Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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Lone Wolves: Terrorist groups’ mechanism in Europe

Thursday 29/March/2018 - 04:12 AM
The Reference
Ahmed Sami Abdel-Fattah


 Despite the end of conventional warfare after the formation of the European Union (EU), which adopts policy bases on accepting all ethnicities and religious minorities, EU countries still face security threats posed by extremists. Nowadays, killing and intimidating civilians become terrorists’ common tactic to undermine Europe’s security. The governments, therefore, are harshly criticized by their societies if a terrorist attack targeted civilians.

 Recently, extremist groups have intensified their attacks in Europe, exploiting the democratic atmosphere and the right of privacy given to European citizens. Therefore, the security agencies legally find difficulties to bring the society the security without violating people’s freedoms.

Lack of finding solutions has created a security vacuum exploited by the extremists to permeate through the society and launch their bloody attacks. Although, the security agencies have recently started to deal with such threat, the extremist groups adopted what is known as “lone-wolf terrorism”. It is another approach recruit those who marginalised or suffer from ethnic or social discrimination or those who adopt extremist ideologies to carry out attacks against their communities.

 “Lone wolf” terrorism helped the extremists to surpass the counter-terrorism restrictions imposed by the security agencies, which consequently suffer from a state of confusion. Thus, this study aims to investigate this phenomena and possible solutions to deal with and curb its repercussions.

 Lone-wolf definition

 The term of “Lone wolf” associates with violence since it was used for the first time by supremacists Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis 1990s. Currently, Islamist extremists adopted this unpredictable tactic and re-applied it, systematically, to serve their violent goals.

The phenomena talks about aggressive individual attacks committed by individuals on personal or ideological motives to cause damages against the states and the societies. Embracing an extremist idea could be the main motive behind such atrocities as terrorists change this cyberspace idea into an awful reality. Also, the social exclusion could be one of the reasons behind deepening the crisis; the marginalized people could target their communities to revenge for themselves.

Recently, the terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (Daesh or ISIS) have incited militants in Europe to carry out revenge attacks without giving them direct commands. The indirect incitement boils down to terrorist groups’ audio and visual calls to instigate violence among lone-wolf terrorists and those who are easily deplored towards extremism, which could bring its disastrous results later.

Terrorist groups usually announce their responsibilities for the attacks committed by lone-wolf terrorists, exploiting the wolves’ desire to embarrass the targeted country. Despite the lack of direct connection, lone-wolf terrorists do not deny other groups’ claims; on the contrary, those wolves sometime feel happy as they became a part of an international action as long as both sides have the same ideology. Therefore, countries have to adopt more effective measures to fight the social extremism.

Lone-wolf terrorism is divided into two categories. First, chaos form (single event) as the terrorist targets the public or social events, using bombs, explosive belts, or shooting. Chaos attacks are always plotted by the individual attackers without returning to any terrorist groups as it happened in the 2017 Istanbul nightclub shooting, which claimed lives of 39 people. Notably, most attacks that have been carried out by the lone wolves belong to this form.

Second form is career category (serial) as lone-wolf terrorists adopt the “systematic killing” against the society without having any direct links with extremist groups. So the lone wolf can plot for the attack via using posts or e-mails from the groups. Unlike the first form, the individual attacker drew up best-laid plans using technological tools to achieve his bloody goals.

 The term of “lone-wolf career terrorism” was used for first time by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) against terrorist Theodore J. Kaczynski.

Why do extremists adopt lone-wolf terrorism?

Terrorist groups are usually use conventional tactics to carry out their armed attacks and shootings against European communities or police. Although such attacks were effective at the beginning, the intelligence bodies exerted great efforts to relatively curb them and to prevent their serious repercussions. Curbing such conventional tactics based on tracking weapon trafficking and money transfers from individuals and civil society organizations to the groups that plot terrorist attacks.

Conventional tactics also include recruiting locals or foreigners, who have the ability to make explosives or get them from international traffickers. Conventional terrorists put very fiendish plots to cause gravest damages, depending on security vulnerability, which could be detected later by the police to prevent any possible similar attacks.

 Due to the security measures taken against conventional tactics, the extremist groups used “lone-wolf terrorism” to achieve their bloody goals, depending on the country’s security failure to spy or monitor all civilians. So the groups headed to the secret private work where suspicion could be away from the “lone wolf”. Secret working enables lone-wolf terrorists to calmly carry out their attack and to carefully pinpoint the targets.

 In some cases, we find “lone wolf” can get, rent, or steal a car for his attacks. He also can incidentally carry out his attack in markets without any prior planning or terrorist commands. So the security agencies find difficulties to trace those terrorists. In Sweden, an attacker stole a car and ploughed through a crowd in Drottninggatan Street in Stockholm, where three people were killed and others were injured 5. Although the Swedish police reacted very fast, they could not stop attacker.

Internet has a major role in helping the lone wolves to carry out their job as they can online follow terrorist groups’ messages. Consequently, a lone wolf, who inspired by such messages, can volunteer to launch a terrorist attack against unspecified target without any direct contact with systematic groups.

 It also is a great platform, from which the lone wolf can learn techniques of making explosives.  Intelligence bodies revealed that some terrorists, who plotted attacks against vital centers in UK, downloaded an article titled “How can you make a bomb in your mother’s kitchen?” . U.S. soldier Naser Jason Abdo has used this article to make explosives to attack Fort Hoot military base. He was arrested while he was possessing explosive chemicals.

 Because terrorist groups have suffered several defeats in their havens, they have increasingly depended on “lone-wolf terrorism”. In Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda had lost its power, comparing to the pre-U.S. invasion. Also Daesh was heavily defeated in Syria and Iraq. So both groups were forced to find lone-wolf terrorism to tell the world that they are “undefeatable” and to recruit more militants.

 Lone-wolf attacks in Europe:

·       2015 Charlie Hebdo attack:  Al-Qaeda announced its responsibility for the attack, which killed 12 people. The attack sparked a big reaction internationally as it was a clear violation against freedom of expression.

·       2016 Brussels bombings: IS’s militants targeted Brussels International Airport and metro stations in March 2016, killing 34 people.

·       2017 Istanbul nightclub shooting: A terrorist opened fire and threw bombs inside a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, during the New Year celebration on January 1, 2017, killing 39 people. But he managed to escape.

·       2017 Manchester Arena Bombing: Libyan -British man blew himself up in a concert, leaving 22 people killed.

EU counter-terrorism strategies

 Unlike the terrorist groups, the lone-wolves depend on themselves and avoid connection with surrounding people to guarantee their own safety. But group work has the possibility of committing mistakes against the whole group.

As the identity of the lone-wolf terrorist is unknown, Europe depends mainly on terrorist’s possible mistakes that could reveal his intentions when he carries out his attack. However, before launching any terror attack, lone-wolf monitor and collect information on the targets to set an appropriate time for cause grave damages.

Consequently, it is hard to reveal the lone-wolf’s possible attack. The European services intensify their intelligence works in and around the vital entities.

European countries also find difficulties to know the extremist tendency of their citizens. So they have an urgent desire to monitor the society’s behavior, but the right of privacy stands as a stumble against them. To overcome this security vacuum, governments started to monitor suspects’ accounts to prevent any possible attacks.

 Furthermore, EU governments press on the social media of Facebook and Twitter to provide them with information on suspects’ personal messages. The social media platforms responded by imposing restrictions on their ads and closing the accounts inciting and disseminating violence. The lone-wolf terrorism is cyber-virus spreads in the society, trying to send its echo of anger to people outside world in very violent form.

 Some European countries also created a secret cyber network spying on the citizens to identify those who can be easily infected by lone-wolf virus, or those who bear violence ideologies. Such security measures are not officially announced, as they contradict with the European freedom laws. However, they are used as inevitable means to root out lone-wolf terrorism.

 Other EU countries spy on its neighbors to protect its national security. The spying country believes that it should not be a blind-man who awaits help from neighbors, seeking to have permeates information on links between its nationals and those who are abroad.

EU countries provide each other’s with necessary information in terror-related cases; however, each country trust only in their security analysis to achieve its security. In 2017, a parliamentary secret investigation was launched to probe into Germany’s surveillance activities on international bodies. Also, Germany has spied on France after Eduard Snowden leaked classified information from the U.S. National Security Agency in 2013, revealing that U.S. is spying on its allies.

To enhance their security network, European countries signed joint bilateral agreements to enhance their security measures. They also signed other counter-terrorism agreements with other countries outside the Union such as a deal signed between Egypt and Germany in 2016. Also, EU countries inked a cooperation protocol to combat terrorism in 2016 to update the joint security conventions, which were signed at EU formation in 1990s. This protocol was adapted to primary curb the movement of people fleeing civil wars in the Middle East.

 Moreover, governments have conducted effective operations to trace money transfers from abroad to Europe. They also tracked networks of weapon trafficking, which are considered vital tools for the extremists.

 Extremists’ mechanism to keep lone-wolf effectiveness

 Extremist groups are keen to keep the lone-wolf terrorism, which has a great ability to escape from the eyes of western intelligence. They created certain ways to overcome counter-terrorism security measures.


  Those militias adopt systematic ways to psychologically recruit lone-wolves, providing them with extremist tactics before committing the attacks. The psychological element is their main factor to encourage militants to sacrifice themselves. Also, we find if a Twitter account was closed, extremists can create dozens of other accounts to disseminate their ideologies

    Special operations by unknown identities:

           ISIS has used unknown identities of terrorists to send them to European countries where they carry out the lone-wolf attacks such as 2017 Istanbul nightclub shooting. The identity of British terrorist Jihadi John, who appeared in Daesh videos of beheading their hostages, has been revealed after a long time in 2015.

    Refugees and illegal migrants:

           Illegal migration is a good channel for terrorist groups to infiltrate their militants among illegal migrants and refugees, who are eying European shores. Extremists misuse refugees in espionage and information transpiration.  Undoubtedly, such exploitation causes a grave harm to the refugees in general, forcing Europe to take harsh measures against them.


           Technology is extremists’ secret tool to communicate with militants and can change the lone-wolf ’s activity from “chaos” form to “career” one, which enables the terrorist groups to launch systematic cyber-attacks via individuals outside Europe. These cyber-attacks aims to cause paralyze in governmental sectors before launching terrorist attacks in separate places and to create disorder in the security agencies.


The next round of the battle between Europe and extremists would last for a long time. Current relative quietness in their war does not mean that security bodies succeeded in curbing the foreign threats; it could be a period of re-arrangement and re-distribution inside the terrorist groups.

So, the security agencies should be aware that terrorist groups are tireless in catching security vulnerabilities to cause bloody damages. European countries should pay a close attention to monitor the social behavior, which could drift into delinquency. They have to create preventive and rehabilitation programs for the youth, particularly the delinquents.

Terrorist groups do not care about the lone-wolf’s identity as they care about his violent attacks. So rehabilitating the delinquents could sap the terrorist group’s depolarization threat.

 Also, the public should give the government a helping hand to reveal the social delinquency and to rehabilitate the society against the cases of depolarization. In short, It is very difficult to legally and securely deal with conventional terrorism in general and lone-wolf terrorism in particular.