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September 26, 2013

‘Lone wolf’ terrorists seeking spotlight

TERRE HAUTE — The recluse plotting to bomb a university.

The solitary gunman who enters a government facility and indiscriminately shoots anyone in view.

The woman who bombs an abortion clinic as a statement against sin.

Those are some images of the “lone wolf” terrorist presented by Australian researcher Ramon Spaaij on Wednesday during a criminology conference at Indiana State University.

Spaaij has studied many of the world’s most renowned terrorists – including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, neo-Nazi David Copeland and assassin Yigal Amir – and his research has found a commonality of political message and personal quest.

What drives a person to act as a terrorist working alone is hard to understand, said Spaaij, who discussed “Lone Wolf Terrorism as Performance” during the fifth annual International Crime, Media and Popular Culture Studies Conference.

These “lone wolves” operate individually and do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network, Spaaij said. Their method is usually conceived and directed by the individual to gain public attention — either through public broadcasting or through online media distribution of propaganda, manifestos and images.

“They seek to become a well-known character who hopes to change the course of history. They become historical characters,” Spaaij said, explaining that the terrorist becomes “enmeshed in a great struggle that gives their own violent actions moral meaning” while also fulfilling their own personal quest and journey.

But it is their political agenda that distinguishes these people from the school shooters or disgruntled employees who often make the evening news with their unwarranted acts of violence. Though many people would call school shooters terrorists in their own way, Spaaij said they don’t create terror with the purpose of overthrowing government or destabilizing the economy, and therefore, do not meet his definition of the lone wolf.

In America, several years of school and workplace shootings have spawned responses by legislators and communities intent on keeping their citizens and children safe. But even those actions may not head off the attack of a “lone wolf” shooter at school or work.

A lone wolf such as Kaczynski, who mailed and planted handmade bombs at college campuses and airlines around America for about 17 years before being captured, used an extremist script to document his outrage at government, referring to himself as “we” to imply a broader collective meaning to his personal struggle, rather than to be declared mentally ill.

Spaaij said that while these individuals often do not align themselves with any terrorist group, organizations such as Al-Qaida will issue public “calls to action” to inspire such individuals when the organization becomes weak or disorganized.

As a research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Spaaij said he became frustrated by the orthodoxy of terrorism research by psychologists and sociologists in looking at the “lone wolf” concept, so in 2007 he began examining the individual incidences of violence and any statements made by the perpetrator about the crime.

“What’s common is the search for fame and recognition,” he said, noting that there is no black-and-white explanation that fits any “lone wolf” attack. But he noted a parallel search for notoriety in modern society in general, as evidenced by the many “about nothing” reality television programs that glamorize people simply because of their wealth, personal appearance or connection to Hollywood.

“A part of today’s society is the search for notoriety,” he said.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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