The Need for a Lone Definition of “Lone Wolf”

The Need for a Lone Definition of “Lone Wolf”

By Ceci Cohen '24; Image by ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser

The first thing that I learned in Intro to Terrorism Studies is that there is no one definition of “terrorism.” Different people and agencies have varying definitions.

There isn’t one clear definition of “lone wolf terrorism” either.

In my research on lone wolf terrorism, this lack of a clear definition has posed some challenges. The specific issue that I have is with the inconsistency in how many people are included in this type of terrorism. Some scholars believe that “lone” indicates only one individual while others include two or maybe even three people in that definition.

Political scientist George Michael’s definition includes “an individual, or a very small group” who “engages in terrorism often independently of any official movement, leader, or network of support.” A lot of people use this definition when thinking about lone wolf terrorism. For example, in the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, one or two people need to plan and commit a terrorist attack for it to be considered lone wolf terrorism.

On the other hand, Ramón Spaaij writes that lone wolf terrorists “operate individually” and that “terrorist attacks carried out by couples or by very small terrorist cells do not, strictly speaking, qualify as lone wolf terrorism” since he sees a group “as consisting of two or more people.” Mark Hamm, who has collaborated with Spaaij, similarly defines a lone wolf terrorist as “someone who acts alone without the help or encouragement of a government or a terrorist organization, who acts without the direction or leadership of a hierarchy, someone who designs the plan and the methods by themselves without any sort of outside support, and who acts totally alone without the support of any second individual or third individual.” Hamm emphasizes how every step of the way, the lone wolf terrorist acts completely alone.

These various definitions lead to different datasets of lone wolf terrorists. For example, while many people consider Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) a lone wolf terrorist, Hamm and Spaaij do not because despite the fact that McVeigh committed the attack alone, he had an accomplice who helped build the bomb.

The existence of multiple definitions of lone wolf terrorism has affected my research on female lone wolf terrorists. In my research, I am attempting to discover why there have been so few female lone wolf terrorists in the United States (and none since 1993 if using Hamm and Spaaij’s definition).

Again, the existence of various definitions means that there is varying data. For example, if someone believes that two people working together can be considered lone wolf terrorists, then they would consider Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the husband and wife in the 2015 San Bernardino attack, to be lone wolf terrorists. Alternatively, if someone believes a lone wolf terrorist is someone who acts completely alone, then they would not consider Farook and Malik to be lone wolf terrorists. Therefore, depending on which definition you use, there would or would not be a recent example of a female lone wolf terrorist. Consequently, this has the potential to affect conclusions that are made on the subject. According to Hamm and Spaaij, in the United States, there were five female lone wolf attacks from 1940 to 2016, and in the same time span, there were 123 total lone wolf attacks. Considering how few female lone wolf terrorists there have been, any changes in data could be notable when analyzing these terrorists.

But this isn’t just the case for female lone wolves—remember the Timothy McVeigh example? And there are many others. Since lone wolf terrorism is a small area to study and it can be hard to make conclusions about it since there are so few people who do it, the inconsistency in the definition could possibly lead to varying or inaccurate results and conclusions. Thus, for the sake of consistency in the study of terrorism, there should be one definition of lone wolf terrorism.

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