Lone Wolf Terrorism

Every once in a while, I stumble across a paper so weird that it just has to be read. Several weeks ago, Bruce Schneir's security blog posted a Master's Thesis from the Naval Postgraduate College. I promised a review of it, so without further ado, he's my take on Major Norman Springer's thesis, “Patterns of Radicalization: Identifying the Markers and Warning Signs of the Lone Wolf Terrorists in our Midst.

Springer conducts a biographical analysis of the three most famous American lone wolf terrorists, Tim McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph to establish similar patterns of psychology and development along a common timeline. By identifying these patterns, law enforcement officials might be able to stop lone wolf terrorists before they strike.

The paper is fairly long, but a fast read. I'm not going to discuss the histories of these terrorists (read Springer's paper, or Wikipedia), but to quickly summarize, McVeigh and Rudolph were anti-government right-wing extremists, while Kaczynski was a radical luddite striking out against the entire industrial system. But despite their divergent views and backgrounds, there is a clearly illuminated common path, and Springer draws together diverse documentary sources to illuminate the commonalities.

All three lone wolves were profoundly disconnected from society, starting at a young age with parents who were either abusive, distant, or flaky, a situation which emphasized self-sufficiency. The subjects had immense trouble forming relationships with other people, especially women. They were pointed on the path to radicalization by some malefactor, either racist coworkers in the case of McVeigh, a racist foster parent for Rudolph, or an extended and very traumatic psychological experiment/interrogation conducted on Kaczynski when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. Each subject made one final attempt to join themselves to a large hierarchy, such as the military or academia, but was ultimately rebuked. After this failure, the subjects turned inwards, their self-sufficiency becoming isolationism and paranoia. They blamed their personal failing on some grand, evil power in the universe, a power which must be fought by good men. At this point, their course turned towards violence, and once they had killed, they were committed to a path of terror. Each man demanded public recognition for his action, publishing before and after capture as part of an “organization” in the vain hope that the people would see the righteousness of their cause and rise up. They have so far been universally disappointed.

I enjoyed Springer's work. His conclusions are well-grounded, and the historical overview useful synthesis. But what struck me was that all of his subjects were pre-network individuals. The experience that was most profound was their failure to join a group. But these days, the nature of community has shifted. The internet is full of random watering holes and bulletin boards, places for the like minded to exchange ideas and feel less alone. Would virtual communities provide enough of a sense of belonging to defuse these most radical terrorists, or are they echo chambers that would amplify their bad ideas? Of course, people who speak out in the open on the internet can be monitored, and their energies funneled into harmless, (if massively expensive) traps. But the new lone wolf will not subscribe to the patterns that Springer has laid out. He will be likely closer to Nidal Malik Hassan (the Fort Hood shooter). What does the internet add to Springer's formulation of the lone wolf?

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