The Manchester Attack and the Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’

It’s all too easy to blame terrorist attacks on isolated losers, but they are part of a community, believers in an ideology, and often have behind-the-scenes support.

Peter Byrne/ PA Images/Getty

LONDON—Details are continuing to emerge from the scene of the biggest terrorist attack in the United Kingdom in the last decade, but it is clear that this suicide bombing with a suspected nail bomb deliberately targeted children and young people who had just been enjoying a pop concert at the Manchester Arena. Twenty-two people have been killed and dozens injured in what is a suspected suicide attack.

The blast occurred in the foyer at 22:33 BST on Monday at the end of a concert by U.S. singer Ariana Grande. British Libyan Salman Abedi has been named by police as the suspected suicide bomber. So far three victims have been named, among them eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos, Georgina Callander and John Atkinson. No doubt, the names of other victims will continue to be revealed, breaking hearts as they are.  

This was a jihadist terrorist attack. It fits an unfortunate pattern over the last decade. Soft targets such as concert halls and nightclubs have been targeted before in Paris, Istanbul, Orlando, and Bali, with the focus not just on inflicting mass casualties, but on attacking our way of life. Moreover, as this comes on the anniversary of Drummer Lee Rigby’s murder in Woolwich by terrorists four years ago, and just ahead of Ramadan, we remember that jihadists have often called for anniversary violence and terrorism during the holy month.

Much remains to be be said about which group is responsible for this attack, and much remains to be verified. ISIS have already claimed responsibility, but with key details in their claim missing, including appearing to get certain facts wrong, the jury is out as to which group can be held responsible. And this detail is almost irrelevant.

During this difficult time, many commentators will no doubt retreat to their comfort zones. They will hope beyond hope that this was a one-off “lone actor.” But experts working in this field know that while some terrorists may carry out their attacks alone in the last moment, planning within a cell is often likely for bomb attacks, and jihadist groups often play an inspiring, enabling, or coordinating role. The “lone wolf” phenomenon is a myth.

Recent research highlights this quite well. In 2013, researchers at Pennsylvania State University studied the behavior of 119 so-called lone-wolf terrorists. This study found that even though these terrorists went “operational” alone, in 79 percent of cases others were at least aware of the perpetrators extremist ideology, and in 64 percent of cases family and friends were aware of the individual’s terrorist intent.

Last year, academics at the University of Miami looked at 196 jihadist groups who used social media during the first eight months of 2015. The groups had a combined total of more than 100,000 members. Jihadists who had not subscribed to a group had either recently been in one, or soon joined one.

Pushing the “lone wolf” myth suits multiple actors. It allows the terrorists to exaggerate the extent of the infiltration of our societies by peddling the notion that your next door neighbor could suddenly turn against you. It also helps our security services and politicians. A “lone wolf” is hard to identify, almost impossible to predict, and very hard to stop. The explanation can act as a cover for serious security failings where terror cells have previously been watched, only for the monitoring to have been stopped.

Most importantly, though, blaming terror attacks on isolated loners who get radicalized because they can’t fit into regular society flagrantly sidesteps the role that community sympathy and insulation for extremist ideologies plays. It turns a blind eye to the fact that we are living through a full blown jihadist insurgency being fought in our own streets.

ISIS did not radicalize the 6,000 European fighters who left their homes to join a group that was partly responsible for reintroducing sexual slavery to the modern world. No. Those thousands of angry young European born Muslims were already radicalized. ISIS merely plucked the low hanging fruit.

For decades Islamist groups have been working within my own Muslim communities across Europe pushing the notion that we must resurrect a modern theocracy called a “caliphate.” In declaring its caliphate, the so-called Islamic State merely plugged a pre-existing demand that Islamist groups had been building for years. The horrible truth is that no terrorist insurgency can exist within any society without a level of community complacency towards the extremist ideas it rests on. The myth of the “lone wolf” allows us to ignore the role of ideology.

At this time, calls for unity and calm are needed. But we must also call at this time for things not to simply return to “normal.” Such attacks may well be the “new normal,” but we must not accept this status quo. If normal means regular attacks by jihadist terrorists against our children and youth at the dawn of their lives, then this “normal” must not be allowed to continue. New thinking needs to emerge in the corridors of Whitehall and for our communities. Stale symbolism and dusty out-of-date government policy has failed us.  

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

We must question deeply how we arrived at a situation in which brutal suspected jihadist terrorist attacks on our continent became so frequent. If at the height of the U.S. civil rights crisis we all said "let us just resume life as normal," people would rightly accuse us of apathy. We ask those who have until this day not participated in the civil society struggle to root out all extremism from our communities to stand up and be counted. Now is not a time only for short term gestures and platitudes, though solidarity is necessary. We are all responsible for fighting extremism, and we can all play a long term role.