Right-wing, anti-Islam terrorist Anders Behring Breivik—the lone gunman who shot to death 69 people in Norway on July 22, 2011—wrote in his manifesto that lone acts of jihadist terrorism were a main source of his inspiration.[1] Breivik’s writings on tactics are similar to theorizing on leaderless warfare by American white supremacists as well as by al-Qa`ida, mixing ideas from the two. Breivik’s own manifesto echoed strategies, concepts and words found in the writings of Ku Klux Klan member Louis Beam, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine and al-Qa`ida strategist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri’s Global Islamic Resistance Call.[2]

There exists no definitional consensus regarding what constitutes a “lone wolf,” and it is often highly difficult to determine the extent to which individual terrorists operate on their own. Keeping such reservations in mind, existing research indicates that individual terrorists are found among a variety of ideological camps including right- and left-wing radicals, anarchists, Islamists, separatists and various single-issue movements. Moreover, individual attackers appear to have constituted a relatively marginal phenomenon, mostly confined to the United States, and many of them have been white racists.[3] Studies have also pointed out how mentally disturbed people have been overrepresented among loners and that their operations typically involved firearms, explosives and soft civilian targets.[4] Existing research has indicated systematic variation in the profiles of individual attackers and their relationships to extremist networks.[5]

Due to the pressing security situation for jihadist networks in the form of steadfast counterterrorism operations targeting international terrorist cells and militant training camps, al-Qa`ida strategists have for several years called for local individual attacks by associates and sympathizers in the West. Although there has been an increase in terrorist plots by individuals in European countries since 2008, small cells composed of two or more people continue to dominate the picture.

This article first offers an overview and brief characterizations of terrorist plots in Western Europe that appeared to involve jihadist individuals operating on their own, before discussing possible explanations for why there have been relatively few such attacks in the region. In conclusion, the article addresses the potential for an increase in lone acts of terrorism by jihadists in European countries.

Cases and Patterns
Since 2003, the author has maintained an open source chronology of jihadist terrorist plots in Western Europe between 1995 and 2011. The chronology contains incidents involving concrete attack plans by suspects having some kind of connection to al-Qa`ida’s networks and ideology. Out of a total of 96 cases (based on the latest count), approximately 10 cases were individual operations, but none of the terrorists seemed to be a “lone wolf” in a strict sense.[6]

Only one out of these 10 cases—the so-called “shoe bombers’” attempts to destroy transatlantic airliners in 2001—appears to have been run by al-Qa`ida’s central organization, but all seemed embedded in more or less organized radical environments having some kind of link to al-Qa`ida’s regional branches, networks of sympathizers and the organization’s ideology. Furthermore, most plots involved people who were different from the average person, and the terrorists rarely managed to fully realize their attack intentions.

The first well-known, one-man-operation prepared from European soil was the aforementioned “shoe bomber” Richard Reid’s attempt to destroy American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami in 2001. The plot appears to have been hatched by al-Qa`ida’s program for external operations under the leadership of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad and involved another solo-operative named Sajjid Badat, who had second thoughts and hid his bomb device under his bed instead.[7] While first perceived as a loner, it turned out that Reid had an extensive network, receiving support from the Tunisian al-Qa`ida operative Nizar Trabelsi in Belgium and Pakistani militants based in Paris. Far from operating on his own, Reid was an integral part of al-Qa`ida’s Europe networks and the 9/11 offensive.[8]

The second solo-event was the murder of Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam by Mohammed Bouyeri. The Dutch-Moroccan prepared and executed the attack by himself, but was part of an extensive Netherlands-based network with links to militants in Pakistan, which planned assassinations of Dutch politicians and bombings of state institutions. Bouyeri was resourceful and ideologically committed. He meticulously planned a simple but highly effective operation, hoping to die as a martyr “guns blazing” in a shootout with the police in a park close to the murder site.[9]

During 2008, there were two serious plots in the United Kingdom by mentally unstable youth. The “emo-kid,” Andrew Ibrahim, was inspired by Londonistan preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri and fiercely enraged about injustices against Muslims in Palestine and Iraq. He prepared an HMTD-attack[10] on a Bristol shopping center. Nicky Reilly, who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, appears to have been radicalized online by militants in Pakistan before attempting but failing to bomb a local cafe in Exeter.[11]

In October 2009, a Libyan militant set off a nitrate-based explosive device at the gate of an Italian Army barracks in Milan, injuring a guard and himself. Several accomplices were arrested and police confiscated more explosives made from ammonium nitrate from among their belongings.[12] Also in October, Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab attempted to blow up a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit with explosives hidden in his underwear. Highly resourceful, Abdulmuttallab was allegedly associated with extremists in the United Kingdom, a pupil of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-`Awlaqi and attended a terrorist training camp in Yemen.[13]

Throughout 2010, there were at least five serious terrorist plots by individuals having obscure, yet significant ties to militant organizations or extremist networks, three of them occurring in Scandinavia. In January, a Danish-Somali al-Shabab associate tried to murder cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in his home with an axe. A spokesman for the Somali group publicly hailed the attacker, but al-Shabab never took responsibility for the assassination attempt.[14] In February, UK police arrested the Bengali British Airways worker Rajib Karim who plotted to plant explosives onboard U.S.-bound flights while maintaining contacts with AQAP-leader al-`Awlaqi via encrypted e-mails.[15] In May, the female Pakistani student Roshonara Choudhry stabbed the UK Member of Parliament Stephen Timms, citing internet speeches by al-`Awlaqi in Yemen as inspiration. Choudhry was also inspired by a U.S.-based website called RevolutionMuslim.com, which called for assassinations of British MPs voting in favor of the Iraq war. This website in turn appears linked to the British extremist organization Islam4UK (formerly al-Muhajiroun), which would organize support demonstrations outside the court where Choudhry was tried.[16] While Choudhry staunchly insisted she acted alone, it may be too early to definitively know whether she had connections to extremist networks. Then, in September, a one-legged Chechen-Belgian and former boxer injured himself while preparing a letter bomb to the Jyllands-Posten newspaper inside a Copenhagen hotel. First believed to be a lone extremist, it later turned out that the Chechen was connected to al-Qa`ida-linked support networks centered in the German town of Bremen.[17] Furthermore, just before Christmas an Iraqi-Swede with alleged connections to UK-based extremists and perhaps al-Qa`ida in Iraq launched a failed suicide operation on a main shopping street in Stockholm.[18]

During 2011, the author registered only one individual plot that seemed motivated by jihadism. In January, the young Kosovar Arid Uka shot and killed U.S. soldiers at Frankfurt airport, allegedly after watching a feature movie depicting American soldiers in Iraq raping a young girl. While investigations did not appear to reveal ties to known organizations, Uka was linked to extremists on social media sites and posted violent messages and threatening statements online.[19]

In addition to the aforementioned plots, there have been other incidents involving individuals on the fringes of extremist networks.

The Limits of Individualism
The big picture is that despite al-Qa`ida’s continued, intensifying efforts to ignite leaderless jihad in the West as exemplified by the writings of Abu Mus`ab al-Suri, AQAP’s Inspire magazine, and al-Sahab’s recent production “la tukallafa illa nafsaka” (“no one is assigned but yourself”), very few jihadist terrorists in Europe were true loners.[20] On the contrary, investigations revealed that most of those believed to be acting alone turned out to be connected to others. There are multiple explanations for this.

First, research on serious plots in Europe has shown that the terrorists typically wanted to join “holy war” in Muslim countries as foreign fighters rather than blowing themselves up at home. In many cases, the terrorists became involved in European plots only after connecting with jihadists abroad who told them that they could be of more use as international terrorists than guerrilla fighters.[21]

Second, jihadists seem to prefer to think of themselves in terms of a jama`a (group), tanzim (organization) or haraka (movement), and the process of connecting with groups, ideologues and training camps appears to be an important part of the radicalization and socialization of committed “holy warriors.”[22]

Third, while leaderless terrorism works well in theory, there are many practical obstacles.[23] Lone operations tend to demand a lot in terms of individual skill and personal abilities (discipline, stamina, technical knowledge), and often mismatch occurs between qualifications and ambitions, resulting in failure. Also, a one-man team faces multiple risks of being identified pursuing preparations (doing research, acquiring weapons, completing reconnaissance). For example, laws and traditions seem to make extremists’ procurement of weapons more risky in Europe than in the United States (reflected in the number of incidents involving lone gunmen).

Fourth, because lone acts of terrorism tend to be associated with people who are somewhat psychologically maladjusted, some highly resourceful and others not so much, they tend to attract attention during preparatory phases for that reason as well.[24] The 2011 Norway attacks, however, also demonstrated how a presumed mental disorder could contribute to the security awareness of a terrorist. The attacker wrote at lengths about how to avoid detection and emphasized how non-Muslim terrorists may “enjoy more ‘invisibility’ than individuals who have Arabic/Asian appearance and customs” in today’s security regime.[25]

Finally, it is important to acknowledge the fact that the jihadists’ typical modus operandi of employing secretive cells with fuzzy cell boundaries has many advantages from the terrorists’ point of view. For example, division of labor between cell members and affiliates may reduce the number of red flags per persons in a cell. Moreover, cells composed of multiple people working in parallel on attack plans may simply exhaust the capacity of security services, as exemplified vividly by the Operation Crevice and 7/7 case complexes where the gang of fertilizer plotters was disrupted while Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer fell off the radar.[26] Furthermore, while groups and networks imply security risks, they also create far better opportunities for obtaining the needed professionalism (training camps, countersurveillance, bombmaking).

The Future Threat
There have been few genuine loner attacks by jihadists in Europe, and most plots by individuals have resulted in failure. Last summer’s attack in Oslo, however, demonstrated fully the damage that can be done by an individual armed with handguns or explosives. Breivik operated consciously off the radar (connecting with right-wing radicals, but discretely) and had highly unusual psychological traits, being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by forensic psychiatrists in November 2011.[27] He innovatively combined elements from past terrorist operations into one of the most gruesome attacks ever seen. In his manifesto, Breivik stated that “solo-cell systems in combination with martyrdom is the most efficient and deadly form of modern warfare. This strategy was adapted by jihadist groups. And now we will be using it as well. It is even more valuable to us as we enjoy more ‘invisibility’ than individuals who have Arabic/Asian appearance and customs.”[28]

To be sure, Islamist extremists in Europe are under heavy pressure, and it would have been more difficult for an individual of Arab appearance to imitate the Norway attacks. For example, buying fertilizer and guns would probably imply greater risks. There are numerous examples that such preparations led to disruption of jihadist cells and loners in the past. Despite certain pressures and obstacles, however, al-Qa`ida continues to call for lone operations and Breivik has produced one of the most detailed manuals for this type of attack. The Norway attack has been discussed on radical websites, and European security officials express concern that the “manifesto” could be translated into multiple languages, adding to a growing body of terrorist manuals online.[29]

As for al-Qa`ida’s campaign to ignite loner attacks, it has been quite intense and has involved top leaders, strategists and theologians aiming to invoke the individual duty of punishing people who insult the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoon affair has made terrorist threats and risk of individual attacks more acute in Scandinavia than other parts of Europe. The main reason for this is that while different jihadist actors disagree on the legitimacy and utility of launching violent operations in Europe, the full spectrum of militant organizations, most extremists and even many mainstream Muslims support the religious verdict of the death penalty for cartoonists who insult the Prophet Muhammad.[30]

This quick glance at individual jihadism in Europe suggests that it is important to strike a balance between acknowledging the perils of the loner threat on the one hand, while trying to understand the relationship between loners and their social networks (physical and virtual) on the other. While European security services have gained considerable control with regards to physical networks (radical mosques, cells, training camps), internet platforms such as social media and YouTube channels imply new and poorly understood challenges.

Another challenge is to heighten public awareness about the lone terrorist threat so people report suspicious behavior.[31] Moreover, there is a need to adapt laws to ease the investigation and prosecution of individual terrorist plotters. At the same time, it is important not to exaggerate the threat and create a level of paranoia. Most of the terrorist acts initially believed to involve a “lone wolf” turned out to be connected to extremist networks and represented a strategic shift rather than a new phenomenon.

Petter Nesser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment’s (FFI) Terrorism Research Group. He is trained in the areas of Social Science, Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic. Mr. Nesser has conducted extensive research on jihadism, and he holds a master’s degree. His Ph.D. on terrorist cell formation and behavior in Western Europe is currently under review at the University of Oslo.

[1] Andrew Berwick, “2083 A European Declaration of Independence,” 2011, p. 919, available at www.ansa.it/documents/1311520015929_2083+-+A+European+Declaration+of+Independence.pdf.

[2] Louis Beam, ”Leaderless Resistance,” Seditionist 12 (1992); Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Also see issues 1-7 of Inspire, available on various jihadist websites.

[3] “Lone Wolf Terrorism,” Instituut voor Veiligheids- en Crisismanagement, July 6, 2007.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Raffaello Pantucci, “A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, March 2011.

[6] Petter Nesser, “Chronology of Jihadism in Western Europe 1994-2007: Planned, Prepared, and Executed Terrorist Attacks,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 3:10 (2008); Petter Nesser “Chronology of Jihadism in Western Europe Update 2008-2010,” Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, December 20, 2010.

[7] Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, The Suicide Factory, Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park Mosque (London: Harper Perennial, 2006).

[8] Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire: A Memoir (New York: Free Press, 2006).

[9] In the author’s opinion, this was the jihadist loner attack in Europe showing most parallels to the Norway attack of July 22, 2011. See Albert Benschop, “Chronicle of a Political Murder Foretold: Jihad in the Netherlands,” University of Amsterdam, 2005.

[10] HMTD stands for hexamethylene triperoxide diamine.

[11] Duncan Gardham, “Terrorist Andrew Ibrahim was Turned in by the Muslim Community,” Telegraph, July 18, 2009; Duncan Gardham, “Men Who Groomed Exeter Bomber Still on the Loose,” Telegraph, January 31, 2009.

[12] Pantucci.

[13] “From Fresh-Faced Schoolboy to Jihad Warrior: Underpants Bomber Pictured in Al Qaeda Training Camp,” Daily Mail, October 13, 2011.

[14] “Jury Convicts Danish Cartoonist’s Attacker,” CNN, February 3, 2011.

[15] Vikram Dodd, “British Airways Worker Rajib Karim Convicted of Terrorist Plot,” Guardian, February 28, 2011.

[16] Vikram Dodd and David Batty, “Islamist Website Urges Users to Target MPs,” Guardian, November 5, 2011.

[17] Sune Fischer, “Lors Doukaev tæt på terrornetværk,” Extra Bladet, October 25, 2010.

[18] “Doukaiev Met with German Extremists,” Danmarks Radio, May 23, 2011; Magnus Ranstorp, “Terrorist Awakening in Sweden?” CTC Sentinel 4:1 (2011).

[19] Isabelle de Pommereau, “Frankfurt Gunman in US Airmen Killing Kept Radical Company on Facebook,” Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 2011.

[20] For a good example on al-Qa`ida’s media campaign calling for individual attacks, consult al-Sahab media: “You Are Held Responsible Only for Thyself,” part 1 and 2, English transcript posted on Shibkat al-Jihad al-`Alimi, June 11, 2011.

[21] Paul Cruickshank, “The Militant Pipeline Between the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Region and the West,” New America Foundation, 2010; Mitchell D. Silber, “Al-Qa`ida’s Center of Gravity in a Post-Bin Ladin World,” CTC Sentinel 4:11-12 (2011).

[22] Petter Nesser, “How Did Europe’s Global Jihadis Obtain Training for their Militant Causes?” Terrorism and Political Violence 20:2 (2008).

[23] Scott Stewart, “Cutting Through the Lone-Wolf Hype,” Stratfor, September 22, 2011.

[24] For a good discussion of the relationship between lone wolf terrorism and psychological factors, see “Lone Wolf Terrorism,” Instituut voor Veiligheids- en Crisismanagement, July 6, 2007.

[25] Berwick, p. 919.

[26] Rachel Briggs et al., “Anatomy of a Terrorist Attack: What the Coroner’s Inquest Revealed about the London Bombings,” Royal United Services Institute, April 2011.

[27] Stine Barstad et al., “Behring Brevik har over en lang periode utviklet paranoid schizofreni,” Aftenposten, November 29, 2011.

[28]  Berwick, p. 919.

[29] The Norwegian Police Intelligence Security Service (PST) has expressed concerns about translations of Breivik’s anti-Islam terrorist manual. See “Breiviks manifest oversatt til arabisk,” TV2, October 15, 2011. Also, members on the al-Shumukh al-Islami jihadist web forum translated, posted and discussed a newspaper article about the Norway attacks. Pictures of Breivik and his manifesto were displayed on the front page banner of the UK-based website Muslims Against Crusades.

[30] Petter Nesser, “Ideologies of Jihad in Europe,” Terrorism and Political Violence 23:2 (2011).

[31] Scott Stewart, “Fighting Grassroots Terrorism: How Local Vigilance Can Help,” Stratfor, August 3, 2011.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up