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Investigating—and Stopping—the Lone Terrorist

Is there such a thing as a terrorist “profile”?

According to the FBI’s Lone Offender Terrorism Report, published in mid-November, it’s impossible to create one.

 But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless when it comes to preventing tragedy. The report, which has so far received little serious attention, provides valuable insight into the individuals who carry out horrific acts of terror on our home ground—and allows us to draw some conclusions about how to address the threat they represent.

 The report assessed 52 cases of “lone offender” terrorist attacks in the U.S. from 1972 to 2015. It largely confirmed other experts’ conclusions that demographic factors are far too variable to be analytically useful in predicting who will engage in terrorism.

A similar conclusion about the lack of a uniform active-shooter profile was drawn earlier by the FBI in its study of U.S.-based active shooters between 2000-2013. And the notion of a terrorist profile has also been systematically debunked by other scholars.

But we’re not completely in the dark about what drives these lone actors. There are patterns of behavior and biography that can prove useful to police and security analysts, and to first responders.

Lone offender terrorists can be as young as 15 and as old as 88, with an average age of 37.7 years. Interestingly, radical Islamic violent extremists tend to be about a decade younger, averaging 26.3 years during the time of attack. All the shooters studied in the report were male.

Similar estimates from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University reveal that people charged in an Islamic State-related investigation in the U.S. are, on average, 28.

Some 90 percent of the lone offenders studied were born in the U.S., 8 percent were naturalized citizens, and the remaining 2 percent were legal permanent residents. And for those not born in the U.S., prior DHS intelligence assessments indicate that foreign-born terrorists “radicalize” at least 10 years after arriving on U.S. soil.

In other words, not only are foreign-born terrorists rare, but their malign intentions seemingly only emerge many years after admission into the country.

Some 37 percent of the offenders were also military veterans. That jibes with a 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report, which pointed out that military veterans were at risk of recruitment from white nationalist groups due to their expertise in military tactics. But this conclusion triggered a fierce backlash from conservative politicians and media, who felt it disrespected American veterans, and led to the dismantling of the team assigned to track extremist threats from the far-right. The finding was also publicly condemned by then-DHS head Janet Napolitano.

Lone offender terrorists also often have radical peers. Specifically, 50 percent of offenders had at least one family member or associate who appeared to be sympathetic to a non-violent extremist ideology, while 35 percent had at least one family member or associate adhere to a violent ideology.

Again, this is remarkably consistent with prior academic literature.

In terms of criminal history and mental illness, 70 percent of lone offender terrorists had a criminal history (at least one previous arrest), and 25 percent had a prior formal diagnosis of at least one psychiatric disorder. An additional 13 percent were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder after the attack.

A more comprehensive 2018 study by Gary LaFree, chair of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Maryland, and colleagues, published in the Criminology journal, of 1,473 violent and non-violent extremists also concluded that criminal history and history of mental illness are significant predictors of participation in violent political extremism.

The November FBI report also highlights the fact that radicalization is not a linear process. Rather, it is “highly personal and specific to each individual.”

This is actually a shift from prior FBI thinking. Previously, the FBI embraced a reductionist radicalization model produced by the New York Police Department that was derived from a handpicked sample of 10 cases. In brief, the model proposed a linear and predictable pattern of four stages of radicalization, with each stage having “unique” indicators.

However, other government agencies, such as DHS and the National Counter Terrorism Center, have consistently rejected such facile notions.

Even the term “lone offender” has led to misleading popular conceptions that such terrorists are “lone wolves.” The latest FBI study makes clear they are not completely alone. For instance, the study showed that offenders tended to be quite vocal about their ideological beliefs prior to attacks. They had family, friends, or online contacts who noticed their troubling behaviors prior to their attack.

Specifically, 42 percent of peers acquainted with the lone offender were aware of his violent ideology, while 83 percent were aware of his non-violent ideology or grievances. Meanwhile, in 25 percent of the cases, acquaintances were aware of the offender’s research, general planning or preparation for the attack, while 18 percent of acquaintances were aware of more specific attack plans.

In contrast, other research has found that 64 percent of lone offender terrorists explicitly communicated their direct intent to engage in terrorism to friends and family.

In response to peer or family knowledge of suspected terrorism intent, in 69 percent of the cases the FBI found that one or more people took action to address the concerning behavior. Usually this meant talking to the offender, their family, or friends. In only one-third of the cases did bystanders notify authorities.

Prior research has similarly found that about 22 percent of foiled terrorist plots in the U.S. are due to tips from the public and Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) related to terrorism.

There are several important takeaways from the FBI report.

First, it can help disabuse the notion of a generic terrorist profile and the concept of “lone-wolf” terrorism. Perhaps it may even assuage misplaced fears of the foreign-born terrorist threat.

As noted above, despite some broad similarities identified by the FBI report, it is important to emphasize that demographic and other background factors vary considerably from person to person. That makes predicting who will engage in terrorism nearly impossible.

Rare Events

Moreover, as I have discussed previously in The Crime Report, terrorist attacks in the U.S. are still relatively rare events. Thus, identifying the few who do this every year in the U.S. is akin to finding a few needles in several haystacks.

Despite the challenges of identifying threats in advance, the U.S. has become quite adept at foiling terrorist plots—particularly in the post 9/11 era. For example, the proportion of foiled plots has increased from a 32 percent interdiction rate (pre-9/11), to a more than 80 percent interdiction rate in the post 9/11 era.

A recent examination of all U.S.-based Jihadist plots similarly found that 82 percent of these events were entirely or partially foiled before execution. Thus, despite the difficult nature inherent in terrorism prevention, we’re arguably doing an effective job.

Still, a significant portion of terrorism prevention “success” will always hinge on the relationship that law enforcement has with the communities it protects. In response to the FBI lone offender report, Director Christopher Wray stressed the important role played by ordinary citizens in combating terrorism.

And that, in turn, requires proactive work by law enforcement and community leaders, he added.

“Bystanders need guidance to recognize concerning behaviors and overcome natural resistance to reporting,” he said in a Nov. 13 press release.

While this may be true, it is also the case that certain communities (predominantly Muslim) have been stigmatized by terrorist profiling and by ill-defined and secretive Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts that are of questionable value.

Let’s not forget that building trust between law enforcement and the community is just as important as mastering the skills of counter-terrorism.

Perhaps it’s more important.

Joseph Dule is a Research & Teaching Fellow at the University of New Haven, where he is completing his doctoral dissertation in Criminal Justice. Previously, he worked as an All-Source Intelligence Analyst in the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on Counter-Terrorism issues while assigned to the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, located in Okinawa, Japan. He welcomes comments from readers.