The right-wing 'lone wolf' fallacy
One of the emerging questions playing on the mind of counter-terrorism practitioners is what is the role that groups and organisations play in the radicalisation process of supposedly ‘lone-wolf’ terrorists. Did the perpetrator belong to a wider terrorist group or did they act alone? Did they draw on a broader community of belief that inspired them to act?
Paradoxically, our desire to derive definitive answers comes at a time when social media is redefining the question, because it is changing what it means to ‘belong’ to an extremist network or group. Hierarchical organisational structures of membership are giving way to horizontal, networked communities of like-minded activists where barriers to entry are lowered to a ‘Like’ or ‘Share’. Our extensive research of far-right supporters on Facebook remains a case in point.
Recent concern, particularly about the role populist right-wing parties and movements might have played in the radicalisation of Anders Breivik, have typified this dilemma. While there remains little doubt that he conducted his attacks alone, there is growing speculation that the formulation of his struggle was an iterative process informed by his interactions online. In his 1500 page ‘compendium’, he referred to himself as subscribing to the ‘Viennese’ school of thought, following the popular right-wing portal, Gates of Vienna.
More recent events repeat this pattern. Wade Michael Page, the supposed ‘lone-wolf’ neo-Nazi activist suspected of perpetrating the Gurdwara attack in Wisconsin on August 5th, had a long lineage of militant far-right activism, belonging to two neo-Nazi bands, End Apathy and Definite Hate, and if reports remain correct, he was also affiliated with Hammerskin Nation, a skinhead movement operating across the United States. ‘So the shooter was one of us… ‘This is not looking good!’ muttered a user on the neo-Nazi site, Stormfront.
This emerging body of evidence suggests that ‘lone-wolves’ – like all prospective terrorists – need to believe they are representing a broader constituency. More than this however, the above evidence also seems to suggest that the boundaries between the in-group and the out-group, within the context of right-wing extremist networks, are not clearly defined. In my view, this could lead to the application of the ‘lone-wolf’ typology becoming difficult, as it relies in part on being able to draw a clear distinction between ‘lone-wolves’ and external organisational structures of command and control.
Moreover, although these emerging networked communities may have, as we know, indirectly assisted such individuals along the path to violence, these prospective ‘lone-wolves’ may have not sought consent from the broader community they claim to represent. This inevitably opens up more complex questions about freedom of expression that have yet to be fully resolved. After all, people can be motivated by all sorts of systems of belief and ideologies, and there is a growing sense that some of these unsavoury but perfectly legitimate movements are being held to account for crimes they did not commit.
It’s important, therefore, that we shed light on the ideological and operational networks which may underlie acts of violent extremism perpetrated by the far-right, to discover exactly how significant both online and offline interactions are to this particular ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist threat.