As terrorist attacks continue around the globe, more and more focus is put on stopping the attack before it happens, not just in apprehending the radicalized individual, but in stopping the radicalization before it takes place.  A large part of that is mapping the radicalization cycle and identifying those at risk.  Then, the correct intervention tactics must be applied to stop the cycle.

But how do you map the cycle and identify those at risk?  Well, a new, as yet unpublished study funded by the Department of Justice and titled with the thrilling name of Across the Universe?  A Comparative Analysis of Violent Behavior and Radicalization Across Three Offender Types with Implications for Criminal Justice Training and Education hopes to shed some light.  If you actually made it past the title, I’m going to attempt to condense 117 pages into a significantly smaller summary.  First, as you can see, they actually look at both mass murderers and “lone actor terrorists.”  The primary difference, they note, is motivation.  Lone actor terrorists are typically motivated by ideology, whereas mass murderers (here defined as people who murder 4 or more individuals in one place and event) are typically motivated by a personal wrong or grievance.  Second, the study encompassed 71 lone actor terrorists and 115 solo mass murderers.  Third, “socio-demographic data” reveals very little difference between the two study sets, “(h)owever, their behaviors significantly differ with regards to (a) the degree to which they interact with co-conspirators (b) their antecedent event behaviors and (c) the degree to which they leak information prior to the attack” (Page 4). Fourth, the mass murders in the study do not follow the same path to violence as the lone actor terrorists.

The authors are quick to point out that this study is just one study, and isn’t complete, as it doesn’t actually get around to recommendations for how to intervene, but it still provides some useful information.  The first tidbit, stated on page 12, is that “(a) review of the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports from 2000 to 2012 shows that the number of mass murders (four or more victims) was approximately one-tenth of one percent of all murders (excluding the 9/11 deaths).”  While not necessarily germane to the terrorism issue, it does shed some light on the over-representation of sensational mass murders in the media versus “real life.”

So back to the lone actor terrorists, since that is the topic of note.  Three very important conclusions from their study, and I’ll quote directly, are:

  • “In terms of group-related activities, the results indicate that lone-actor terrorists were significantly more likely to try to recruit others, interact face-to-face with members of a wider network, virtually interact with members of a wider network, produce letters and/or public statements prior to the attack and recently join a wider movement.”
  • “In terms of antecedent attack behaviors, lone-actor terrorists were significantly more likely to have university experience, military experience, combat experience, criminal convictions, experience a tipping point in their pathway to violent extremism, change address prior to their attack, live alone, be socially isolated, engage in dry runs, demonstrate that their anger is escalating and possess a stockpile of weapons.”
  • “In terms of leakage related behaviors, lone-actor terrorists were significantly more likely to verbalize intent to commit violence to friends/family/wider audiences, have others aware of their grievance, express a desire to hurt others, have others involved in procuring weaponry and have others aware of their attack planning.” (Pages 17-18)

In other words, there are a lot more chances to catch a lone actor terrorist, because while socially isolated, they will typically both seek out (possibly) known actors for fellowship and guidance and actually verbalize to people what they intend to do, at least in a macro sense.  While they may not layout specifics of an attack, they will give indications – however vague – that they intend to carry out an attack.  Of the terrorists studied: in 80% of the cases, other people knew about their grievance; in 77% other were aware of their ideology; in 59% verbal statements were made about intent or belief; in 37% at least one other person knew of attack research and planning; and in up to 68% of cases, they interacted either face to face or virtually with a network.  Lone actors are also less likely than mass murderers to be familiar with their planned place of attack since they are not motivated by personal grievance, therefore they need more opportunity to conduct surveillance and dry runs (Pages 27-28).  Any step into the outside world is a chance to intervene or apprehend, and federal law enforcement has been doing this quite effectively.  This type of behavior is also the foundation of the “If you see something, say something” campaign run by the Department of Homeland Security.

As far as education level, employment, and relationship success, of the 48 terrorists for whom education levels were available, over 60% had some form of degree, whether undergraduate, masters or doctoral.  However, as noted in the report, “the educational success of the lone actor terrorists did not translate into direct success in the job market.”  Only 8% of the terrorists were actively employed as a professional in their field.  Most (59%) worked service sector jobs or were unemployed.  Coinciding with their social isolation, the majority of lone-actor terrorists were single, however, as many as 35% were married or divorced (Pages 21-22).  When we look at previous criminal activity, “58% had a previous criminal conviction. Of this sub-sample, 59% served time in prison indicating the seriousness and/or prolific nature of their offending.”

If you’re seeing some parallels between this study’s conclusions and the profiles of the Orlando shooter, Nice terrorist, and Bangladesh shooters, you should be.  Do all of them fit the full “profile”?  No, but they hit multiple risk factors.  Now, as the study also notes: “Of course, not all of the instances in which information is received about verbalized intent are viable threats or risks so instead of acting straight away, the logical next step is to engage in a risk assessment and look at the rest of the individual’s behaviors with regard to their situation, capability, motivation and opportunity to act.”  So just because someone verbalizes an extremist belief or appears angry and speaks of violence doesn’t mean that they will carry through, but they deserve a serious look.

Chapter two of the study closes with the statement: “What we see from the analysis we offer here is that lone-actor terrorism and mass murderer attacks are (both) usually the culmination of a complex mix of personal, political and social drivers that crystallize at the same time to drive the individual down the path of violent action. Whether the violence comes to fruition is usually a combination of the availability and vulnerability of suitable targets that suit the heady mix of personal and political grievances and the individual’s capability to engage in an attack from both a psychological and technical capability standpoint. Many individual cases share a mixture of personal life circumstances coupled with an intensification of beliefs that later developed into the idea to engage in violence. What differed was how these influences were sequenced…This is why we should be wary of mono-causal ‘master narratives’ about how this process unfolds. The development of these behaviors is usually far more labyrinthine and dynamic.” (Pages 34-35)  This gives us two points to ponder: first, as the study has repeatedly stated, the terrorists are very likely to telegraph their intent, so there is a chance to intercede before action is taken; second, terrorists seek a suitable target and may be discouraged if one is not available.  Hardening targets is key – we cannot allow terrorists to strike soft targets with impunity.

So how about the path?  I can’t even attempt to condense all of the background information in the study into this article, so I highly recommend you go here and read it, as it provides an entire chapter analyzing the typical steps of some well known historical attacks.  To try to keep it within everyone’s attention span, I’ll use the below graphics from the study (Pages 75 & 89).  By way of definition, the study differentiates here between a lone actor terrorist (one who plans and carries out the attack alone) and a solo actor terrorist (one who has assisted in planning the attack but carries out the attack alone).  As you can see, the primary difference is in the level of guidance and logistical support provided by the group to the actor.  The amount of support provided to a solo actor may enable the actor to maintain a lower profile by eliminating some of the direct surveillance and weapons procurement risk, although if the group’s representative is known to law enforcement, it may actually lead investigators to the actor faster than a lone actor, who may appear as just a casual devotee.  Also keep in mind that though the script uses guns and IEDs as means, recent events amply demonstrate that neither are required for successfully executing attacks.

Lone Actor Attack Script (credit to study authors)
Lone Actor Attack Script (credit to study authors)
Solo Actor Attack Script (credit study authors)
Solo Actor Attack Script (credit to study authors)

In conclusion, I want to leave you with two more quotes from the study:

  • “The temporal issues also highlight the fact that we need to view risk dynamically. Given a set of circumstances and conditions an individual may appear to be no or low risk. However, small changes in their life-course, personal circumstances or opportunity to offend can have a force-multiplier effect and propel the individual into a higher category of risk.” (Page 112)
  • “Traditional methods employed against formal terrorist organizations and loosely connected terrorist networks (such as counter-intelligence, HUMINT, interception of communications, surveillance of persons, targeted killing, etc.) may not be as readily applicable against the threat of a lone-actor terrorist. Strategies aimed at countering radicalization in the community may have no reference point in identifying lone at-risk individuals. Deterrence measures also may prove problematic for countering lone-actor terrorism. Because prediction and identification are difficult, it might be better to instead guard against future lone actor terrorists by making the actual undertaking of a terrorist attack more difficult. For example, it might be easier and more cost-efficient to deter a budding lone-actor terrorist by making it more difficult to acquire the necessary bomb-making materials than by convincing him/her of counter-narratives.” (Page 114)

Essentially, the authors are saying that as of right now, there isn’t enough information to accurately identify, target, and disrupt the cycle or path of an individual on the way to violence with 100% accuracy.  There are a lot of threats out there, and the environment is – to use their word – dynamic.  In the realm of terrorism, law enforcement has to be right 100% of the time to prevent an attack; the terrorists only need to be right a fraction of that to successfully attack.  They don’t need extremely technical means; they don’t even need guns.  Intelligence officials in the United States and abroad are warning that as Daesh loses ground in Iraq and Syria, they will resort to more and more small-scale, low-tech attacks globally.  The United States is and has always been, a primary target.

I hope that this article has been interesting and (more importantly) useful.  Alert individuals remain a key component in recognizing threats and intervening before an attack.  Stay alert, stay safe, and if you see something, say something.

About the author

Joel is a 12 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.