TSAS WP18-02 ‘How “Alone” are Lone-Actors? Exploring the Ideological, Signaling, and Support Networks of Lone-Actor Terrorists’

Author(s): Hofmann-- David
Publisher: TSAS
Year Published: 2018
Entry Types: TSAS Working Paper

The threat of lone-actor terrorism poses a unique challenge to security practitioners tasked with detecting, identifying, and preventing acts of ideologically and politically-motivated violence. Conventional knowledge and early academic work on lone-actor terrorism has popularized the concept that these individuals radicalize, operate, plan, and execute terrorist plots in relative anonymity, with little connection to formal or more organized terrorist groups and networks. However, the growing scholarship in this area has begun to challenge the notion of the “loneliness” of lone-actors, and recent empirical research (e.g., Hamm and Spaijj 2017; Gill 2015; Joosse 2015) has identified the crucial role that social relations, socio-political environments, and group dynamics play in the radicalization and operation of lone-actor terrorists. Put simply, the empirical evidence suggests that the motivations, methods, and ideologies of lone-actor terrorists are influenced by their larger socio-political environments and by their interactions and relationships with other people.

While there is growing consensus among terrorism scholars that questions the level at which lone-actor terrorists are socially and operationally isolated from others as they progress towards their first act of terrorist violence, there remains much that is not known about the extent and types of social, communication, and support relationships which they create and maintain during this formative period. With this lacuna in knowledge in mind, the current research employs social network analysis to examine patterns of social, ideological, communication, and support ties formed over a 24 month period prior to the commission of the first act of terrorist violence by two case studies of lone-actor terrorists: Timothy McVeigh, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Extensive relational data were gathered from open-sourced documents on both case studies, and was then used to code relational matrices for each lone-actor’s full, ideological, signaling, and support networks. These matrices were then used to conduct sociometric tests to analyze relational patterns at the network, group, and individual (ego) levels.

While the findings of this study are tempered by the fact that it is difficult to generalize research results from a pair of case studies, the research results offer empirical support to the current literature that questions the extent of the “loneliness” of lone-actors by demonstrating that both case studies were actively engaged with and were part of larger ideological, operational, and communication networks that played a role in their radicalization towards violence, and/or the planning and operational stages prior to committing an act of terrorist violence. Perhaps more importantly, the current study provides four new potential insights into the social dynamics of lone-actor terrorists that were uniquely obtainable through the use of social network analytical methods:

(1) The radicalization, planning, and operational stages of lone-actors are tied to and influenced by a mixture of multiple small-group and person-to-person social dynamics, depending on the nature of interaction (i.e., ideological, signaling, or support).

(2) Information about terrorist plots tended to be shared the most with friends and co-workers of lone-actors. When shared, information tended to be transmitted from person-to-person, and with some few exceptions, tended not to be discussed in small groups.

(3) The examined lone-actors relied on roughly a fifth to a fourth of their overall network for some form of material or non-material support meant to aid in the planning and execution of their terrorist plot. In both cases, the lone-actors tended to seek help from single individuals, rather than from groups or clusters of supporters.

(4) Acquaintances of both lone-actors emerged as the most well-connected and important contributors to ideological discussions, and family members tended to play a diminished or lesser role in both lone-actors’ ideological networks.

While the findings from the current research are still too preliminary to provide concrete and actionable insight to inform sound counter-terrorism policy related to lone-actor terrorism, several provisional recommendations are offered that, if substantiated with future research, may prove to be useful to security practitioners tasked with detecting, identifying, and preventing acts of lone-actor terrorism:

(1) Lone-actors do not radicalize, plan, or operate in complete social isolation. This means that with sufficient additional research, it is likely that effective detection and interdiction strategies can be developed to combat instances of lone-actor terrorism.

(2) Lone-actors are connected to, and are influenced by, small-group and person-to-person dynamics, which offers security practitioners several points of interdiction. Effective counter-terrorism strategies need to take into account the nature, type, and strength of the relationships that lone-actors form in order to exploit structural weaknesses within their networks. At this early stage, the research results suggest that acquaintances tend to be the most important to lone-actors during the radicalization process and when they seek material and non-material support, and that friends and co-workers tend to disseminate information about the lone-actor’s plot to other network actors.

(3) Analysis of the signaling behaviours of the examined lone-actors suggests a certain laxity in operational security which can be exploited by security practitioners who monitor certain types of terrorist “chatter” among radical milieus known to produce, justify, or inspire acts of lone-actor terrorism.