Transcript

9/11 and the Lone Wolf Terrorist

Audio

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 7.2MB].

iTunes

Visit this channel at La Trobe on iTunesU.

Transcript

Matt Smith:
Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and my guest today is Dr Ramon Spaaij, a Senior Research Fellow from the La Trobe Refugee Centre. Thank you for joining me Ramon.
Ramon Spaaij:
Thanks for having me Matt.
Matt Smith:
Now, with the tenth anniversary of September the 11th just passing, the world has spent a lot of the past decade focused on terrorist activities. One particular form is lone wolf terrorism which has been the focus of Ramon’s research and will be the subject of his upcoming book. Ramon, if we could start with how you would define a lone wolf terrorist.
Ramon Spaaij:
Yes, I think this is a very good question, actually a question that’s been debated by quite a few academics and particularly also journalists and policy makers. I think the way I look at lone wolf terrorists are those who engage in acts of terrorism, meaning with the aim to basically communicate a broader political message through installing fear, creating that culture of fear through the use of violence, by destabilising the government or creating significant panic among a significant population. A lone wolf terrorist then within that broader framework of terrorism are those who operate individually, alone, and are not connected to any official known or identifiable terrorist group, whether they are more of the sort of hierarchical type or more old-fashioned type of terrorist organisation, or more of the decentralised network, home-grown terrorist networks or cells. So very much an actor that acts alone and may actually be very much directly or indirectly inspired, whether it’s through the internet, or through some form of contact with ideologues pertaining to particular movements, but that in the end acts without the outside command and support and very much engages in an act of terrorism individually and autonomously.
Matt Smith:
OK, so they don’t have to have direct links to a terrorist organisation, so kind of walk me through the criteria. What makes a lone wolf terrorist and what falls outside it – they don’t need to have a connection to a terrorist organisation, they have to act alone…
Ramon Spaaij:
I think those are the main ones. Admittedly the boundaries of lone wolf terrorism are inevitably fuzzy. We’re talking now about the comparison with group actor terrorism, but of course you can also compare it to other forms of criminal activity. Think about lone assassins and things like that, mass murderers. How are lone wolf terrorists different there? I think what’s important is the communication of a political message, albeit it in a way that of course is deemed illegal and can cause significant damage and pain. It is about that wider political ideological religious message. But that also separates it from criminal activities engaged in mainly for personal or criminal reasons.
Matt Smith:
So there has to be a driving ideology of some sort there?
Ramon Spaaij:
Exactly. I think what is important to keep in mind is that it is not necessarily clear what this ideology is, even if lone wolves themselves portray publicly a particular ideology, be it in a manifesto on the internet, be it in the media, be it in statements in court – these statements are much more complex and more mixtures between particular political agendas and sort of personal frustrations and aversion.
Matt Smith:
How have lone wolf terrorists changed over time and did 9/11 and the war on terror affect things at all?
Ramon Spaaij:
They’re very interesting questions. I think first of all as with terrorism generally, lone wolf terrorism is obviously not a new phenomenon – it has been around for centuries. So I came across quite a few examples for example from 19th century anarchism, where some anarchists, definitely not all, because the majority actually reject the use of violence, but theory such as Mikhail Bakunin for example, he advocated propaganda by deed and particularly what he called individual acts of resistance, including for example the murder of political leaders. Taking it to the present, we’ve seen a major rise in lone wolf terrorism as a strategy in the second half of the 20th century, particularly from the 1970s where the concept of legalist resistance became increasingly prominent among right-wing extremist and white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists in the United States. Lone wolf terrorism as you see it today, that sort of historical context from which it’s developed, and then we get also to 9/11. How it’s developed over time is that now it’s increasingly recognised as a significant effective strategy of inflicting pain and attacking an enemy from a variety of political ideological religious backgrounds. So not just related to the far right, particularly the US far right.
Matt Smith:
Are they effective at all?
Ramon Spaaij:
I think that overall, they’re not. If you look at the actual damage done, so the lethality of lone wolf terrorism is actually very low, on average lone wolf terrorist attacks kills less than one person. There are significant examples – the recent attack in Norway being one – but overall it’s seen as not such an effective strategy, however, where it is more effective is in creating a culture of fear, the fear that an individual could strike at any moment, at any time and may well go undetected by law enforcement. That’s one of the interesting trends we are seeing post 9/11, is that even al-Qaeda for example, which itself has always been what we might call a network of networks, now more and more tries to inspire home-grown cells and also individuals to take up arms in the West, in the countries where they live, to strike against Western targets, and very much now also advocating the strategy of legalist jihad to individual jihad, not committed necessarily by a group, or directly related to an organisation such as al-Qaeda, but very much also by individuals, because this is seen as much harder to detect for law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Matt Smith:
Now you said less than one fatality on average. Does that include the terrorist?
Ramon Spaaij:
That actually does include the terrorist and I assessed the lethality of lone wolf terrorism in fifteen countries including Australia over forty years, and the average lethality of an attack is .6 lives per attack. And that ranges from a lot of unsuccessful attacks or attacks where for example the bomb detonated too early and only the perpetrator actually got killed, by its own bomb, to the maximum we’ve seen now, the Norwegian attack recently in July, very exceptional, with 77 people killed in two attacks – the bomb in the government centre of Oslo and then later on the island of Utøya at a Labor Party Youth Camp where 69 people were killed. That might seem like a lot, and it is, causing significant damage and significant heartbreak for the Norwegian population but overall, if you look over the more historical context, lone wolf terrorism doesn’t cause a great deal of casualties. Having said that, one of the famous sayings attributed to Mao but I personally don’t believe that it was Mao who said it in those words, is the idea that terrorism is a strategy to kill one but frighten ten thousand. So it’s actually not actually about the number of people you kill, it’s about that culture of fear and by intimidating a much larger population – so fundamentally then, in terrorism, the primary target is actually usually of secondary importance to the secondary target, which is the wider population, government, and often very loosely defined, for example in the case of Islamist terrorism, as crusaders, Zionists, the West, very vague abstract terms rather than specific, as the people they were actually targeting.
Matt Smith:
Are there certain characteristics that lone wolf terrorists tend to have and are they disturbed individuals?
Ramon Spaaij:
It varies. I did a comparison of lone wolf terrorists versus terrorists who operate in groups and there’s significant psychological literature about this. Terrorists do not exhibit any identifiable psychopathology, in other words, terrorists are strikingly normal, however if we look at lone wolf terrorism, we do see that a relatively large number of individuals do exhibit some form of psychological disorder, ranging from very mild to more serious. Then it’s again important to note that it doesn’t lead them to be cognitively disorganised, so terrorist attacks are usually very carefully planned, even by individuals, and if we look at the recent attack in Norway, that was planned at least for four or five months in detail, but even up to nine years of preparations leading up to that attack, in other words, it’s not something that’s generally done on the spur of the moment by a mentally deranged individual, even though lone wolf terrorists may exhibit certain aspects of psychological disorder that may help shape that violent radicalisation process, and I think it’s very good to look then at radicalisation as a very complex multi-faceted phenomenon, where psychological factors are one amongst many more, including inspiration from larger movements, or sometimes for example a terrorist’s imagination that he has the solidarity and support from a larger movement when in fact he’s actually acting on his own, and in retrospect, his deeds have been seriously condemned by some of his would-be supporters.
Matt Smith:
After the fact has happened, a lot of information comes out about them and a lot of people say, look, we should have seen these indicators before – this was well known about this person on line but it was kind of ignored or dismissed. Should it get to the point where we would be able to track the people who are likely to become lone wolf terrorists?
Ramon Spaaij:
I think it’s very important there to distinguish between the how and the who of lone wolf terrorism. Generally it’s understood now that there’s no point in trying to figure out who are going to be the terrorists – under the right circumstances, basically anyone could become a terrorist, depending on group influences, sociological factors, some psychological factors etc and much more fruitful to look at the how, so particularly behaviours that might be suspect. Think about online purchases of chemicals and particularly large quantities of chemicals that can be used in improvised explosive devices, particular confessions or warning signals made to neighbours, friends, family members or other community members about an upcoming attack, things like that. People who see strange changes in people’s behaviour. It’s much more focused then on the how rather than the who. Having said that, it’s extremely naïve to think that we will live in a society where terrorism attacks will not occur. What can be done through measures such as the ones we’ve just discussed is basically minimise the risk to some extent but I think equally important is to look away from criminal justice approaches and also particularly war approaches, as we’ve seen post 9/11 and to also look more at conciliatory responses, particularly to think about how we might address certain grievances through a democratic process with respect for human rights and civil liberties rather than more and more imposing more security and surveillance measures and creating the surveillance state, often with the illusion that safety in that way can be guaranteed. To some extent we’ll just have to accept terrorism, and also lone wolf terrorism even though lone wolf terrorism is only a fairly marginal aspect of terrorism than more generally, as something of a more manageable risk among many other risks in society. The most effective response to terrorism is not to be terrorised. It’s not about the actual killing of people – it’s about the broader message about why the secondary target to which this message is communicated to – the effect of terrorism is very much in the eye of the beholder, whether people let themselves be terrorised or not. I think that’s quite a fruitful way of looking at terrorism and lone wolf terrorism in particular.
Matt Smith:
Ramon, your book is Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism and it’s to be published in December 2011 by Springer Publishers. It you’d like to ask any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr Ramon Spaaij, thank you for your time today.

No results found. Try searching again:

Search for ...

Find an expert

Search our experts database.