Lone Wolves No More

The Decline of a Myth

A woman looks at flowers laid out for the victims of the attack on Westminster Bridge, London, March 2017. Hannah Mckay / Reuters

The tactics used by British terrorist Khalid Masood in his horrifying attack on Wednesday outside London’s Parliament were typical of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS: an attacker plowing a vehicle through a crowd of pedestrians before slashing at police officers with a knife. Soon after the strike, ISIS claimed credit, although it did not provide any details that weren’t already public.

The generic nature of ISIS’s comments encouraged some skeptics. London’s Independent, for example, claimed that the phrasing of the group’s statement suggests that it “did not directly orchestrate [the] atrocity.” But skeptics’ voices have been noticeably quieter than in the past. The caution that commentators generally exhibited by refraining from declaring ISIS uninvolved in the London attack stood in stark contrast, for example, to the reaction to last summer’s truck attack in Nice—when observers immediately branded it the work of a “lone wolf” who was not really linked to ISIS. The public understanding of lone-actor terrorism may finally be changing for the better. 


When my colleague Nathaniel Barr and I wrote “The Myth of Lone-Wolf Terrorism” in these pages shortly after the Nice attack, our purpose was to challenge a then-dominant reflex among observers: declaring single-attacker terrorist incidents to be the work of so-called lone wolves. (These are individuals who lack substantial connections to ISIS or other groups and carried out their operations without the assistance of others.)

In fact, we argued, previous lone-attacker plots often had some organizational involvement—and ignoring that fact was costly. As intrepid journalist Rukmini Callimachi reported in the New York Times last year, a series of attacks in Europe from 2014–15 carried out by men including Sid Ahmed Ghlam and Ayoub El-Khazzani were written off at the time as the work of lone wolves. They were, in fact, anything but: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who later served as the ground commander of the November 2015 Paris attacks that claimed 130 lives, had directed Ghlam, Khazzani, and several others

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