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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 6 New Delhi January 30, 2016

The Lone Wolf Phenomenon

Saturday 30 January 2016, by Mohan K. Tikku


A couple of years ago, the annual State of the Future report of the Millennium Project in Washington had sounded an early warning on the Lone Wolf phenomenon that has gone largely unheeded across the world. Now that the animal is getting closer to the door, it may be time to be warned on how to deal with it. In the annals of international terror, the Lone Wolf pheno-menon is about the terrorist who acts indivi-dually without evincing affiliations to any terrorist group or network. And yet, proves deadlier in its impact.

Ted Gordon, a futurist of long standing, has now struck another warning note. In a recent book on ‘Lone Wolf Terrorism Prospects’ (co-authored with Elizabeth Florescu and Yair Sharan), he explores the potential dangers that stand in the way of dealing with the problem upfront. One of the red flags that Ted raises is regarding the difficulties of identifying the lone wolf. While a terrorist network is easier to identify and locate, the Lone Wolf enjoys the anonymity of the crowd, and therefore is always hard to detect. In a vast number of cases, by the time he can be located, it is already too late.

The San Bernardino terrorist strike is as good an example as any. It also presents a telling case study of individual radicalisation. Though the IS later claimed ownership of the San Beranrdino duo, the authenticity of the claim still is open to question. So far, investigators have found little evidence to suggest a network connection.

Even more worrying in Ted Gordon’s esti-mation are the future prospects. What would happen if and when—according to the book, it is more a matter of when than if—the Lone Wolf gains access to chemical or biological weapons? Technological changes are only making access easier by the day.

The book cites a recent study in which half of an international group of security and other experts forecast that a single individual could kill 100,000 people or more in a single attack by 2050. The other half among the experts put the deadline at around the end of the century or later. At the end, the averaged prospective year of when such a disaster might happen was 2067.

The reason that academic scholarship in the United States is still divided, and often ambivalent, on the subject needs to be explained. There seem to be three reasons for that. One, many of them tend to write off Lone Wolf attacks as a one-off affair committed by some psycho. They compare them to anarchists in the nineteenth and twentieth century America, who too were seen as lone wolves in their time. They were then dismissed as loonies on the fringe. And hence, something not much to worry about.

Two, they see the danger a long way away. Prof Peter Neumann of King’s College, London, an internationally reputed expert on the subject, has indicated that the chance of Lone Wolf terrorist attacks are far greater in Europe than across the Atlantic in America. So, it is possible that many in the United States tend to take a distant view of the danger.

Third, is a fairly common tendency to oversimplify the solutions. An example of that was presented by Prof Benjamin Barber of the City University of New York in New Delhi recently. His book on the subject, titled Jihad versus McWorld, has had a phenomenal success, and will be going into its twentieth anniversary edition early next year.

And yet, despite such appreciation of the problem, it is the search for a solution that was proving problematic. The obvious temptation was to go for the simple-minded solution. While positing ‘Jihadism’ against Western ‘consu-merism’, Prof Barber came close to suggesting a moralistic explanation of the jihadi pheno-menon. He aruged that moral laxity, bred by unbridled consumerism, was acting as a provocation for ‘jihadism’. He cited pornography and sexual licentiousness as possible provo-cations for the Paris attacks. Shopping as an expression of insatiable consumer greed could be another explanation. That came close to disregarding the fact that freedom to choose, including the freedom to offend, were at the heart of an open and democratic society.

But then, offering undimensional and simplistic solutions to complex problems has been a familiar trait in American policy-making. One could see it in American foreign policy all through from John Foster Dulles to the current crises in Iraq and Syria. And academics, who tend to look for such simpler explanations, tend usually to miss the wood for the trees.

Mohan K. Tikku had been a foreign correspondent based in Colombo. He is also author of Sri Lanka: A Land in Search of Itself.

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