The Age of the Wolf – Report on the Threat of Lone Wolf Terrorism
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently released an in-depth report on terrorism in the United States. Covering April 2009 to February 2015, the report (titled “The Age of the Wolf”) found that during that period, “more people have been killed in America by non-Islamic domestic terrorists than jihadists.” The SPLC asserted that “the jihadist threat is a tremendous one,” pointing out that al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001 remain the deadliest in U.S. history. But the study also noted that the second deadliest was carried out not by Islamists, but by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995—and law enforcement, the SPLC stressed, are doing the public a huge disservice if they view terrorism as an exclusively Islamist phenomenon.
Age of the Wolf Introduction
As the White House prepares to host a major summit on countering violent extremism next Wednesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center is releasing a new study showing that domestic terrorism and related radical violence — as opposed to terrorist attacks emanating from abroad — continue to plague the nation. Our study also reveals that the vast majority of this violence is coming from ‘lone wolves’ or ‘leaderless resistance’ groups, most of the latter composed of just two men.
The study, which covers the period between April 1, 2009, and Feb. 1, 2015, and includes violence from both the radical right and homegrown jihadists, finds that a domestic terrorist attack or foiled attack occurred, on average, every 34 days. It also shows that fully 74% of the more than 60 incidents examined were carried out, or planned, by a lone wolf, a single person operating entirely alone. A total of 90% of the incidents were the work of just one or two persons, the study found.
The long-term trend away from violence planned and committed by groups and toward lone wolf terrorism is a worrying one. Authorities have had far more success penetrating plots concocted by several people than individuals who act on their own. Indeed, the lone wolf’s chief asset is the fact that no one else knows of his plans for violence and they are therefore exceedingly difficult to disrupt. Next week’s summit, to be hosted by President Obama, is meant to ‘better understand, identify, and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home in the United States and abroad,’ the White House said. Although the meeting is ostensibly devoted to all forms of terrorism, there is a danger, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, that Islamist terror will be the primary focus.
That would be a serious mistake.
There’s no question that the jihadist threat is a tremendous one. Close to 3,000 Americans were murdered by Al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001, far more than the number killed by any other form of terrorism. And officials are now warning that the Islamic State, known for its barbaric beheadings and the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, may be plotting to kidnap Americans abroad in a slew of other countries.
But that is not the only terrorist threat facing Americans today. A large number of independent studies have agreed that since the 9/11 mass murder, more people have been killed in America by non-Islamic domestic terrorists than jihadists. That fact is also apparent in the new SPLC study of the 2009-2015 period.
Since 9/11, however, the government has focused very heavily on jihadists, sometimes to the exclusion of violence from various forms of domestic extremists. That was first apparent in the immediate aftermath of the Al Qaeda attacks, when almost all government resources were channeled toward battling foreign jihadists. A stark example of that is the way the Justice Department has allowed its Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee to go into hibernation since that day.
But it is also reflected in the way that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is charged with providing law enforcement information and analysis of all kinds of violent extremism, let its team devoted to non-Islamic domestic terrorism fall apart in the aftermath of a controversial leaked report. The 2009 report, which detailed the resurgence of the radical right in the aftermath of Obama’s 2008 election, was pilloried by pundits and politicians who wrongly saw it as an attack on all conservatives. As a result, then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for it, and the DHS intelligence team that wrote it has since virtually disbanded.
The temptation to focus on horrific groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State is wholly understandable. And the federal government recently has taken steps to address the terrorist threat more comprehensively, with Attorney General Eric Holder announcing the coming reconstitution of the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee. There has been a recent increase in funding for studies of terrorism and radicalization, and the FBI has produced a number of informative reports.
And Holder seems to understand clearly that lone wolves and small cells are an increasing threat. ‘It’s something that frankly keeps me up at night, worrying about the lone wolf or a group of people, a very small group of people, who decide to get arms on their own and do what we saw in France,’ he said recently.
But it’s critical that Wednesday’s gathering at the White House takes on terrorism in all its forms, Islamic and non-Islamic, foreign and domestic. Federal agencies must reinvigorate their work in studying and analyzing the radical right, helping law enforcement agencies around the country understand and counter the very real threat of domestic terrorism from the milieu that produced mass murderer Timothy McVeigh. It’s not a question of focusing on one or another type of terror. No matter the source, we simply cannot afford to ignore the ongoing carnage.”