Terrorism expert discusses 'lone wolves'

Tribune-Star/Lisa TriggGiving the facts: Indiana State University professor Mark Hamm described common characteristics of lone wolf gunmen during a terrorism discussion Monday.

Lone wolf terrorists can change the course of history.

The mass shooting Sunday night in Las Vegas reinforced that statement made Monday afternoon by criminology professor Mark Hamm during a previously planned discussion of lone wolf terrorism at Indiana State University.

Gunman Stephen Craig Paddock, 64, of Mesquite, Nevada, left 58 people dead and more than 500 wounded after he opened fire on an outdoor concert within rifle range of his 32-floor hotel room.

As Hamm pointed out to an audience of mostly ISU students, American history would be different if presidential candidate Robert Kennedy had not been slain, just after winning the Democratic primary election in California, by lone wolf gunman Sirhan Sirhan in 1968.

America would also likely be different if civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had not been assassinated by another lone wolf gunman, James Earl Ray.

“What would America look like today if he had lived?” Hamm said of King.

Though it may be fruitless to second-guess history, Hamm said, it is important to realize that lone wolf terrorists are a force to be reckoned with.

Sunday night’s terrorist act was committed by a man who fits few of the traits Hamm and his collaborators have identified during a study that led to the book “Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” published this year.

Looking at the 147 post-9/11 attacks in America reveals some similarities among the lone gunmen, Hamm said.

• The average age is 31.

• Eighty percent are single, with mostly having only a high school education.

• Sixty-four percent are white males.

• Seventy-three percent are unemployed.

• Sixty percent have a criminal record.

• Only 24 percent have served in the military, though they often assume paramilitary identity in the build-up to and during their violent actions.

• Forty-two percent have mental illness, which is more than twice the national average of 18 percent of the population with an identified mental illness.

• And 30 percent are copycat attacks inspired by previous violence.

As the investigation into Sunday’s attack by Paddock delves into his history, a motive for the deadly rampage could be revealed. But according to information had been released into the media in the less than 24 hours since the attack, Paddock defies the profile, Hamm said.

While he is single, he was divorced and shared a house in a retirement community with his girlfriend.

He was retired, well-educated, financially independent and had no criminal record or history of violence.

Hamm said it is often the case with lone wolf gunman that though he act alone, someone could have tipped off authorities to the potential mayhem before it occurred. The historical pattern shows that lone wolves usually broadcast their intent, either by telling a friend or family member, or through social media posts.

Hamm said it is important for people who see someone “overshare” their discontent or violent fantasies to be taken seriously, and to be reported to police or other authorities who can better evaluate the potential for a violent act.

Friends or relatives who notice a person “over-arming” themselves with firearms and ammunition should not only be suspicious, but make a report to police.

And even gun store clerks can take action.

Hamm pointed out that in the case of the Tucson massacre in 2011 that critically wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, lone wolf gunman Jared Loughner was turned away from a store by an attentive clerk when he tried to buy bullets just before the shooting. Still, he went to another store where he was successful in his purchase.

Loughner later ran a red light and was stopped by police, who said he was “nervous but calm” during the traffic stop. He had also updated his MySpace page with a farewell message.

None of those people who encountered Loughner tipped off authorities to his potential terrorist act.

More recently, Pulse nightclub gunman Omar Mateen had been turned down by a store clerk in 2016 when he attempted to buy body armor. He had been placed on a federal watch list for terrorists. And he was known to have online contacts with radical organizations.

If his own family members had suspicions about his deadly potential, they did not report them to authorities.

The majority of lone wolf attacks since 9/11 have been with firearms. Before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by anti-government militant Timothy McVeigh, many lone wolf attacks involved explosives.

The government acted to make the components of explosives less accessible to the public after that bombing, Hamm said, but in the wake of mass shootings it has not tightened gun laws to reduce access to automatic weapons or ammunition.

It is difficult to know what event might trigger a lone wolf terrorist to act, Hamm said.

Of the 17 intelligence agencies operating in the United States, he said, all conclude that the major terrorism threat is the lone wolf.

That was confirmed by Phillip Kollath, an intelligence analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, who was Hamm’s guest at Monday’s presentation.

From a federal perspective, Kollath said, it is a “very fine line” between activism and extremism, according to federal law.

Domestic terrorism is also not currently a crime. Actions taken during a terrorist act – assassination, vandalism, assault, bombing, threats – are violations of state or federal law, he said.

There is an effort, however, to change laws to define and identify domestic terrorism as a crime.

Kollath agreed with Hamm in that someone besides the lone wolf usually knows that something is about to happen before it does. In a study of 119 lone wolf terrorists, 83 percent of the time, someone else knew, and 64 percent of the time it was families and friends who could have tipped off authorities.

Kollath said it is important for citizens to report their suspicions to the authorities, even if done anonymously.

“It’s the only way we get ahead of when someone is crossing the line,” he said.

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

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Lisa Trigg has been a reporter at the Tribune-Star since 2009. With more than 30 years of newspaper experience, she now covers general news with a focus on crime and courts.

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