There’s No Explanation for Lone-Wolf Terror Attacks, and Our Brains Can’t Handle That

By
Photo: Union County Prosecutor's Office

Ahmad Khan Rahami, the 28-year-old man who allegedly planted the bomb that injured 29 people in Chelsea over the weekend, and another bomb in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, that exploded along the route of a race without hurting anyone (since the race had been delayed), is a member of a disturbing group: lone-wolf terrorists.

While Ramani, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Afghanistan, may have been radicalized by trips he took back there, the Times notes that “[i]nvestigators have not discovered any ties between Mr. Rahami and known terrorist groups,” and that neither ISIS nor any foreign group has claimed responsibility. So far all the evidence — perhaps most notably the fact that his explosive devices were so unsophisticated — points to his plan having been a solo effort. Rahami isn’t alone: As Alan Cullison points out in a Wall Street Journal article from earlier this week, there have been a bunch of lone-wolf (or, sometimes, for lack of a better phrase, “dual-wolf”) terror attacks in the age of ISIS. Given how far terrorist propaganda can reach these days, and given how even someone separated from a brutal group by thousands of miles can develop what might feel like them to be a “connection” to that group, this is worrisome.

So it would be nice if we could develop some profile of the sorts of people who become lone-wolf attackers — the better to stop them before they hurt people. Unfortunately, this is probably impossible.

To understand why, read Cullison’s article, the headline of which succinctly explains that “Experts See No Single Explanation for ‘Lone Wolf’ Terror Attacks.” Simply put, people perpetrate these acts for a complicated mix of reasons, and there’s effectively no way to “profile” a future terrorist. “Fundamentally, the quest for a single answer for the reason for terror is pretty doomed — it’s like trying to answer the question of why there is crime,” J.M. Berger, a terror researcher, told Cullison.

Or, to sum it up with a tweet from terrorism researcher John Horgan that Cullison includes in his piece:

You could take it even further than that: The same logic and research animating Cullison’s article also apply to the issue of mass shootings and acts of violence more broadly, whether or not those shootings are connected to terrorist ideology. Researchers just have no one-size-fits-all story to explain why some people “snap” like this. It doesn’t have to do with any one particular ideology or set of beliefs — mass shooters have come from all over the political spectrum. It doesn’t have to do with fundamentalism — plenty of jihadist and jihadism-tinged attacks, even, are perpetrated by people who aren’t observant Muslims. It doesn’t have to do with class — many perpetrators of violent acts weren’t facing anything close to oppressive poverty. And a lack of education doesn’t explain it, either. There’s just no single story line that fits all or even most attacks; this is a consistent finding among the people whose lives’ work is to figure this stuff out.

Unfortunately, we — as a species — really, really want there to be some overriding explanation for these heinous acts. Human brains are not built to handle ambiguity and complexity when it comes to scary or otherwise emotionally charged subjects. This can partly explain why, after a mass shooting takes place, everyone gloms onto some “cause,” whether it’s video games or misogyny or radical Islam or whatever else — the explanations vary with the times and with the identity of the shooter — and argues fervently that we need to address this particular cause, or there are going to be more shootings. The fact is, though, that the vast, vast majority of people who play violent video games or have misogynistic thoughts or who even view and believe in radical jihadist propaganda never go out into the world and hurt people.

It’s unlikely researchers will ever come with a full explanation that can account for why a small handful of people do. They’ve uncovered some helpful nuggets, however, which might help save lives: For one thing, Cullison notes that “Mia Bloom, who researches suicide terrorism at Georgia State, said that one recent study of lone-wolf attackers suggested that 80% of them had hinted to others about their plans beforehand, and that 60% had told others of their specific plans.” That means that it’s important for people to take these sorts of threats seriously — but as Cullison explains, paraphrasing Bloom, “relatives and friends often don’t report planned attacks because they hope the plans aren’t serious, [or] fear they could make problems worse by contacting police[.]”

As psychologically comforting as it may feel to act like there’s some mass-shooter or terrorist profile that can reliably predict who will kill, holding onto this unsupported belief could be damaging in a couple different ways. First, family members and authorities may well overlook people who do pose threats, but who don’t fit the “profile” that’s salient at a given moment.

Second, an undue focus on the terrorism angle, in particular, can obscure understanding: We’ve seen a few instances, now, in which mass shooters and terrorists have claimed, at the last moment, to have been inspired by ISIS and/or other terror groups, but in which this is an overstatement, at best. That is, when researchers dig into the perpetrators’ lives, they find basically no evidence they were connected to the groups in a real way, and ample evidence for a much more “traditional” homicidal trajectory consisting of an accumulation of annoyances and humiliations and frustrations having nothing to do with terrorism or politics. It such cases, it’s those experiences, mixed in a hopelessly complicated way with various other factors, that turned the person into a killer, not “terrorism” or “radicalism” in any straightforward sense. The latter account may be cleaner and tidier, but it’s less accurate. Clean and tidy accounts of human nature tend to be.