U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

What Can We Learn From the Similarities and Differences Between Lone Wolf Terrorists and Mass Murderers?

Lone actor terrorists are broadcasting what they’re doing; we need to listen.
Date Published
January 2, 2017

Lone actor terrorists, also referred to as “lone wolves” in media reports, have raised new concerns about the ability to prevent terrorist attacks when it is an individual seemingly acting on his own.

Through a report funded by the National Institute of Justice, researchers sought to examine whether the trajectory toward acts of violence was similar for lone actor terrorists and mass murderers.

Researchers found that mass murderers and lone actor terrorists are very similar in their behaviors before committing their crimes, but significant differences exist, including the leaking of intent prior to a violent crime.

Overall, the report suggests that similar threat and risk assessment frameworks may be applicable to both those who commit mass murder and lone actor terrorists.

While lone actor terrorists and mass murders both commit highly publicized acts of violence, their motivations differ. Whereas terrorists commit acts of violence for political gain, mass murderers lack this ideology. The majority of mass murderers are concerned with personal feelings of having been wronged by an individual or group of people.

Researchers compared a number of variables between 71 lone actor terrorists and 115 solo mass murders. Results show that there is little to differentiate the two, in terms of their socio-demographic profiles.

However, their behaviors differ with regards to the degree in which they interact with co-conspirators, their antecedent event behaviors, and the degree to which they leak information prior to the attack.

Notably, lone actor terrorists were significantly more likely to verbalize their intent to commit violence to friends, families, or a wider audience and have others aware of their desire to hurt others.

According to John Picarelli, Program Manager for Transnational Issues, one of the most important findings in this research is this point, that violent extremists are “broadcasting what they’re doing if you’re listening.”

“In other words, these findings support those advocating for early intervention as a way to prevent mass violence and violent extremism,” Picarelli said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean an intervention by police, but should also include peers, community-based organizations, mental health professionals or others,” he said.

The report also contributes to a better understanding of the complexity and multiplicity of potential factors that lead to violent extremism, which in turn should inform efforts to improve the development of warning signs and risk assessments.

The researchers note that there has been only a few rigorous research studies involving interviews with lone actor terrorists or mass murderers. This leaves a shortcoming of critical information, not only on radicalization, attack planning and attack commission, but also issues surrounding deradicalization and disengagement.

About this Article

The research described in this article was supported by NIJ grant number 2013-ZA-BX-0002, awarded to the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
This article is based on the grant report Across the Universe? A Comparative Analysis of Violent Radicalization Across Three Offender Types With Implications for Criminal Justice Training and Education (pdf, 122 pages).

Date Published: January 2, 2017