TRAPPing the Lone Wolf (Part One of Two)

On June 12, 2016, 29-year-old Omar Mateen opened fire at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others.  He was killed at the scene after police responded.  In a call to 911 during the attack, Mateen claimed allegiance to an Islamic jihadi group and alleged that he had been inspired by an acquaintance who later became a suicide bomber linked to al-Qaeda. While the FBI had investigated Mateen in 2013 and 2014, no evidence that he posed a threat to public safety had been found and he was released.

On July 14, 2016, 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel deliberately drove a lorry through crowds of people gathered to celebrate Bastille Day in Nice, France. Bouhlel was killed by police at the scene. Along with 84 fatalities, hundreds of others were injured, some severely. Though police already knew Bouhlel as a career criminal, he had apparently become radicalized in the months leading up the massacre.  Despite evidence retrieved from his phone suggesting that he had collaborated with several other fellow radicals, the investigation is still ongoing.

On August 9, 2016, police in Strathroy, Ontario, alerted by U.S. agencies and the RCMP, confronted 24-year-old Aaron Driver in a taxi outside his home.  Believing arrest to be imminent, Driver detonated a homemade explosive device that he had been carrying.  While the taxi driver managed to exit the car, Driver died at the scene. In a "martyrdom video" he had prepared beforehand, Driver announced that he was planning to detonate the bomb in an urban center during rush hour.Though police had investigated him repeatedly for his open support of ISIS, Driver had been free on a peace bond at the time of his death.

More than ever before, the focus of police and security forces around the world has shifted away from shadowy terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and towards "lone wolf" terrorists who apparently act completely on their own to carry out graphic acts of extreme violence.  Not that the threat comes exclusively from those allied with jihadist groups.  In the United States alone, there have been twice as many attacks from the extreme right as from extreme Islamic groups and an equal number of murders. 

But can these "lone wolves" be identified before they can commit violent acts?  In the examples I have provided above, all of the perpetrators had been investigated previously but were released due to lack of evidence against them.  Despite the perception that many of these potential threats are "walking time bombs," there is little that can be done legally to detain them until it is too late.  In many cases, even their own families might not be aware of what they are planning and are often taken by surprise along with everybody else.

Over the past forty years, researchers and police forces have been attempting to find ways to identify individual terrorists. While numerous coding tools have been developed and are currently in use by police and security agencies, actual research to test their validity remains scarce. In some cases, the coding tools remain classified due to concerns about security and legal objections such as racial profiling.  Actual data concerning the inevitable problem of "false positives," i.e., people identified as terrorists when they aren't, doesn't seem to be available either.

One of the main problems with identifying potential lone wolf terrorists is that they tend not to share most of the characteristics associated with overall criminal violence.  While most measures of violence risk tend to focus on factors such as actual criminal history, psychopathic and criminal attitudes, an irresponsible lifestyle, and substance abuse, most lone wolf terrorists don't present any of these characteristics.  These lone actors also don't show any of the other risk factors that have been linked to criminal violence in the past.  For the most part, there are no obvious psychiatric problems or suicidal tendencies (though these may become evident after the fact).  Even personality traits often seen in violent offenders (such as psychopathy and impulsivity), are rarely evident. 

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.


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