Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance

  • George Michael
  • Vanderbilt University Press
  • 264 pp.

An expert on counterproliferation looks at the troubling rise in political violence committed by disaffected people whose actions are hard to track.

George Michael is an associate professor of nuclear counterproliferation and deterrence at the Air War College who also studies right-wing extremism. And Michael is a worried man. His conclusion: “Episodes of lone wolf terrorism ... suggest that leaderless resistance has become the most common tactical approach of political violence in the West. ... A few angry people now have the potential to cause unprecedented destruction.”

Lone wolves, he explains, are people who operate on their own or in small cells — generally isolated, unaffiliated, stateless and ideologically radical. While they may act in line with larger causes, they are able to function independently and under the radar, creating no trackable profiles, and they can equip and position themselves to be massively lethal.

Many things today make it easier for angrily disaffected people to act: the ease of travel, powerful off-the-shelf weaponry, technology capable of dangerous dual uses and the ubiquity and anonymity provided by the Internet. In a nation as tolerant as America is of free speech and the press, apocalyptic and vituperative rhetoric fuels fires ignited by “terrorists in miniature.” A case in point: The Turner Diaries and Hunter, two novels describing race wars and anti-Semitic violence, have been found to be influential in inciting some radicals to act. Internet service providers, though loath to be censors, have removed propaganda sites such as “The Nuremburg Files” that seem to target certain people for retribution.

Michael points out that this new generation of warfare differs markedly from collisions by nation-states, guerrilla actions or civil unrest. A lone wolf can get his hands on agricultural explosives, hazardous chemicals, biohazard substances and powerful weaponry at gun shows, and can engage in hacking with the aim of causing cyber-disruption and economic sabotage. We go to elaborate lengths to screen ticketed airline passengers while other vulnerable targets abound. Consider unsecured areas in airports and train stations, shopping malls and entertainment parks, congested urban areas and basic infrastructure such as power grids, pipelines, bridges and water supplies.

The goal of the “nouveau terrorist” is not victory in military or political battles. Rather, it is to attack the safety we take for granted with starkly violent acts that puncture public confidence and draw attention to a cause.

For me, Michael’s most insightful chapters are “Leaderless Resistance and the Extreme Right,” a dismaying catalog of domestic extremism that cites dozens of actors and charts the influences and relationships among them, and the “Global Islamic Resistance Movement,” which describes decentralized, ostensibly leaderless jihadists and their networks in the West. Other chapters deal with eco-terrorism, animal-rights activists, militia movements and wave-type groups such as protesters at summits and trade conferences.

For the most part, this book is a survey of the literature. Yet curiously, I found only scant mention of the many vicious attacks on abortion clinics and providers.

Exhaustively sourced as Michael’s book is, there are conspicuous gaps and weaknesses. In regard to nuclear threats, for example, he makes the startling conclusion that “The Soviet Union’s collapse left eighteen thousand nuclear warheads in the hands of leaders of new countries, though there is no evidence that any of these weapons ever left government control.” Maybe, but what he provides by way of supporting evidence is the footnote to a 2006 article in Discover magazine. That seems extraordinarily weak documentation from a scholar who lectures the U.S. military on nuclear counterproliferation. In fact, the cooperation of many of the world’s governments in identifying and disabling nuclear stockpiles over the last few years has been gratifyingly successful. That work is a matter of public record, well documented in a new book this year by Philip Taubman, The Partnership.

On the other hand, deploying radioactive materials that are not yet weaponized is well within the competence of lone, loosely networked terrorists. Michael explains that such material can be obtained and distributed because terrorist organizations have robust financing, networks of like-minded people are prevalent and borders are porous, many essentially unsecured. It is possible that experts, like this author, may not be free to discuss specifics about those kinds of threats. Nevertheless, more could and should have been written on the subject than is in this book.

In sum, Lone Wolf Terror reads like a background-orientation document, perhaps pre-course reading for a class on terror-prevention strategies. As such, this book is a valuable resource, but it leaves me yearning for a copy of George Michael’s more enlightening lectures.

Tom Phillips is a retired corporate attorney who lives in Chicago, grumbles a lot about national politics and also worries about the fate of mankind.

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