How “Alone” are Lone-Actors? Exploring the Ideological, Signaling, and Support Networks of Lone-Actor Terrorists


The threat of lone-actor terrorism poses a unique challenge to security practitioners tasked with detecting, identifying, and preventing acts of ideologically and politically-motivated violence. Conventional knowledge and early academic work on lone-actor terrorism has popularized the concept that these individuals radicalize, operate, plan, and execute terrorist plots in relative anonymity, with little connection to formal or more organized terrorist groups and networks. However, the growing scholarship in this area has begun to challenge the notion of the “loneliness” of lone-actors, and recent empirical research (e.g., Hamm and Spaijj 2017; Gill 2015; Joosse 2015) has identified the crucial role that social relations, socio-political environments, and group dynamics play in the radicalization and operation of lone-actor terrorists. Put simply, the empirical evidence suggests that the motivations, methods, and ideologies of lone-actor terrorists are influenced by their larger socio-political environments and by their interactions and relationships with other people.

While there is growing consensus among terrorism scholars that questions the level at which lone-actor terrorists are socially and operationally isolated from others as they progress towards their first act of terrorist violence, there remains much that is not known about the extent and types of social, communication, and support relationships which they create and maintain during this formative period. With this lacuna in knowledge in mind, the current research employs social network analysis to examine patterns of social, ideological, communication, and support ties formed over a 24 month period prior to the commission of the first act of terrorist violence by two case studies of lone-actor terrorists: Timothy McVeigh, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Extensive relational data were gathered from open-sourced documents on both case studies, and was then used to code relational matrices for each lone-actor’s full, ideological, signaling, and support networks. These matrices were then used to conduct sociometric tests to analyze relational patterns at the network, group, and individual (ego) levels.

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Research Area(s):

Countering Violent Extremism

TSAS WP18-02

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