The well organised and intricate terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and the Madrid bombings have seemingly been replaced by much more random and frightening acts of lone wolf terrorism. Lone wolf terrorism sheds the perception of terrorism as being a group endeavour and instead highlights the potential for an individual to become inspired to commit acts of violence without the direction or knowledge of the organisation. In this sense, lone wolf terrorism is essentially all about the individual rather than the group, thus increasing the difficulty of preventing an attack. The key long lasting consequence of lone wolf terrorism is the sentiment that there are a multitude of terrorists hiding within society which results in a rise of xenophobia and religion-centred hate crimes. However, if lone wolf terrorism is the act of an individual then shouldn’t it be considered detached from both the terrorist organisation and the demographic they belong to? And if this is the case, should the investigation into these lone wolf terror attacks be centred around the individual’s mental health and whether terrorism was simply used to give the perpetrator a sense of identity and purpose?
Debates surrounding the impact that a lack of personal identity and purpose have on lone wolf attackers is split into two differing theories; psychoanalytic and non-psychoanalytic. This article will focus on the psychoanalytic theory which suggests that unconscious factors drive a person’s mental and social life and categorises lone wolf attackers as individuals which lack a personal and social identity as well as having low self-worth. The likelihood of an absence of personal identity is proliferated through the continual growing interconnectedness of states diminishing the sense of a national identity. Therefore, resulting in a vacuum surrounding personal identity which drastically increases the possibility of psychological disturbances within the individual.
In particular, a study conducted on 88 lone wolf attackers from 15 countries found the following characteristics to be present in some or all of the perpetrators; mental illness, vocational problems, high-stress levels, problems with intimate partner relationships, social awkwardness, violent communications, and high intelligence. I find that many of the characteristics noted within the study are associated with problems interacting within society, therefore contributing to the idea that these individuals lack an identity, a sense of purpose and a grounding. The absence of these feelings, coupled with psychological problems, leaves these individuals susceptible to becoming involved with terrorist organisations for the sole purpose of having a place of which to belong.
Equally, the impact of social media on the mindset of lone wolves is frequently overlooked. Outlets such as Facebook or Instagram encourage the younger generation to view their lives as an ongoing drama and conform to a certain look, culture and way of thinking. Now, should the individual not adhere to these principles, then their personal identity would be out of touch with the status quo and out of place in society.
Furthermore, the increasing use of ‘live’ features on social media as well as mass news outlets provides the perpetrator with a colossal audience for an attack which is guaranteed to provide them with worldwide attention, name recognition and global fame. These factors can be considered key motivations behind an attack when one considers the lone wolves psychological desires to have an identity, to be remembered and to matter. Therefore, violent outlets become a means for these individuals to be immortalised through social and mass media, as well as find a purpose and prove their ability to alter the normal workings of a society that they feel no personal or emotional attachment to.
In my opinion, when a lone wolf attack happens there is general sense that the reasons and motivations for the attack are limited to the terrorist organisation the individual associates themselves with. What is required is an understanding of the impact that psychological disturbances and an absence of personal identity can have on an individual. After all, despite their idiosyncratic nature, lone wolves are essentially narcissistic in nature who rather than operating for the will of the group, instead use violence as a means of punishing the society that they feel no connection to. The change I would recommend is viewing lone wolf terrorism as an incident where an individual suffering from a mental illness or a disassociation from reality and society is taken advantage of by the ideas of a terrorist organisation to find a sense of identity and purpose.