Home Commentary and Analysis Terrorist Acts by Lone Wolf Actors Are Redefining US Security Tactics
Terrorist Acts by Lone Wolf Actors Are Redefining US Security Tactics

Terrorist Acts by Lone Wolf Actors Are Redefining US Security Tactics

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By Derek Williams
Contributor, In Homeland Security

The October 1 massacre in Las Vegas will define a new normal for America. That much is certain. Americans had no choice but to accept  post 9/11 heightened security measures at airports and longer travel times as part of their normal routine. Now, thanks to Stephen Paddock’s lone wolf shootings in Las Vegas, Americans certainly will need to accept heightened security measures when checking in to any hotel in the United States.

Lone wolf actors are not a new phenomenon. They have perpetrated acts of murder and terror for some time and they have proven extremely difficult to detect and prevent. The definition of a lone wolf actor is a person who commits terrorist and or murderous acts against the social and organizational structure of a formalized group. It is important to note, the Las Vegas shootings might not be considered an act of terrorism in the future; it might be deemed more accurately as mass murder. This is not a commentary on the evil of the act itself, but is more a legal and political distinction.

How Can We Define Lone Wolf Terrorism?

There is no one definition of terrorism that has gained universal acceptance. The most generally accepted definitions of terrorism include several common factors: violence, noncombatant targets, intention of spreading fear and political aims. Paddock so far differs from many other lone wolf style attacks in that his motivation is still unclear and there do not appear to be any political or social aims behind it.

Most analyses of acts of terrorism emphasize the power of group dynamics that can move normal individuals to commit horrific violence. Psychologist Clark McCauley, writing in Perspectives on Terrorism, says the distinctive aspect of lone wolf terrorists is that they are moved to violent action without group or organizational support, thus they are extremely difficult to detect, track, profile and stop.

When contemplating the psychological and behavioral characteristics of these lone wolf actors, there are two possibilities for understanding their actions: 1) they suffer from some form of psychopathology, or 2) they are moved to action by the same mechanisms of radicalization (even though they may be geographically and social removed from the main organizational cells) that have been identified in individuals who join a terrorist or hate group.

Do Terrorists Suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder More than Others?

Probably the best known work regarding the possible psychopathology of a lone wolf actor is attributed to Jerrold M. Post, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and international affairs at George Washington University. Post suggests that such terrorists suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, a diagnosis associated with a lack of empathy and paranoia.

However, Post agrees with the decades of research which shows that terrorists are no more likely to suffer from psychopathology than non-terrorists from the same backgrounds. Narcissistic personality disorder just might be more prevent in lone wolves. So most analysts do not believe there is some profile of characteristics that can be used to identify potential lone wolf terrorists in the general population.

The very nature of the lone wolf makes identifying such actors extremely difficult. So it is important to draw a distinction between two generic types of threat prediction that occupy opposite ends of the scale – strategic prediction and point prediction.

Strategic prediction seeks to describe general trends and the potential of future threats; point prediction focuses on the precise nature of future events (such as their exact timing and location) or the identities of the individuals involved. Generally speaking, while even strategic prediction is often problematic, the closer we move toward seeking point predictions, the more difficult detection and prevention become. Within homeland security, such threats as homegrown and lone wolf style terrorist acts can only be truly assessed and predicted (in very generalized terms) along the lines of strategic prediction.

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Our nation’s Achilles heel is the emergent threat of homegrown lone wolf style attacks. The Las Vegas shooter proves the difficulty of identifying these attackers. Paddock had no criminal record, no known ties to radicalization and no known motivation. Whatever his motives might have been, his actions have tragically affected the entire nation and, unfortunately, once again created a new norm for Americans.

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