What does it mean when you have one “lone wolf” terrorist attack after another, inspired by each other sequentially in a row?
It means “lone wolf” means much more than you think it does.
A recent Anti-Defamation League report found that last year’s horrifying attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue—itself inspired by previous mass shootings—apparently unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic violence in the United States that included at least 12 white supremacists arrested for allegedly enacting terrorist plots, attacks, or threats against the Jewish community.
The report notes that “many of the offenders were inspired by previous white supremacist attacks.” It adds that “many of the arrested individuals cite—and apparently seek to mimic—previous anti-Semitic murderers.
The popular conception of the term “lone wolf,” particularly as it’s been wielded in the mainstream media, has portrayed these terrorists as wholly independent actors with no connection to any ideology or movement but simply idiosyncratically violent people driven mainly by their own mental instability or illness. But that, in fact, is all wrong.
What we have known about “lone wolves” for a long time, and what is becoming frighteningly apparent now, is that they are usually deeply connected by the movements—often white supremacist in nature—that drive these individuals to acts of extreme violence.
In fact, the “lone wolf” terror attack has been a major strategic focus of neo-Nazis and other far-right ideologues since the 1980s—a tactic that spread from there to Islamist extremists who adopted it and enacted it widely in such organizations as al-Qaida and Daesh (Islamic State), before reviving as a white nationalist strategy over the past decade and manifesting itself in our current global wave of far-right terrorism.
So when you hear the term “lone wolf,” you need to know it’s likely that the violence being discussed is not an “isolated incident,” as media and law enforcement authorities often assert, but instead far more likely represents the latest act of terror by the white-nationalist movement.
The Tree of Life attack—the anniversary of which, on Oct. 27, is this week—apparently triggered the most recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks, according to the ADL report, which was posted at the organization’s blog.
Since that day, the report observes, Jewish institutions have been targeted by white supremacists at least 50 times. These have included the attack six months later on the synagogue in Poway, California, in which the would-be mass killer’s gun jammed after he killed one person and he was prevented from further violence. Other attacks include 12 instances of vandalism in which white-supremacist symbols or slogans appeared, as well as 35 cases in which white-supremacist propaganda attacking Jews was distributed.
“Four days after the Tree of Life attack, a synagogue in California was defaced with obscene anti-Semitic slurs,” the report notes. “In November 2018, a New York synagogue was vandalized with the phrase ‘Jews Better Be Ready,’ and references to Hitler.”
White supremacists have also demonstrated outside AIPAC offices and Israeli consulates, and even disrupted a Holocaust remembrance event in Arkansas by waving swastika flags, holding anti-Semitic posters and shouting anti-Semitic slurs and phrases, including, “Six million more.”
… There have been at least 30 additional incidents in which individuals (of unknown ideology) committed arson, vandalism or distributed propaganda against Jewish institutions that was anti-Semitic or generally hateful, but not explicitly white supremacist in nature. These incidents include the shooting of an elderly man outside a synagogue in Miami, fires set at multiple Jewish institutions in New York and Massachusetts, Molotov cocktails thrown at synagogue windows in Chicago, damaged menorahs in Georgia and New Jersey, as well as a wide range of anti-Semitic graffiti.
Overall, the ADL’s Center on Extremism’s data-tracking team reports a steady stream of anti-Semitic incidents nationally, with current numbers showing 780 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2019.
Nor have Jews been their only targets. “In addition to the 12 white supremacist plots, attacks or terrorist threats against Jews, there have been seven significant white supremacist arrests since October 27, 2018,” the report notes.
These have included plots to engage in deadly shooting sprees while possessing large caches of weapons, with the targets including black people and Latinos. “Their targets were varied, to say the least, ranging from large retail stores and hospitals to night clubs and news stations,” the report notes.
“The threats in these cases were not idle, and the risks were exacerbated by aggravating circumstances, including criminal histories and/or the possession of weapons or bomb making materials by the prospective attackers,” it explains. “In each case, explicit threats were made against members of the Jewish community, and in most cases, the would-be terrorists cited previous white supremacist murders as inspiration. In at least three of these cases, ADL’s Center on Extremism provided critical intelligence to law enforcement, leading directly to investigations and arrests.”
The most disturbing aspect of this trend, however, is that it suggests the fruition of the long-term strategy elucidated by white supremacists in the 1980s, one in which the spread of their ideology would empower a running sequence of terrorist attacks that would destabilize society and open the door for authoritarian white-supremacist rule.
This strategy evolved out of the earliest visions of a white supremacist takeover, described in the late ‘70s by the late leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, William Pierce, in his book The Turner Diaries. A fictitious account of the exploits of a brave band of white supremacist revolutionaries, the book was intended to be a blueprint for “white warriors,” and it indeed went on to inspire multiple acts of terrorism, most infamously the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.
One of the earliest of these was the 1984 rampage of the Northwest neo-Nazi gang The Order, which most infamously was responsible for the assassination of Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg. It also embarked on a massive robbery spree of banks and armored cars, including what is still the largest haul ever in an overland robbery, $3.6 million.
Robert Mathews, the leader of The Order, distributed large chunks of their ill-gotten gains to a number of other leaders of the white-supremacist movement, including Pierce and the people who ran the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord compound in rural Missouri. After the FBI broke up The Order and Mathews died in the ensuing standoff, federal authorities went after all of these organizations for the money Mathews had given them, charging 13 white supremacists altogether with seditious conspiracy, transporting stolen money, and conspiracy to commit murder.
The two-month trial, held in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in spring 1987, put tremendous stress on these organizations, but in the end, the all-white jury acquitted all 13 people on trial. But it had become clear to leaders in the white-supremacist movement that they were vulnerable to being attacked by law enforcement authorities as long as they maintained organizational ties with the people who were embarking on the “revolution” they all were advocating.
One of these leaders—a man named Louis Beam, who was a top lieutenant at the Aryan Nations organization in northern Idaho, and a leading “thinker” in the movement—published an essay in his magazine The Seditionist titled “Leaderless Resistance,” which extolled a two-pronged approach to bringing about the “race war” that would enable their envisioned “white revolution.” The steps consisted of forming independent cells of militias that could be called into action when needed; and encouraging “lone wolf” attacks by an increasing spiral of violent believers who would undermine public confidence in the ability of democratic society to keep them safe and secure.
Leonard Weinberg at Fair Observer explained recently how this was intended to work:
Beam reasoned that the best way for violent “patriots” to resist oppression was on the basis of individual initiatives. Small cells of individuals — or “lone wolves” — could avoid being entrapped by law enforcement agencies in the way large groups had been repeatedly during the course of Beam’s career in right-wing extremism.
When and where to strike? Instead of waiting for some easily intercepted messages from the leaders of large right-wing paramilitary groups, Beam believed in what social psychologists have called behavior contagion, or what many people refer to as copycat actions. Small cells or single individuals could take their cues from events depicted by the mass media and react accordingly without any interpersonal coordination. Like-minded individuals witnessing these actions would then take up the sword and stage their own attacks on the same or similar targets. In this way, a substantial insurgency could be launched against a tyrannical government without any central direction.
Other white supremacist leaders had already been moving in this direction. In 1989, Pierce had published a second “blueprint” novel, Hunter, which detailed the story of a white supremacist lone-wolf assassin who begins by successfully killing a number of mixed-race couples, then moves on to leading political and cultural figures, and gradually amasses a following of like-minded “lone wolves” who begin imitating him. (It was largely inspired by the real-life serial-killing spree of white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin.)
Beam’s roadmap, strategically speaking, was actually an admission of the failure of their original long-term strategy, which entailed creating an all-white ethnostate “homeland” in the Pacific Northwest and defending it with a neo-Nazi army. However, it nonetheless had its intended effect by becoming widely adopted among white nationalists and other far-right extremists. Not only did the “militia movement” of the 1990s successfully form a number of small, armed activist cells around the nation, it also had the unforeseen side effect of helping to mainstream far-right ideology much more broadly.
The lone-wolf strategy’s reach remained limited through the 1990s, mostly to a handful of horrifyingly successful terrorists such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, but it began taking on a new life with the rise of the internet as a primary information source for the public, particularly as social media took root late in the first decade of the 21st century. After 2008, more and more of these “lone wolf” attacks were being observed.
By 2013, Stratfor analysts were able to collect data on this trend and an analyze the nature of this terrorism. What they found was that, despite the appearance of acting independently, these perpetrators were in fact highly connected ideology, with many of them hailing from similar if not identical communities:
It’s easy to look at the stats and describe these people as loners — 40 percent were unemployed at the time of their attack; 50 percent were single and had never married; 54 percent were described as angry by family members and people who knew them in real life.
But the analysis also showed that these same people were often involved in ideological communities — communities built online and offline, where future terrorists sought (and often found) support and validation for their ideas. Thirty-four percent had recently joined a movement or organization centered around their extremist ideologies. Forty-eight percent were interacting in-person with extremist activists and 35 percent were doing the same online. In 68 percent of the cases, there’s evidence the “lone wolf” was consuming literature and propaganda produced by other people that helped to shore up their beliefs.
Another study from the antiterrorist START program at University of Maryland found that “lone wolf terrorists are more educated and socially isolated than group-based actors. Lone wolves also engage in less precursor activities than group actors, but are willing to travel greater distances to prepare for and execute attacks.”
All these trends have finally reached a kind of critical mass now, one in which we are in fact seeing a sequence of white supremacist violence, one mass killer after another, each naming those before him as inspiration. As Stratfor’s Scott Stewart explains, the Internet plays a central enabling role in all of this:
White supremacists have long used the internet. Along with jihadists, they were early adopters. The white supremacist website Stormfront and the jihadist website Azzam.com both appeared in the early days of the internet. White supremacists in fact have had a robust presence on the web since the days when Internet Relay Chat and Usenet were the primary social media outlets. Bearing in mind the lessons of the Fort Smith trial, most white supremacist websites tended to be fairly careful about calls for violence, even suspending some users for advocating violence. Instead, these websites sought to create a place to inculcate visitors with their ideology, and permit them to make connections that would facilitate subsequent terrorist operations. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in overt, over-the-top calls for violence by white supremacists on outlets such as 8chan, Gab and Discord—sites being linked to the recent high-profile attacks. Unlike older white supremacist websites such as Stormfront and even Vanguard News Network, these websites are totally unfiltered.
Moreover, while the ADL report is focused on this phenomenon in the United States, one of the important dimensions in this trend is its global nature, underscored by the murderous white nationalist rampages of the 2011 Oslo/Utoya Island terrorist and this year’s Christchurch, New Zealand, killer. The attack on a synagogue in eastern Germany last week by a neo-Nazi is not even the most recent such incident.
That honor apparently belongs to the failed attempt by two Norwegian neo-Nazis to commit mass murder with a vehicle last weekend in Oslo. After hijacking an ambulance by wielding a shotgun, the couple careened at high speed through the city, striking an elderly man and two babies in a stroller, but not seriously injuring anyone before they crashed and were apprehended.
While police haven’t yet publicly ascertained a motive, Norwegian radio NRK reported that its sources told them that not only has the man arrested in the rampage been previously convicted for a number of violent offenses, he also had distributed propaganda for the far-right Nordic Resistance Movement.