25 Years of Lone Offenders in America

Abstract:

This research explores the idea that there was an increase in lone offender violent extremism in the United States in the decade and a half following the attacks upon the United States on September 11, 2001. By examining approximately a quarter-century worth of attacks by lone offenders in the United States, this article identifies those classified as terrorism (lone offender) within 1992-2015. This analysis determined that there was only a 10% increase in lone offender attacks in the decade following the September 11, 2001 attacks upon the United States.
Keywords: lone offender, terrorism, 9/11, terrorists


Lone offenders are defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as one who inflicts fear upon a targeted group or the general public, independent of any direction from a terrorist group or organization (USDOJ, 2019). Lone offender attacks can be referred to as idiosyncratic (Joosse, 2017) and are delineated into four dimensions: idiosyncratic ideology, idiosyncratic motives, idiosyncratic tactics, and idiosyncratic strategic thinking (Norris, 2020), although this article is not to argue or separate attackers into any of the four dimensions. These offenders are commonly referred to as “lone wolf” terrorists by the mainstream media in the aftermath of the United States’ attacks on September 11, 2001 (9/11). Typically, the lone offender is classified as such because they commit acts of violence alone (some cases allow the inclusion of a pair), separate from any group or outside of the group’s direct commands. According to Mouras (2019), “Lone wolf attacks are often motivated by political, religious, and/or ideological reasoning” (para 1). However, these individuals are often influenced by the ideology or stated goals of an organization or group (Becker, 2014). In the post-9/11 era, this terminology seems to have become increasingly popular, which has led some to question a perceived increase in lone offender attacks in the United States. This leads to the questions: have lone offender attacks become more prevalent in the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) era, and if so, why? Furthermore, why have lone offender styled attacks not been more frequent during political divisiveness or social discourse since the presidential elections of 2016 and more recently from March to August 2020?

Lone offender attacks began attracting attention from the United States’ national security enterprise when al Qaeda began encouraging actions in the early 2000s (Worth, 2016). However, their concerns proved somewhat ahead of their time. In later years, the al Qaeda encouragement turned into “inspirational messages” by the Islamic State (IS), which includes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This time fear was warranted—in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, attacks on the homeland had become a top concern. Did these attacks increase in the wake of 9/11? The list compiled in Table 1 suggests this may be more difficult to answer than initially anticipated. This is due to too many unknown variables that cannot be accounted for and the approaches to determining what constitutes a terrorism vice hate crime incident by the US Department of Justice. Although, the number of attacks classified as committed by lone offenders did increase after 2001 by 10% over the previous decade. This is interesting considering heightened vigilance by the US Intelligence Community and Federal law enforcement agencies after the number of resources poured into counterterrorism after 9/11.

Lone Offender Data (1992-2015)

Interestingly, upon cross-referencing reports and scholarly discussions of attacks classified as “lone offender” over the past quarter-century, the theory that there was an increase in the aftermath of 9/11 does accurately correlate. Between 1990-2000, 31 “lone offender” classified attacks were carried out (see Table 1). Surprisingly, from 2001-2015 there were 38 found to qualify as lone offender attacks (see Table 2). Considering the decade leading up to 9/11 was accounts for approximately 44% of attacks between 1992-2000, it does not seem that the September 11, 2001 attacks can be the only contributor to an increase in attacks (see Table 1). Post-September 11, 2001 (2001-2015) lone offender attacks (38) comprised 55% of the total attacks during the 1992-2015 time period and only presented a 10% increase in attacks over the previous years of 1992-2000. Moving on, from 2010 and through 2015, there were 22 attacks—an exponential increase (see Table 2) when considering these 22 attacks occurred in half the time as the other statistics. During the Obama Administration (2008-2016) the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 and follow-on provisions once again restricted the use of some of the U.S. Intelligence Community and law enforcement tools and capabilities to collect intelligence or investigate would-be terrorists; therefore it would seem that terrorists would have taken advantage of such limiting capabilities of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Although the statistics do show an increase in lone offender attacks in the years following directly following 2001, the correlation cannot be made that 9/11 played a role in increasing attacks (see Table 2) both within the United States through “lone offenders” as well as globally, which was not researched here. Realistically, this raises more questions than it provides answers. Why did attacks (16) not increase between 2001 and 2009 domestically, especially with the United States’ involvement in counter-terrorism operations worldwide, primarily in Afghanistan (2001 to 2014) and Iraq (2003-2011)? Why did the frequency of attacks increase so quickly after 2010, accounting for 31% of the attacks from 1992-2015? As previously stated, the law enforcement and intelligence community stepped up vigilance before attacks were carried out, or maybe individuals thought the risk of being caught was too high. According to Zeman, Břeň, and Urban (2018), “The analyses of the current existing capabilities of intelligence services indicate that there is no effective method or the possibility of an effective way of warfare with lone wolves” (p. 6). Currently, there are no databases or statistics readily available to the public to research the number of arrests, disruptions, and indictments based on material support to terrorism or other related terrorism charges. However, there is the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism through the University of Maryland, which has The Terrorism and Extremist Violence in the United States (TEVUS) Database and Portal which is based on four related open-source databases and the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) datasets, which are available to academics and government entities upon request. According to Zierhoffer (2014), “Lone attackers are more difficult to monitor because they are not tied to an organization already under surveillance” (p. 50). What inspired the exponential uptick in attacks at the turn of the decade, then?

Furthermore, to begin, how can we trust any of these statistics’ accuracy? Reporting of these attacks as a terrorist event is in the hands of the law enforcement and, at times, the U.S. Intelligence Community agencies that handle them. How often could attacks that do not quite fit the narrative, whatever that may be, be classified as something else when they fit the lone offender criteria? Understanding the psychology of lone-offender attackers is essential to thwarting their efforts moving forward. Understanding why the 2000s did not have many attacks as compared to the 2010s could contribute to a greater understanding of lone-offender attacks.

While it cannot be said that 9/11 directly inspired a surge in lone-offender events, perhaps it played a role, nonetheless. As Laguardia (2019) cited, the reasoning of investigation or prosecution of individuals either as domestic or international terrorists and the disparity of terrorism or civil rights (hate crimes) charges under Title 18 of the US Code.

Inconsistences in Charges

In June of 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) made headlines after questioning the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director Michael McGarrity on the inconsistencies in treatment between domestic and international terrorism investigations in the FBI. While questioning McGarrity and other high-ranking US officials, Representative Ocasio-Cortez (NY) highlighted the FBI’s failure to charge domestic cases under terrorism statutes, even when they agreed it was terrorism, unless Muslims committed the crimes. She pointed out that white supremacist organizations have international connections—just like al Qaeda does—thus undermining the FBI’s argument that domestic white supremacist violence cannot be charged under the same internationally-focused statutes as global jihadist terrorism. She noted that “the civil rights program policy instructs agents to open parallel terrorism investigations whenever any suspect of a hate crime investigation has any nexus to a white supremacist group.” Why, then, are these extremists so rarely charged under terrorism statutes?” (p. 1063). Is it because investigations were not opened, as Representative Ocasio-Cortez posits, that there results a possible disparity between the increase or decrease of domestic terror incidents? If the questions posed during congressional testimony are valid, then it is possible that extremist events were and continue to be underreported.

Limitations

The authors acknowledge that there were several limitations of the current research. Data collection relied on open-source research as no specific databases exist that are open to the public regarding case information. Some cases may not be viewed by law enforcement as a lone offender (terrorism) related and were consistent with another coding under the 2019 edition of the US Federal Criminal Codes and Rules. The researchers attempted to utilize as much corroborating information as possible through credible sources. Another variable of limitation is the term “lone offender” as coined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In contrast, the media uses the “lone wolf” moniker for those who act alone in criminal acts.

Conclusion

Upon analyzing a quarter-century worth of lone offender attacks in the United States, the research has concluded that there was no verifiable correlation between 9/11 and an increase in lone attacks. This lack of a proven increase of lone offender terror attacks in the years following 9/11 provides a critical insight: that this attack specifically did not have as great of an influence on lone offenders as it was perceived to have. However, the exponential increase in attacks the following decade, utilizing information available and verifiable from 2010-2015, instead suggests that there may be another force with a far more substantial influence on violent extremism and lone offenses.

Table 1

Lone Offender Attacks Completed Between 1992-2015

Year Offender Name # of Attacks # of Attacks in Year References
1992 Rachelle Shannon 8 8 (Spaaji, 2011)
1993 Rachelle Shannon 2 (Spaaji, 2011)
1993 Mir Aimal Kansi 1 (Spaaji, 2011; Hewitt, 2003)
1993 Michael Frederick Griffin 1 (Spaaji, 2011; Hewitt, 2003)
1993 Theodore Kaczynski 2 6 (Whittaker, 2004)
1994 Theodore Kaczynski 1 (Whittaker, 2004)
1994 Rashid Baz 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
1994 Paul Jennings Hill 1 (Spaaji, 2011; Hewitt, 2003)
1994 John C Salvi III 1 4 (Spaaji, 2011; Hewitt, 2003)
1995 Timothy McVeigh 1 (Whittaker, 2004)
1995 Theodore Kaczynski 1 2 (Whittaker, 2004)
1996 Larry Shoemake 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
1996 Eric Rudolph 1 2 (Spaaij, 2011; Hewitt, 2003)
1997 Eric Rudolph 2 (Spaaij, 2011; Hewitt, 2003)
1997 Ali Hassan Abu Kamal 1 3 (Spaaji, 2011)
1998 Eric Rudolph 1 (Spaaij, 2011; Hewitt, 2003)
1998 Benjamin N. Smith 1 (Hewitt, 2003)
1998 James Charles Kopp 1 3 (Spaaji, 2011)
1999 Buford O Furrow Jr 1 1 (Spaaij, 2011; Hewitt, 2003)
2000 Richard Scott Braumhammers 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2000 Ronald Taylor 1 2 (Haam, 2007)
2001 Clayton Waagner 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2001 Bruce Ivins 1 2 (Haam, 2007)
2002 Lucas John Helder 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2002 Hesham Mohamed Hadayet 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2002 Steve Kim 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2002 Charles Bishop 1 4 (Spaaji, 2011)
2006 Mohamed Reza Taheri-Azar 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2006 Naveed Afzal Haq 1 2 (Spaaji, 2011)
2007 Paul Evans 1 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2008 Marc Ramsey 1 (Haam, 2007)
2008 Jim David Adkisson 1 2 (Haam, 2007)
2009 Scott Roeder 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2009 Carlos Bledsoe 1 (Hamm & Spaaji, 2015)
2009 James W. von Brunn 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2009 Richard Poplawski 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2009 Josha Cartwright 1 5 (Hamm, 2007)
2010 Joseph Andrew Stack III 1 (Spaaji, 2011; Ware, 2020)
2010 Yonathan Melaku 1 (Hamm & Spaaji, 2015)
2010 John Patrick Bedell 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2010 Sandlin Matthew Smith 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2010 Byron Williams 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2010 James J Lee 1 6 (Hamm & Spaaji, 2015)
2011 Kevin William Harpham 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2011 Ralph Lang 1 2 (Hamm, 2007)
2012 Francis G Grady 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2012 Wade Michael Page 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2012 Raulie Casteel 1 3 (Hamm, 2007)
2013 Dzhokhar & Tamerlan Tsarnaev 1 (Sharan & Richman, 2015)
2013 Paul Anthony Ciancia 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2013 Nidal Malik Hassan 1 (Lieberman, 2011)
2013 Jason Woodring 1 4 (Hamm, 2007)
2014 Frazier Glenn Miller, JR 1 (Tate, 2016)
2014 Jerad & Amanda Miller 1 (Ware, 2020)
2014 Zale H Thompson 1 3 (Kearney, 2014)
2015 Dylann Roof 1 (Ware, 2020; Tate, 2016)
2015 John Russell Houser 1 (Tate, 2016)
2015 Faisal Mohammed 1 (Savransky, 2016)
2015 Rizwan Farook & Tashfeen Malik 1 4 (Byman, 2017)

Table 2

Lone Offender Attacks Completed Post 2001

Year Offender Name # of Attacks # of Attacks in Year References
2001 Clayton Waagner 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2001 Bruce Ivins 1 2 (Haam, 2007)
2002 Lucas John Helder 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2002 Hesham Mohamed Hadayet 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2002 Steve Kim 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2002 Charles Bishop 1 4 (Spaaji, 2011)
2006 Mohamed Reza Taheri-Azar 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2006 Naveed Afzal Haq 1 2 (Spaaji, 2011)
2007 Paul Evans 1 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2008 Marc Ramsey 1 (Haam, 2007)
2008 Jim David Adkisson 1 2 (Haam, 2007)
2009 Scott Roeder 1 (Spaaji, 2011)
2009 Carlos Bledsoe 1 (Hamm & Spaaji, 2015)
2009 James W. von Brunn 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2009 Richard Poplawski 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2009 Josha Cartwright 1 5 (Hamm, 2007)
2010 Joseph Andrew Stack III 1 (Spaaji, 2011; Ware, 2020)
2010 Yonathan Melaku 1 (Hamm & Spaaji, 2015)
2010 John Patrick Bedell 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2010 Sandlin Matthew Smith 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2010 Byron Williams 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2010 James J Lee 1 6 (Hamm & Spaaji, 2015)
2011 Kevin William Harpham 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2011 Ralph Lang 1 2 (Hamm, 2007)
2012 Francis G Grady 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2012 Wade Michael Page 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2012 Raulie Casteel 1 3 (Hamm, 2007)
2013 Dzhokhar & Tamerlan Tsarnaev 1 (Sharan & Richman, 2015)
2013 Paul Anthony Ciancia 1 (Hamm, 2007)
2013 Nidal Malik Hassan 1 (Lieberman, 2011)
2013 Jason Woodring 1 4 (Hamm, 2007)
2014 Frazier Glenn Miller, JR 1 (Tate, 2016)
2014 Jerad & Amanda Miller 1 (Ware, 2020)
2014 Zale H Thompson 1 3 (Kearney, 2014)
2015 Dylann Roof 1 (Ware, 2020; Tate, 2016)
2015 John Russell Houser 1 (Tate, 2016)
2015 Faisal Mohammed 1 (Savransky, 2016)
2015 Rizwan Farook & Tashfeen Malik 1 4 (Byman, 2017)

 

References

Becker, M. (2014). Explaining lone wolf target selection in the United States. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 37(11), 959-978. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2014.952261

Byman, D. (2017, March 1). How to hunt a lone wolf: countering terrorists who act on their own. Foreign Affairs, 96(2), 96.

Hamm, M. S. (2007). Terrorism as Crime: from Oklahoma City to Al-Qaeda and beyond (Vol. 7). NYU Press.

Hamm, M., & Spaaij, R. (2015). Lone wolf terrorism in America: Using knowledge of radicalization pathways to forge prevention strategies. Retrieved from National Institute of Justice website https://www.ncjrs. gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/248691.pdf.

Hewitt, C. (2003). Understanding terrorism in America: From the Klan to al Qaeda. Psychology Press.

Johnston, R. (2019). Terrorist attacks and related incidents in the United States. Retrieved on July 3, 2020, from http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/terrorism/wrjp255a.html

Joosse, P. (2017). Leaderless resistance and the loneliness of lone wolves: Exploring the rhetorical dynamics of lone actor violence. Terrorism and Political Violence, 29(1), 52-78.

Kearney, L. (2014, October 24). NYC police say hatchet attack by Islam convert was terrorism. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-newyork-hatchet/nyc-police-say-hatchet-attack-by-islam-convert-was-terrorism-idUSKCN0IC2RG20141024

Laguardia, F. (2020). Considering a Domestic Terrorism Statute and Its Alternatives. Northwestern University Law Review, 114(4), 1061.

Lieberman, J. I. (2011). Ticking time bomb: Counter-Terrorism lessons from the US government’s failure to prevent the Fort Hood attack. Diane Publishing.

Mouras, T. (2019). Lone wolves: are they really alone in the radicalization process?

Retrieved from http://csesjournal.columbiasouthern.edu/2019/09/05/lone-wolves-are-they-really-alone-in-the-radicalization-process/

Norris, J. J. (2020). Idiosyncratic terrorism: Disaggregating an undertheorized concept. Perspectives on Terrorism, 14(3), 2-18.

Sharan, Y., & Richman, A. (2015). Lone Actors – An Emerging Security Threat. IOS Press.

Savransky, R. (2016, March 18). Student in campus stabbing inspired by ‘terrorist propaganda’. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/273524-fbi-student-in-uc-merced-campus-stabbing-inspired-by-terrorist

Spaaij, R. (2011). Understanding lone wolf terrorism: Global patterns, motivations and prevention. Springer Science & Business Media.

Tate, C. (2016). Disavowed 2009 Report on domestic terrorism now rings true. Retrieved July 21, 2020 from https://www.govtech.com/em/safety/Disavowed-2009-Report-Domestic-Terrorism-Now-Rings-True.html

US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation (November 2019). Lone offender – A study of lone offender terrorism in the United States (1972-2015). https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/lone-offender-terrorism-report-111319.pdf/view

Ware, J. (2020). (Rep.). International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. doi:10.2307/resrep23577

Whittaker, D. J. (2004). Terrorists and terrorism: In the contemporary world. Routledge.

Worth, K. (2016). Lone wolf attacks are becoming more common—And more deadly. Frontline, July, 14. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/lone-wolf-attacks-are-becoming-more-common-and-more-deadly/

Zeman, T., Břeň, J., & Urban, R. (2018). Profile of a Lone Wolf Terrorist: A Crisis Management Perspective. Journal of Security & Sustainability Issues, 8(1), 5–18.

Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.9770/jssi.2018.8.1(1)

Zierhoffer, D. M. (2014). Threat assessment: Do lone terrorists differ from other lone offenders? Journal of Strategic Security, 7(3), 48-62.

+ posts

Dr. Charles M. Russo is a current Full-Time Instructor with the College of Safety and Emergency Services at Columbia Southern University (CSU). Dr. Russo has over three decades of national security and criminal justice experience as an Intelligence Analyst with the U.S. Intelligence Community. Previous employments with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Navy. Dr. Russo's teaching background includes over eight years of higher academic teaching in the disciplines of Intelligence, Homeland Security, Counterterrorism, Strategic Security, and Criminal Justice. Among his subject matter areas of expertise are Intelligence Analysis, Theory of Intelligence, Ethics in Intelligence and Criminal Justice, and Counterterrorism. Dr. Russo received his B.A. in Intelligence Studies with a concentration in Analysis from American Military University and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies with a concentration in Collections. Dr. Russo also holds a Ph.D. in Public Safety with a specialization in Criminal Justice from Capella University.

Alanna Grayce Campbell is a free-lance author and podcast creator at I've Been Thinking. Ms. Campbell received her BA at Transylvania University with a major in Political Science and a minor in Anthropology. During her time at Transylvania, Ms. Campbell focused on understanding the relationship between culture and politics, and at what point that intersection creates violent extremism. Ms. Campbell then received her MS in the Safety, Security, and Emergency Management program at Eastern Kentucky University. During this time, she earned certificates in Homeland Security and Disaster Management. Through her involvement in the Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence, Ms. Campbell has established herself as an up-and-coming voice in counter-terrorism studies. She aims to provide new insights into the field.

Areas: ,
Categories: Criminal Justice
Tagged: , , ,