of authorities.
This oft-criticised scheme depends on reports about suspect individuals and groups made by members of the public and professionals who must assess if, how and when to intervene.
In the year up to March 2020, more than 6,200 referrals were reported to the Prevent scheme in England and Wales, mainly from people working in education, the police and health. Only 2% of referrals were from family members, possibly indicating that loyalties within families overrode ‘snitching’ on a relative.
Ali, the son of a former senior Somali government official, had been referred to the Prevent scheme. According to the BBC, Ali was “never a formal subject of interest to MI5 (the UK Security Service).” His father had been a senior adviser to the former Prime Minister of Somalia and reportedly had worked on counter-extremism projects in Mogadishu.
Using tracking technologies
MI5 have their hands full, however. Some 600 investigations are ongoing on some 3,000 extremists. a further 40,000, while not considered immediate threats, are assessed to “potentially become active terrorists.” Not all are based in the UK.
Efforts to monitor online extremism increasingly use algorithms and AI (artificial intelligence) as well as humint (human intelligence) to spot potential attackers.
The UK Home Office has successfully encouraged the large online content platforms to invest in automated detection technology that can spot and remove jihadist videos, particularly those put out by ISIS on smaller or clandestine online platforms.
A system developed by the Home Office and ASI Data Science to detect video and other propaganda material uses advanced machine learning to analyse the audio and visuals of a video to determine whether it is put out by Daesh.
But often human instinct – following up on suspicions about an individual’s behaviour – may well trump these advanced methods. However, cuts to numbers of police officers in service have led to resources being stretched.
Lone or assisted?
Occupying counter-terrorist authorities is uncovering how these individuals are motivated, radicalised or encouraged to commit acts of terrorism; the type of weapons they use; and whether they are true lone actors.
Some have accomplices or support by a small group of like-minded extremists. Or they are the lead actor in a self-starter cell which may be linked to and directed and funded by a major, known, terrorist group.
From McVeigh to Breivik
A classic lone-actor atrocity was perpetrated by far-Right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who on 22 July 2011 killed 77 in Norway. He first detonated a vehicle-borne IED earlier in the day in the government quarter of the capital, Oslo, killing eight and injuring at least 209. He went on to shoot to death 67 and injure 23 at a youth camp on the island of Utøya.
Was Breivik a lone wolf? He certainly was a loner with grandiose and supremely dangerous ambitions, but of interest to counter-terrorism officials was if he had been assisted by others. By May 2012, Norwegian police had ruled out any accomplices.
The deadliest terror attack on US soil before 9/11 was perpetrated by a far-Right militant Timothy McVeigh. On 19 April 1995, he planted a vast VBIED which destroyed the nine-storey Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and many other buildings in Oklahoma City centre, killing 168 and injuring 860.
McVeigh did not work alone. His main accomplice among others, Terry Nichols, was found to have rented storage lockers and stealing 299 sticks of water-gel explosives, 544 blasting caps, and detonating cord from a quarry several months before the attack.
This is what a lone actor can do. Government building in Oslo after Norwegian far-Right terrorist Anders Breivik set off a vehicle-borne ammonium nitrate IED on 22 July 2011, killing eight, before he went on to shoot to death 67 young people on the island of Utøya on the same day.