Behind the lone wolf

By Paul Jackson

Extreme right violence is poorly understood and poses questions that are increasingly relevant today. How common are violent attacks by extreme right activists? Do they pose as large a threat as Islamist-inspired violence? Often the perpetrators of the most violent and murderous extreme right attacks are casually labelled “lone wolves” in the media, but are they really acting alone?

These incidents are also often described as seemingly random attacks, but is this true? Does the extreme right really represent a “terrorist” threat, or is it too amateur and disorganised to be considered akin to, say, Islamist terrorism? And is violence coming from the extreme right driven by mental health issues, not ideology?

This article seeks to address these questions. While there are no easy answers, it aims to give a clearer sense of how we ought to think about extreme right violence.

The issue is not new. In 2011, shortly before the attacks by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway that left 77 dead, Searchlight published a report on the threat posed by supposed lone wolf terrorists from the extreme right, Lone Wolves: myth or reality? Its main argument was that the term “lone wolf” is misleading. We suggested that the term is problematic as it places far too much stress on the idea
that such figures are true “loners”, people with no relationship to political organisations that promote or condone such political violence.

Extreme right culture

In reality, the violent attackers motivated by extreme right ideas are not loners, even if they carry out their acts of violence alone. They are the product of a much wider extremist milieu. The act of political violence is just the tip of the iceberg of what has led them to this point.

The so-called lone wolves are typically helped and encouraged by a much broader movement, one that plays a crucial role in the individual’s radicalisation. To tackle the issue of acts of terror inspired by extreme right ideology, it is crucial to understand and monitor that movement more generally.

People who are dubbed lone wolves are often inspired by elements of extreme right ideology, especially the parts of this culture imported from the US neo-Nazi scene that romanticise the lone actor taking on society. This is a scene that, more generally, also offers an environment promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories, hatred of non-white people and pseudo-religious ideas such as Christian Identity and Wotanism. Themes such as “white genocide” also epitomise this culture’s mistrustful mindset, always steeped in the rhetoric of victimhood. This culture can be used creatively to develop all manner of pseudo-moral justifications for violent activity.

Lone wolf strategy

Holding together the many disparate ideas within the extreme right is the oft-repeated theme of the movement overcoming an – imagined – existential crisis facing the nation and the white race by enacting a violent revolution. One strategy to achieve this revolution is via the “lone wolf”. The term was popularised, especially in the 1990s, by figures such as former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Tom Metzger and his fellow US white supremacist Alex Curtis. It was styled as a way to help people engage in extreme activity, make an impact and avoid detection.

Essays such as Louis Beam’s Leaderless Resistance and books such as The Turner Diaries, by US National Alliance founder William Luther Pierce – which was copied in Britain by influential neo-Nazi Colin Jordan in his own equivalent The Uprising – typify the mythology promoting revolutionary violence. This culture was endorsed in the US by groups such as the National Alliance, imported into Britain and spread via organisations such as Combat 18 and the National Socialist Movement. Since the 1990s, in the era of the internet and social media, the idea of the lone wolf has become one of many tactics on the extreme right – an idea that is out there, and all too easily accessible.

Although it is only one element of extreme right culture, for those going through a process that combines radicalisation by others with self-radicalisation, the lone wolf mythology can encourage the belief that society is on the edge of a profound disaster – but all this can be resolved by someone who will step up to become a hero. Political essays, fiction, skewed histories of the 20th century, speculative political philosophies offering a “higher truth” and emotive, radical critiques of mainstream society all combine to make the lone wolf mythology a potentially exciting counter-culture of extremism.

Academics, such as Roger Griffin in his book Terrorist’s Creed, have explored the importance of this type of powerful, mythic element to extreme right ideology, and its crucial role in fostering violence. Griffin identifies how a wide range of extremist literature idealising the role of the revolutionary hero can lead people down a pathway of radicalisation.

This process is also facilitated by direct and indirect contact with racist and extremist groups, which offer a wider literature with advice on how to make weapons. While those who carry out violence tend to be critical of larger groups, as they appear to be not doing enough, wider organisations are crucial for developing a sustained culture of extremism. From this literature, people inspired to action can join the dots between identifying the “problem” and implementing a “solution”. It encourages them to make a choice to take things into their own hands. The lone wolf mythology helps activists who want to cross this line to think about themselves in several crucial ways.

Firstly, the lone wolf mythology fosters a profound sense of opposition to the political and cultural mainstream, to the point where society is viewed as facing some sort of immediate, existential threat – one that mainstream culture simply does not understand, it is claimed.

Secondly, it legitimises the action taken by those sensitive to this crisis, painting them as part of a vanguard working towards revolution. The mythology even claims future generations will worship members of this supposed elite. Thirdly, prospective lone wolves are told to act alone or in tiny cells, and are encouraged to believe that, although they may not see them, there are other similar cells or individuals “out there”.

Finally, the mythology encourages people who engage in political violence to think of themselves as revolutionaries, helping them believe their actions will have a far greater significance than is actually likely.

The extreme right’s lone wolf mythology certainly inspires violence. Yet there are a number of cliches about those on the extreme right who carry out violent attacks that need to be challenged to help us develop a richer understanding of this issue.

CLICHE No. 1: the idea that extreme right violence by individuals and small groups is far less likely to occur than Islamist violence.

Threats from Islamist groups are certainly significant and well known so tackling this issue forms the bulk of policy such as the Prevent agenda in Britain. However, this bias ignores the slightly lower but nevertheless broadly comparable level of threat posed by the extreme right.
A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on what it called lone-actor terrorism, drew out this point well.

Its analysis highlights that in the past 15 years a very significant threat has been posed by the extreme right across Europe from those acting alone or in small groups.

It adds: “Given the intense public focus on religiously inspired terrorism, the finding that rightwing extremists account for a similar proportion of perpetrators… is particularly significant. Moreover, the number of far right attacks is likely to be even higher due to under-reporting by the media.”

RUSI’s dataset suggests that, over the 15 years, 38% of “launched attacks” were religiously inspired and 24% were attributable to the extreme right. But although they were perhaps slightly less likely to occur, attacks launched by extreme right individuals were much more likely to result in fatalities.

While RUSI’s data is problematic, as it is derived from media reporting, this important study highlights that the level of risk from extreme right political violence is at a broadly similar level to that driven by supposedly religiously inspired motives, such as Islamism. It underscores that these two categories combined form the main threats from politically motivated violence by individuals and small groups.

CLICHE No. 2: the idea that extreme right lone wolves are loners. We should reflect on what is meant by “loneness” – is someone interacting with online materials acting alone or are they engaging with a wider community? In general terms, all political extremists identify with others to some degree, most now use online materials generated by others to make sense of their actions, and most believe they have a relationship with a wider political cause. While in a purely legal sense these attackers act alone, a richer appreciation of the extreme right underscores the crucial role that the wider community plays in radicalisation.

Moreover, both the extreme right originators of the lone wolf mythology, such as Metzger, and those who analyse the security risks posed, such as RUSI, recognise that the truly solo actor is a rarity. In fact, we are also talking about small, radicalised groups of people acting in twos and threes, not just single individuals.

The Admiral Duncan pub in the aftermath of David Copeland's nail bomb which killed three people and wounded around 70
The Admiral Duncan pub in the aftermath of David Copeland’s nail bomb which killed three people and wounded around 70

Sometimes, individuals radicalised by extreme right ideologies also pass through larger extreme right parties and organisations. David Copeland, the 1999 London nailbomber who targeted Brick Lane, Brixton and the Admiral Duncan pub, aiming at the Asian, black and LGBT communities, was a member of the National Socialist Movement after leaving the British National Party.

Breivik had links with the English Defence League in the months before his attacks, seeing its emergence as a sign of “progress”, although he thought it lacked a sufficiently clear ideology. Indirectly or more directly, such extreme right groups play a crucial role in licensing extremist activity from which they may formally distance themselves.

The relationships that extreme right terrorists have with larger parties and groups need more research. In its report, RUSI developed data suggesting that for many such individuals, there tends not to be evidence of interaction in a sustained way with wider groups.

But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Closer monitoring of these groups would probably reveal greater levels of engagement with larger extreme right groups. It might also suggest that they decide on violent acts to overcome frustration at a perceived lack of action. Wisely, then, RUSI also stress the “need for greater surveillance of groups which advocate violence and those who interact with them”.

CLICHE No. 3: the view that extreme right political violence is “random”. This is again not really the case. Extreme right violence emerges from a small but continuing extremist counterculture spread over a wide range of tiny groups. It is a milieu that seizes on emotive events, and responds to wider developments in society.

Reports by watchdog groups, such as Tell Mama and the Campaign Against Antisemitism, highlight the clear relationship between major international events and spikes in hate crime. Meanwhile, key academics studying US extreme right political violence, such as Pete Simi, argue convincingly that there are trends linked to both internal development within the movement and to wider issues beyond the extreme right that can help us develop a better understanding of patterns of extreme right violence.

More work needs to be done for these patterns to be fully understood. Especially in Britain, the available data is not developed and analysed in enough detail to discern such trends, and there is not enough scrutiny to fully understand the relationships between extreme right violence and wider events. In addition, analysis driven by policy needs does not always capture the wider issues that underpin waves of political violence.

CLICHE No. 4: the view that the extreme right is too disorganised to be a serious threat. The extreme right in Britain has historically had an image problem: its protagonists are often portrayed as drunks, men incapable of serious activity, who are at times unhinged. Ironically, this can play to the advantage of the extreme right. Although its activists certainly come across as people with limited levels of organisational skill and ability, this is no reason to dismiss the threat posed by the extreme right.

Such casual dismissal can help set up a simplistic contrast between the “amateur” and therefore lesser threat posed by the extreme right and the “professional” and therefore greater threat posed by Islamist groups. While some elements of the extreme right do fit the stereotype of three men in a pub with a dog, other elements of the milieu do not. RUSI highlights that, perhaps because it is less sophisticated, extreme right political violence can be far more difficult to spot, compared with Islamist-inspired violence. Incredibly, 40% of potential attackers from the extreme right who were discovered before they carried out an attack were found by chance, not through intelligence.

There are some profiling details that are useful for identification. Typically, extreme right solo and small-group violence is committed by men in and around their forties. Unlike younger Islamists, they are far less likely to undergo noticeable behavioural changes, making their radicalisation harder to detect. Nevertheless, many do disclose their activity in some way before a planned attack, highlighting the need for greater levels of internet monitoring.

Looking forwards, approaches to tackling extreme right political violence are due a rethink – and new policy is needed to deal with it. As with other forms of political violence, people attracted to this milieu can the see their actions through the lens of an existential conflict with a political and social system set against them. Extreme right culture more generally is crucial to fostering this mindset. To tackle the issue of extreme right political violence, it is necessary to find ways to disempower the extreme right culture that promotes a mythology licensing violence.

The cliches surrounding the lone wolf need to be challenged. It is in the interests of the extreme right for the violence it inspires to be written off as the actions of isolated loners – people who are mad, not driven by ideology – without looking at the wider patterns. Such simplifications should be avoided, with a much richer and deeper understanding of the issue fostered instead.

• This article first appeared in Searchlight Autumn 2016. For more information about the lone wolf concept, see Searchlight’s report Lone Wolves: myth or reality.

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