Combating ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorism

Peter Webster

Peter Webster

The shocking events in Nice and Munich highlighted a growing trend for terrorist atrocities carried out by individuals acting alone rather than as part of established and well-organised groups. Peter Webster examines how the ‘Lone Wolf’ creates a unique set of issues for security professionals to confront and outlines why we all have a role to play in maintaining levels of vigilance.

We now populate a world in which we’re accustomed to terrorist atrocities. The July event in Nice – during which 84 people were killed when a 19-tonne cargo truck driven by Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was deliberately steered into Bastille Day crowds on the Promenade des Anglais – portrayed a shocking degree of violence.

Just days later in the Moosach district of Munich, German-born Ali David Sonboly, who had dual Iranian and German nationality, opened fire on diners in a McDonald’s restaurant and killed ten, among them seven teenagers, while close on 40 individuals were injured. Sonboly later shot himself.

The latter episode was followed by the death of a woman in the German city of Reutlingen, after the poor female had been attacked by a 21 year-old Syrian asylum seeker with a machete.

These acts of extreme violence signify a growing and disturbing trend, whereby rather than working as part of a group or a cell, radicalised individuals – or ‘Lone Wolves’ as they’re often referred to – are able to operate beneath the radar of the Security Services due to their apparent willingness and sheer determination to act alone.

Although there’s clearly a rise in this type of terrorist activity, it’s important to remember that lone attackers operating under a model of leaderless resistance isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s one that spans the political and religious spectrum. For example, in July 2011 anti-Islamist Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in Oslo and then journeyed to the island of Utoya to massacre scores of youths attending a summer camp, killing 77 people in all.

There have also been ‘Lone Wolf’ plots and attacks orchestrated by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other ‘single issue’ extremists. In fact, a recent study led by the Royal United Services Institute found that, when it came to attacks by ‘Lone Wolves’ without guidance from an outside group, the extreme right has been behind as many events as have Islamic extremists.

Prowling among us

It’s all too easy to dismiss ‘Lone Wolves’ as seriously disturbed individuals who are either mad, bad or both. Breivik was at war with Muslims and multiculturalism, and believed that the slaughter he carried out would be a wake-up call. There are, no doubt, others within society that share his views.

It has also been reported that Sonboly was bullied and isolated at school and, when police searched his home, they found newspaper clippings and books related to mass murders, among them one called ‘Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters’. Searches revealed no links to organised terror groups. His attack was unlikely to have been driven by Islamist extremism.

While they hold views that go against the majority of others in society, these people are what the Security Services call ‘clean skins’ – a term used to describe those who have a spotless criminal record and a history that doesn’t arouse suspicion. With this type of background, it’s incredibly difficult to identify and monitor ‘Lone Wolves’, a problem compounded by the fact that they often have no communication with others. It’s precisely their use of mobile phones, e-mail and the Internet that makes those working in larger organised groups easier to thwart.

Unfortunately, working alone also makes it far more likely for those with malicious intent to succeed in their endeavours. As described, the methods they use to carry out atrocities are usually basic, but deadly. The Nice terror attack demonstrated that bombs and guns are not always necessary – carnage can be caused just as easily by items that are around us every day.

A tough task

Although the proliferation of ‘Lone Wolves’ poses an insidious and covert threat, it makes it all the more vital that security professionals work with the wider Security Services and the general public in a comprehensive effort to increase vigilance and identify suspicious behaviour. Ultimately, it’s incumbent upon us all to recognise the threat, take it seriously and do everything possible to minimise the danger posed to people, property and assets.

Security professionals need to be on high alert to the potential impact of threats on the organisations that they’re tasked to protect. Rather worryingly, there’s sometimes an inability to look at the ‘bigger picture’ in terms of identifying the reasons that a particular organisation could be a target, where a threat might originate from and what to do about it. Frankly, this situation must change.

For example, managing the security of a business that’s American-owned and based in the UK, as well as having facilities in other parts of the world affected by political violence or extremism, requires planning and contingencies that extend far beyond a local perspective. That ought to be obvious, but too often the threats from terrorism are overshadowed by a pre-occupation with less dramatic threats, such as criminal damage, pilfering, vandalism or petty crime.

Knowledge, information and intelligence must guide and shape the approach and thinking of security professionals, and particularly so in terms of risk and threat assessments and when determining security policy and strategy.

A significant factor in widening the scope and implementation of security solutions is adopting the concept of the convergence of security risk. This involves bringing together all those dedicated to the overall security of a given organisation and facilitates collaboration between security, finance, insurance, Health and Safety and reputational risk leaders, allowing knowledge and information to be correctly shared, understood and acted upon.

Every situation is unique. A security strategy necessitates the integration of a range of measures including security guarding, CCTV, access control, lighting and remote monitoring. It may also be necessary to deliver on-site training to enhance an organisation’s existing security measures. This will help personnel identify and respond to potential threats and give them confidence in the organisation’s ability to keep them safe.

When it comes to guarding, companies specialising in protecting certain types of environment possess unique knowledge of the threats posed to specific kinds of establishments. A specialist provider will be able to deploy individuals who have been given training and support that enables them to perform their roles to the highest standard. This includes, for example, Operation Fairway-based training on spotting suspicious behaviour, guiding members of the public to safety in the event of an attack, how to carry out sensitive questioning and due recognition of hostile reconnaissance procedures.

Maintaining public order

In order to stand the best chance of identifying ‘Lone Wolves’, members of the public must also play their part by reporting any suspicious behaviour. Put simply, terrorists operating under this model are far more likely to be seen by ordinary citizens with good situational awareness than they are by an individual counter-terrorism agent.

In the event of a terrorist attack taking place, minimising the level of damage is going to be absolutely paramount.

At the end of last year, the National Police Chiefs’ Council produced a four-minute video entitled ‘Stay Safe: Firearms and Weapons Attack’ which outlined its ‘Run, Hide, Tell’ policy. At the time, Metropolitan Police Service Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu commented: “From Case Studies and the testimony of individuals who have survived attacks, we know full well that the advice given in this film has saved lives. With the UK terror threat level remaining at ‘Severe’, the police and the Security Services continue to operate at a heightened state of readiness. We’re working on hundreds of investigations and making arrests every day. However, it’s only with the ongoing support of communities that we can defeat terrorism.”

Living in troubled times

There’s little doubt that we find ourselves living in what can best be described as rather troubled times, with the apparent proliferation and success of dedicated ‘Lone Wolf’ attacks representing a frightening new development in the sphere of terrorist activity.

It’s therefore imperative that individuals and organisations fully comprehend the dangers posed by potential adversaries, understand their motives and take appropriate action.

Only by doing so will we all be in the very best possible position to address this clear and present danger and determine to ensure that the terrorists don’t ‘win’ the wider battle to disrupt our way of life.

Peter Webster is CEO of Corps Security

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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