A Lone-Wolf Terrorist Is Never Quite Alone

After the attack in Orlando, I spoke with Jeffrey Simon, a visiting lecturer in the department of political science at UCLA and the author of Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat. During the conversation, we talked about what makes these attacks so hard to prevent, ISIS’s depressingly masterful use of social media, and the types of people drawn to lone-wolf terrorism. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Chotiner: Can you explain the thesis of your book, and how it fits—or doesn’t—with what we saw this weekend in Orlando?

Jeffrey Simon: The books deals with what I see as the growing threat of lone-wolf terrorism, which is different from organized terrorism, and the type of terrorism we got used to through the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and even the first decade of the 2000s. Basically the lone wolf is an individual—or it even could be two individuals—working alone without any significant outside logistical or financial support given to them. They are basically working by themselves. They are very difficult to identify or capture since there are no communications to intercept, no members of groups to arrest.

One of the major theses of my book is that the internet is a game-changer. It provides a lot of opportunity for lone wolves to learn about terrorist tactics and targets and to become radicalized via reading ideological web pages and tweets and blogs. But it can also sometimes provide authorities with a way to learn about lone wolves because they like to talk via the internet. A lot of lone wolves blog or send out messages before an attack. The problem, as we are seeing in Orlando, is: How do you separate those who may be espousing extremist views from those who will actually follow through?