The deaths of 49 people in a bar in Orlando, Florida at the hands of a single gunman and the massacre of 85 people in Nice, France using a truck as a weapon of terror, demonstrate the threat that so-called ”lone wolves” present to society. Lone wolves are not usually so successful.
On a train travelling at high speed across the Belgian-French border, the actions of two former United States marines stopped a single gunman armed with an assault weapon and hand gun from wreaking havoc. However, if the automatic weapon had not jammed and the gunman had been able to resist being overpowered by the two civilians, he could have killed many of the 554 people on the train. He was, as they say in military terms, operating in a target rich environment.
Trains have become the new planes as far as terrorists are concerned. Whereas in the past Al Qaeda had a pre-occupation with attacking airliners, the Islamic State (IS) has focused on other aspects of the transportation systems, encouraging lone wolves to do their worst at any time and using any means. It is possible to label such acts as ‘Martini Terrorism’ playing on the strap line associated with the aperitif of the same name. In these cases, however, the strap line is modified to suggest “any-time, any-place, any-how.”
Recent events in Canada, the United States, Germany, France and possibly in London, where a United States citizen was murdered by someone suffering with a mental condition and, in another event, three people were stabbed at Leytonstone Underground Station, illustrate the ability of the lone wolf to enjoy a high degree of maneuver room.
However, the results of such attacks can be unpredictable. The numbers of people killed and injured varies widely, with one suicide attack by a reported twelve-year-old boy killing 51 people at a Kurdish wedding party in Turkey. The death toll in such events is clearly related to the weapons used. Bombs kill and maim with ease. Using a knife or machete takes time, which gives increasingly vigilant law enforcement authorities time to respond and minimizes the toll of dead and injured.
These attacks, however, do maintain an operational tempo of reporting. They create noise while bigger and more deadly attacks, such as the Orlando attacks, are planned in the background. Consequently, unsuccessful lone-wolf attacks are likely to be consigned to the inside pages of mainstream media reports rather than the front cover. They will eventually become part of the normal pattern of behavior of life, merging into other criminal acts which see people killed across the world on a daily basis.
At present, however, such attacks still have the ability to grab the main headlines. In Brussels, news that a single women had run amok with a machete on a bus in Brussels made the front page of European mainstream media. Lone wolves, it seems, still have the ability to grab the headlines even if they are relatively unsuccessful.
Further attacks by lone wolves are inevitable. In a video released on August 21, IS sought to glorify the actions of those who have taken up a variety of arms. It suggested that even a baseball bat or screwdriver could be used as a weapon, showing the extent to which they will go to promote further attacks.
The message in the video was simple and picked up previous narratives emerging from the terrorist group. By acting, the individual is fulfilling an obligation to defend his religion from outside Western oppression. A failure to act would, by implication, result in failure to enter paradise upon their deaths. For some, especially those with mental vulnerabilities, this can be a compelling narrative. With IS determined to engage in further attacks, the scourge of the lone wolf is unlikely to be removed from the international security landscape in the immediate future.
As long as vulnerable people exist, the threat that some may become entranced by the sophisticated narratives orchestrated on social media by IS will remain. The challenge for Western societies in particular is to try and identify those with such vulnerabilities before they become beguiled by IS and its images of glory in death.