Daniel Byman’s Advice for Countering Lone Wolf Terrorists

Brookings published an opinion piece by Daniel Byman called “How to Hunt a Lone Wolf: Countering Terrorists Who Act on Their Own.” Byman rejects the idea that lone wolves are a new problem; several cases of pre-ISIS lone wolf attacks are referenced to understand the phenomenon historically.  He also emphasizes the importance of definitions, pointing out that few lone wolves actually work alone: “Terrorists who act without external guidance pose a different threat, and call for a different policy response, than do those who are directed by an extremist group.”

Byman offers policy recommendations to Western governments currently at odds with this pressing and global security problem.

  1. Keep lone wolves isolated: “Terrorists are far more likely to succeed if they can coordinate with others, especially if they have the help of an organized group, such as ISIS.”
  2. Bridge the gap between Muslim communities and law enforcement: The friends, family, and neighbors of would-be terrorists are more likely than the security services to know if something is amiss, so governments must gain their trust. This will mean giving security officials the flexibility to intervene in ways that do not involve jail sentences, such as by allowing them to supervise individuals without arresting them.
  3. Work with the private sector: “Governments should direct security services to monitor and infiltrate jihadist social media accounts, and encourage private companies to shut them down, to identify individual terrorists and disrupt their communications.”
  4. Counter terrorist ideology: “Governments should try to discredit the ideology embraced by lone wolves. Yet doing all these things would only reduce the lone-wolf threat, not end it. It is impossible to stop every violent individual from picking up a gun and shooting.”

Finally, Byman emphasizes the importance of community resilience to lessen the impact of lone wolf attacks:

“Despite the relatively low number of terrorism-related deaths on U.S. soil since 9/11, public fear of terrorism remains high. During his presidency, Barack Obama tried to highlight the United States’ many counterterrorist successes. Trump and other politicians should do the same and make Americans aware of the low risk, rather than attempting to exploit people’s fears for political gain.”

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