The Lone Wolf – Understanding The Threat

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This blog originally posted on the Community & Regional Resilience Institute 

An important part of resilience is recognizing the risks we face, and then taking action. Those actions can take a variety of forms – we may try to wall ourselves away from danger, we may prepare to better respond, or we may position ourselves to recover quickly from perceived adversity.

Attacks by “Lone Wolves” are a global problem. They attack our schools (Sandy Hook, Columbine and a host of others), our businesses (Charlie Hebdo) and governments (Harvey Milk in SF) and thus, our communities. They reveal tears in our social fabric that we didn’t know were there, leaving us to anxiously worry what other holes lie hidden to trap us.

To choose the best course for dealing with Lone Wolves, we have to understand who they are. The DHS START Center of Excellence has done an excellent job of collecting data, providing profiles and categorizing the Lone Wolves among us. McCauley and Moskalenko of START identified two distinct categories of Lone Wolf:

  • The disconnected and disordered. These are loners – often with psychological disorders – who have pulled away from society. They inhabit their own weird worlds in which they have been slighted and wronged and are seeking to avenge themselves. The Aurora movie theater gunman, James Holmes, is an example.
  • The caring and compelled. These are most decidedly not loners, at least not in the traditional sense. They also are often relatively affluent, at least middle class. They identify themselves with some group that they see as having been wronged by the rest of the community (or society). They are seeking “justice” or vengeance for the perceived wrong. Most of our homegrown jihadis are examples – Shannon Conley for instance.

The START program points out that those who fit these profiles but are actively religious tend to be less prone to violence. The Charlie Hebdo incident also sheds some light on this.

There are about six million Muslims in France, two million of whom are practicing Muslims. Many have been pushed into ghetto-like enclaves outside major industrial centers. Unemployment among them is about twice as high as non-Muslims, and even higher for the young (some estimates are as high as 50 percent). It is estimated that a non-Muslim who sends out resumes is 2.5 times more likely to get a job than a similarly qualified Muslim.

The two brothers who carried out the primary attacks clearly fit the caring/compelled profile:  middle-class, looking to avenge the insults to the Prophet from the magazine. It may also be significant that they were not employed, especially because the true hero of the events was a Muslim worker at the kosher market where four were killed (how ironic!). He helped customers find safety in the market’s walking freezer in the store’s basement.

President Obama, speaking about the incident, said,
“It’s important for Europe not to simply respond with a hammer and law enforcement and military approaches to these problems, but there also has to be a recognition that the stronger the ties of a North African _ or a Frenchman of North African descent – to French values, French republic, a sense of opportunity, that’s going to be as important, if not more important, in, over time, solving this problem……[In the US,] there is this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is our greatest strength…”

The President is right, of course. The evidence discussed above all points to isolation from the rest of the community as a fundamental attribute of the Lone Wolf. We see over and over again that those with no functional connections to the rest of the community are the most likely to take radically violent actions. This makes spotting them difficult, but the act of pulling away becomes a telling sign of approaching violence.

We should be proud of our record in assimilating immigrants into America – my grandfather came to Ellis Island from Croatia with about $5 in his pocket and became a successful businessman. But I worry that the President is ignoring a disturbing trend. While the economy is improving for most of us (unemployment is around 6-7 percent), one in six African-Americans are unemployed. Unemployment among young black males is around 40 percent and seems to be rising. Already under-represented, the numbers of young men of color in higher education seems to be shrinking even further.

I worry because this is a potential threat that can be mitigated, but only if we recognize it. We must stare into this abyss and build bridges across it. I worry because these young men are a potential source of strength if only we can bring them back into our communities. The riots in Ferguson and elsewhere are stark evidence that whatever we’re doing now is not working. I worry because, when a disaster looms, these young men will not be able to recover with the rest of us.  They will not be connected to the resources – financial, social and physical – necessary to build their lives anew. I worry, because their lack of resilience renders each of their communities less resilient.

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