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What drives 'lone wolf' terrorists? And how can we prevent future attacks?

Neo-Nazis from the National Socialist Movement (part of the Nationalist Front) at an anti-immigration rally in Los Angeles in 2010.

Violent extremists are often depicted as “lone wolves”, disconnected from society and not part of organised hate groups. But this belies the broader psychological, social and digital contexts in which they act. In this special report, security and crime scientists Devon Polaschek, Maryanne Garry and Joe Burton look at how future attacks might be prevented.

As we write, evidence suggests the Christchurch attack was carried out by a “lone wolf”, a term used to indicate a mass killer who has limited or no direct support from any organised group, and acts largely in isolation in planning and carrying out his attacks.

The depiction of violent extremists as lone wolves has been common over the past decade, both for those on the right wing of politics, such as the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in Oslo and on the island of Utoya in 2011, and jihadist extremists, such as the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby in London the same year.

We have a tendency to view all solo mass-killer terrorists as isolated: social outcasts living at the margins of society. They often come from broken families and are dissatisfied with their place in life. They seek status through violence. Whereas some try to give meaning to their lives by committing sacrificial acts aimed at bringing attention to corrupt and oppressive societies, others are motivated by a self-absorbed ambition to rise – however briefly – out of the mediocrity of their lives through killing others.

And therein lies the contradiction. Even for lone actors, terrorism at its core is a social problem that has its roots in myriad interactions between the perpetrator and the society in which he has been steeped for many years. People do not come overnight to the view that killing innocent people is acceptable, even desirable, and it takes even longer to decide to act. Rather, their growing disillusionment with their place in the world, and their sense of injustice or grievance, slowly gnaws at them.

Some may join organisations that espouse violent action, while others simply watch from the wings. Terrorists are not born bad, and most are not mentally ill. They grow and develop in the world in which we, too, live – and we must recognise this basic fact if we are ever to respond effectively to these appalling acts.

The mind of a mass murderer

Lone-wolf killers on the right wing of the political spectrum share some cognitive characteristics. For instance, they believe their race is under attack from multiculturalism and that oppressive or corrupt governments are failing to stand up for people like them. They may look around their communities and see high rates of unemployment for young, unskilled men, for instance, and begin to search for a simplistic way of understanding this situation. These killers then selectively seek out information that confirms their beliefs, a process called “confirmation bias”.

Most terrorists, at least up to the point where they begin to plan violent action, are psychologically unremarkable. Yes, a significant minority of lone actors are found afterwards to have a mental illness, which may contribute to their social isolation. But most do not. Their movement away from mainstream society into apparent social isolation is more likely a move away from people who know them (and would potentially challenge their growing commitment to radical action) towards people they access through the digital world; people who think and talk like them.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Whether or not they truly “know” the other members of chat rooms, gaming communities and other online gatherings, they can gain a sense of “pseudo community” from selective interactions with like-minded people, bolstering their sense of the rightness of their planned actions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean these communities support or know of the intended actions.

One of the strongest predictors of crime and violence in the non-digital world is criminal peers. But the way in which criminal peers influence an individual perpetrator varies. Criminal acts can be planned and executed in a group. But just as often, an offender can simply acquire the idea of what to do from copying what he has seen or heard about from a higher-status criminal he admires – potentially someone who has no idea he exists. He may hope that person will admire his actions.

So it will be with killers whose main social connections are digital. Although they may act in the physical world as if they are alone, their connection to digital peers will be quite variable, from simply being watchers who seek to impress relative strangers to being well-connected killers who act with the full support of an involved, albeit geographically scattered peer group. In some cases, the killer will regard himself as superior to the watchers, as the one who had the courage to act.

Therefore it is no coincidence that the killer in Christchurch acted in a similar way to the fascist in Norway who murdered 77 people. In reading the Christchurch killer’s manifesto, it’s easy to see the influence of like-minded terrorists before him. Even though his manifesto is at best a semi-coherent blend of traditional white-supremacist thinking and his own diverse ramblings, it bears similarities to writing released by the Norwegian attacker.

In other words, although such killers claim a commitment to an ideology that is bigger than their personal quibbles, in reality, an egocentric blend of both is typical of the writings they leave behind.

In Christchurch, we also saw a killer playing out a video game; he was not a soldier for a cause, but a boy showing off for his online friends. This kind of “performance violence” is also a common feature of this type of terrorism.

Lone wolves want the notoriety of those they imitate, and revel in media coverage. He livestreamed his attack, knowing the video would circulate like wildfire on social media, cheered on by sections of society who revel vicariously in the drama. This performance aspect may be the most insidious part of the ongoing impact of his actions, because the images may create long-lasting fear and dread – conditions that change our politics and divide our societies.

Predicting attacks

Despite the existence of some social connections, lone-wolf mass murders are hard to anticipate and identify pre-emptively, for at least three reasons. First, there typically isn’t anything about the killer’s upbringing or behaviour that marks them out early on. They may be socially illiterate, or suffer from a lack of close personal relationships, but these characteristics hardly make them distinctive.

However, against this mundane backdrop, case studies of those who committed terrorist acts point to one or more definitive turning points, either direct experiences or key events in which they had no personal part but that crystallised their thinking – moving them from thought toward action.

In the Christchurch case, the tragic killing of an 11-year-old girl in Sweden in 2017 became a pivotal event. For Clayton Waagner, an American anti-abortion terrorist at the turn of this century, it was the death of his grandchild. For Abu-Mulal Al-Balawi, the triple agent who conducted a suicide attack on the CIA in Afghanistan in 2009, it was likely the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. David Copeland, the “London Nail Bomber” behind a series of explosions in 1999, is reported to have become steadily more fixed on the idea of an attack after the bombing during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. As time passes, future killers imbue such events with a special, personal meaning, an inaccurate, distorted directive that sets them on a slow path to radicalisation.

The second reason these far-right lone-wolf murderers are hard to predict is because, even as their thinking becomes quite extreme and distorted, it still does not stand out, given the current mainstream endorsement of white supremacists. The US president courts their support against the backdrop of fascist movements strengthening in Europe only 70 years after the lessons delivered by World War II. In the same way that a rising tide lifts all boats, the fact that this extreme racism has become routine and often goes unchallenged makes it much harder to detect who will act.

The third factor that makes these killers hard to detect is the shelter from exposure provided by the internet.

Digital drivers of lone-wolf extremism

The world wide web is a giant social network in which the richness of the world’s politics plays out. Here, in encrypted chat rooms and through anonymous VPNs (virtual private networks), lone wolves derive support and encouragement from others who similarly cherish faulty reconstructions of history, twisted when necessary to fit their poorly conceived analysis of complex, modern social problems.

From the internet, the richest veins of this poison are drawn. In a healthy society, both the illogicality of these views and the ineffectiveness of the proposed solution – mass violence – would be challenged. But instead, the web becomes a platform for extremist thought that can act as a buoy for attackers.

In recent years, right-wing extremism on the web has grown exponentially, and serves important functions. The internet helps disseminate hateful material to those who would not ordinarily be exposed to it, as well as mainstreaming extremist viewpoints and creating ideological consensus among disaffected individuals and groups. One of the hardest challenges we face is that even bizarre claims feel more “true” the more those claims are repeated unquestioned. Our internet echo-chambers simply accelerate this process to lightning speed.

Perhaps even more important, the internet helps radical groups to collaborate across borders and to build global movements of people with a shared ideology, which may create a false sense of the potential political success of extremist action. There has also been a tendency to create alternate platforms to bypass content restrictions and account bans.

Within 24 hours of the shooting, Facebook had removed 1.5 million videos of the attack from its platform globally. That it was disseminated so widely speaks to the problems social media companies have in enforcing their rules of use. Facebook is wealthy. It desperately needs to divert its revenues into resourcing more people and algorithms to restrict the spread of hateful content on its platform.

Countering violent extremism

What can we, as communities, governments and nations, do then about this scourge? Psychological science suggests some promising strategies. To be clear, no actions can ever completely prevent the occurrence of mass killings, but a strong and focused society can influence perceptions of the likelihood of success, make it harder to carry out such attacks, and help provide other sources of meaning, especially for at-risk young people.

Perhaps the most important big-picture strategy is to ensure terrorist behaviour is not seen to “work”. Severely limiting access to guns is certainly a valuable approach. It has been widely demonstrated in crime-science research that making crimes more difficult is a key prevention strategy. The challenging end of this type of prevention where guns are concerned is certainly the criminal gangs. What would gang warfare be like without guns?

Reducing the attention and publicity given to killers is another important step. Even more crucial is the strong repudiation of repugnant thinking about racial superiority. It is obvious to intellectually capable and educated people that “white civilisation” has no historic grounds on which to regard itself as superior, that sending recent immigrants back to the countries from which they originated will not return us to an imagined past utopia, and that no human community has ever flourished on hate.

We should take comfort from the evidence that, overall, we have never lived in so peaceful a time; this is in large part down to our current high societal intolerance for violent behaviour – seen in anti child-smacking laws and increased police engagement in reports of domestic violence – and in the way we have rallied together over the past few weeks.

Rational argument will not be effective against those espousing neo-fascist ideas, because their beliefs are not rational. However, making visible counter-challenges to such thinking is important for those who have not yet fully made up their minds. To that end, we owe it to ourselves to become a society that is strongly united against racism; a society that makes it crystal clear that fascist ideas will never become accepted reality here. We see the beginning of this in New Zealand through the leadership of our prime minister and others. Such leadership is very important. Anecdotal reports suggest that white supremacist organisation membership flourishes under sympathetic political leaders, and drops away without such support.

Is this also the right time for some more honest conversation about how we as a country talk about our national identity? The stories we tell about ourselves as New Zealanders are our “collective memories”. They are different from historical facts, because collective memories are almost certainly not accurate. But just as our future killer comes to develop a distorted directive memory, so must we consider how our own distorted collective memories keep us from really seeing some deeper systemic problems. Let’s start with the comfort we derived from learning the accused is Australian. Did we collectively exhale when we found out he was not “one of us”?

If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that New Zealand’s historic smugness about being “less racist than many other countries” and especially “being less racist than those Australians” is unfounded. We can turn the Christchurch events into the beginning of a journey toward a more accepting, pluralistic society, but we are not as far along in that journey as we think. In recognition of this fact, we, and others we have spoken to, plan to respond instead of politely ignoring when other New Zealanders make discriminatory or racist comments. Small actions in routine conversations, in our daily lives, are one way to support our prime minister’s commitments to the world.

More technically, we need to think about how to tackle the digital communities that encourage and reinforce mass killers, making them feel they are not alone. Last year, the New York Times reported that alt-right groups operating on websites like 8chan actively recruit susceptible youth through online gaming communities such as Fortnite; youth who may be spurred to action in the hope of earning their admiration. We need to think smarter about how to thwart the streaming and video posting of these atrocities to such vulnerable audiences.

There is no doubt that the process of distinguishing between free speech and hate speech is a very challenging one, because the line between the two is grey and constantly moving. But that shouldn’t stop us trying.

Our social interventions need to start with society-wide prevention. For example, there are a variety of school-based programmes designed to promote racial and religious tolerance and protect against radicalisation. These types of interventions are important. Western nations tend to see external players as the biggest threat, when in fact the would-be terrorists we should be worrying about are home-grown. Exposure in school to other cultures and ways of thinking and living is important, as is the extent to which we all mix with each other, in our schools and other institutions, and in our neighbourhoods.

At the next level of prevention, we might also acknowledge that being a young man, especially an undereducated, unskilled young man, is one of the most significant risk factors for all types of crime. Whether joining a terrorist chat room or a criminal gang, young men with few attachments to conventional society are often searching for a pathway toward a meaningful and valued identity. Some theorists suggest allegiance to far-right thinking is about exactly that: finding a meaningful identity. What better alternatives can our communities provide for those at risk?

As academics, we are bound to say more research is needed. Much of what we know about lone-wolf killers comes from case studies of those who acted. Consequently, we know little or nothing about people who contemplate such action but do not carry it out: the like-minded people who never joined the killer when he headed down his path to prison or death. Of course, people who turn back are likely to be much more numerous than those who do not. What makes the difference?

Likewise, there has been little research on how people exit their terrorist “career” once they have embarked on it – or on how to create effective reintegration programmes. We could learn here from the initiatives of countries that have been working on the development of face-to-face programmes to help bring alt-right youth back into mainstream society.

Organisations like “Life after Hate” in the US, started by a former neo-Nazi, and Exit Sweden provide supports and services intended to address the underlying problems that help make people vulnerable to seeing fascism as a solution.

Devon Polaschek and Maryanne Garry are professors of psychology at the New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science at The University of Waikato, where Polaschek is also its joint director. Dr Joe Burton is a senior lecturer at the institute.

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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