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Lone Wolf Terrorism: Beyond the Quest for Personality Type Congruence

Lone Wolf Terrorism: Beyond the Quest for Personality Type Congruence

The amount of attention lone wolf terrorism has received over the last few years begs the question of whether or not specific types of lone wolves (and there are several) can be compared to a terrorism profile system based on statistical analysis of some characteristics.

The conclusion that no one type of lone wolf personality exists misses the mark because it asks the wrong question. Instead, sort out lone wolves into categories based on ideology, target type, age, business setting of attack, and socio-economic status. Next, perform statistical tests to find statistically significant and substantive relationships between those variables that are both theoretically valid and useful. Such efforts to craft a terrorist lone wolf profile portfolio is found in the empirical part of my new book Corporate Security Crossroads: Responding to Terrorism, Cyberthreats and other Hazards in the Global Business Environment.

To introduce this terrorism profile portfolio system, let’s compare two prominent lone-wolf terrorists: Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, who assaulted a gay discotheque in Orlando Florida in 2016, and Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) in Los Angeles in 1968 during California’s presidential primary.

The empirical testing identifies several statistically significant and substantive relationships between the variables (i.e. attributes) tested. I will discuss three sets of relationships in this article. In tests, Ideology, Target-Type, and Business-Type were dependent variables for the bivariate analysis performed and independent variables that represented other lone wolf terrorist attributes were regressed on those variables. The political ideology spectrum includes: (1) uber-leftist/anarchist, (2) Jewish extremist, (3) Islamist extremist, (4) solitary issue, (5) nationalist, and (6) uber-rightist lone wolves.

The first relationship or profile trait illuminated is Ideology-Age. The results suggest that a lone wolf’s political ideology has a weak to moderate but significant association with terrorist age. In other words, when the spectrum of lone-wolf terrorist political ideology is examined, the results suggest that lone wolf terrorists broken down by political ideology can be distinguished by age. At the same time, it should be noted for some perpetrators like Jared Lee Loughner who shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AR) and other “high profile” persons, ideology cannot be discerned because of a perpetrator’s psychopathy. In those cases, the political ideology category was left blank.

Omar Mateen was an Islamist extremist who carried out his Sig Sauer MCX rifle and pistol attack at the club when he was 30 years of age or below. That fits the profile of “Islamist extremist” lone wolves, primarily found in the United States, Western Europe, and Canada, who were mostly found to be thirty years old or younger. By contrast, Sirhan Sirhan was a “nationalist” lone wolf who murdered Senator Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel with a “Saturday Night Special” Iver-Johnson .22 revolver in Los Angeles in 1968 when he was 24 years old. Even though the percentage of lone wolf “nationalists” who were 30 years old or younger is much lower than the percentage found for “Islamist extremist” lone wolves, Sirhan’s age is consistent with a significant number of lone wolf “nationalists” of that age.

The second relationship or profile trait found is Ideology-Business Setting, where a weak but statistically significant relationship is found. That data category is broken down into direct attacks against business, indirect business attacks where the primary target is not a business establishment, and attacks with no business involvement. Mateen’s assault against the Pulse discotheque was a direct attack on a business. While the majority of lone-wolf attacks did not focus on business targets, “Islamist” lone-wolves had a higher rate of such attacks than did other lone-wolf types considered. Still, what made this attack unusual is that “Islamist” lone wolves usually had comparatively little focus on commercial interests. At the same time, RFK’s murder by Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel is also somewhat unusual with the “nationalist” lone wolf profile for venue because the Ambassador Hotel was an indirect target of attack. The results suggest “nationalist” lone wolves did not carry out a high percentage of such indirect business attacks.

The third relationship profile trait is Ideology-Target Type. It is found that a statistically significant relationship that is weak in strength exists between those two variables. Omar Mateen’s attack against a civilian target is consistent with the substantial percentage of “Islamist” extremist lone wolf attacks against civilian targets—a rate larger than the percentage of those types of attacks against government targets. In contrast, Sirhan Sirhan assaulted a government target in Senator Robert Kennedy, which is consistent with two important findings about “nationalist” lone wolves. First, lone wolf “nationalists” had the highest percentage of government target attacks compared to other lone-wolf types. Second, lone wolf “nationalists” had the second highest percentage of attacks that involved “high profile” government targets after “uber-leftist/anarchist” lone wolves. For both of these lone wolves, one a nationalist and the other an uber-leftist/anarchist, it seems plausible the ideology types they represent would focus rage and similar sentiments against the reification of the cause or movement most hated.

There are several metrics that comprise this lone-wolf terrorist profile system—this article describes only three of those metrics. The first is its “Age-Ideology” metric that reflects the relationship between lone wolf age and political ideology. Omar Mateen and Sirhan Sirhan’s age profiles are consistent with its basic contours. The ages of both terrorists fit within the two categories of 30 years old or less or and over 30 years old; both categories capture the observations of age chronicled for the data set.

The “Ideology-Business Setting” metric is the second metric under consideration. Sirhan Sirhan’s attack on Senator Robert Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel fits fairly well with the “Ideology-Business Setting” metric, reflecting the relationship between target-type and setting of attack. That is because while “nationalist” lone wolves have a notable rate of indirect attacks against commercial interests as their primary targets are singled out for attack, that rate is still low.

The Mateen case is also unusual because of his preference for a direct attack on a business target, which is rare for lone wolves in general, and only slightly more common for Islamist and uber-leftist anarchist lone-wolves. Still, the Matten case is consistent with the occasional interest Islamist lone wolves have in targeting businesses. It is possible this provides some evidence of what some scholars call the broad all-encompassing nature of the eschatological struggle between the West and Islamic extremists. However, this particular attack with narrow focus against the Pulse discotheque most likely reflected Mateen’s personal rage against homosexuals, a rage inextricably bound up with his own personal struggles.

Both Omar Mateen and Sirhan Sirhan’s personal profile are a good fit with the empirical findings that serve as the basis for the third metric, “Ideology-Target.” For Mateen, an attack against a civilian target like the Pulse discotheque is consistent with broader findings about lone-wolf Islamist preference for civilian targets, even though most civilian targets those types of lone wolves choose for direct attackdo not involve commercial interests.

In closing, it appears these two lone-wolves have personal characteristics that dovetail well with some of the basic characteristic parameters associated with political ideology this terrorist profile portfolio system establishes and describes. It is my hope that in the future, with richer data sets and additional testing, new relationships between variables will appear to give this basic framework additional depth, flexibility, and utility for counterterrorism policymakers.



Richard Chasdi

Dr. Chasdi is a Professor of Management and Associate Director at the Center for Complex and Strategic Decisions at Walsh College. He teaches International Security, International Business Management, and Culture and Doing Business in the Middle East. He is an internationally recognized specialist in terrorism and counter-terrorism studies and his research interests include multinational corporations’ security in an increasingly globalized world.

He holds a B.A. from Brandeis University in Politics, an M.A. from Boston College, and a Ph.D. from Purdue University in Political Science.