By Barak Mendelsohn, Council on Foreign Relations
A string of lone wolf terrorist attacks in France, Germany, the United States and elsewhere suggests that the phenomenon continues to spread and that it is growing increasingly lethal. Between October 2015 and August 2016 radicalized individuals, as well as “wolf packs,” carried out over 20 attacks in response to the Islamic State’s call to indiscriminately kill “nonbeliever” civilians.
The lone-wolf strategy benefits the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in several ways. First, it is cheap and relatively easy. It requires no planning on its part or even contact with, or knowledge of, the perpetrators. Second, lone wolves frustrate preventive measures since they cannot be identified ahead of time, given they have no direct connection to ISIS, and in this way, shelters the group’s Western networks from possible exposure. Third, such attacks are damaging to both a nation’s psychology and its leadership, raising fear and inciting alarmism among civilians while making governments appear helpless and even incompetent. And fourth, the worldwide proliferation of lone-wolf terrorism boosts ISIS’ image, demonstrating its reach and appeal to both enemies and sympathizers.
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