The Messy Reality of Lone-Wolf Terrorism

By Lorne L. Dawson, PhD
Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies, University of Waterloo
Co-Director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (

In the face of the shocking attacks by so-called “lone wolf” terrorists on October 20th and 22nd it is all too easy to identify the perpetrators as “crazy” or “evil” – but such labels are not very helpful. As we all suspect, the reality is more complicated, and it is important for us to face that reality squarely. How best should we make sense of the crimes committed by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in particular? In his case, unlike Martin Couture-Rouleau, the signs of mental illness loom large, so can we still interpret his acts as those of a terrorist? The NDP leader Thomas Mulcair argues that Zehaf-Bibeau is a criminal, but we do not know yet whether he was a terrorist as well.  Is this how we should understand things?  The question raises a number of interpretive issues that scholars of terrorism have been struggling with for some time.

         First, the category “lone wolf” simply denotes that a terrorist acted on his or her own and not at the direct request or command, or under the guidance of, an organization or group. But in most cases the perpetrators are, in varying degrees, inspired by the ideology being promoted by a group, and often acting in response to specific calls for violent actions against some perceived enemies. In merely responding to the calls is a person engaging in terrorism? Most of us would say they are terrorists, since they have engaged in violent acts associated with a political message and intended to intimidate the government and influence a wider audience. But the motivations for choosing to act may not be either simply or predominantly political – a defining feature of terrorist acts as opposed to merely criminal ones. In almost all instances of lone wolf terrorism serious questions arise about the mental health and stability of the perpetrators, even in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who so carefully plotted his deadly attack in 2011.

This is the second interpretive issue. What if the primary reason why someone heeded the call to action is that they are “crazy” and driven to lash out against others because of their suffering. The ideology in this case is merely a pretext for violent behaviour that may well have happened anyway. At one end of the spectrum of “lone wolves” we encounter people who do not look much different from “school shooters” – like the two teenagers who attacked Columbine high school in Colorado in 1999 – or perhaps the more recent case of Justin Bourque, who went on an unexpected rampage shooting RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B. We are forced to make a judgement in each case about just how sick the lone wolves are, about the relative balance of mental illness and political intent. Zehaf-Bibeau had mental health issues, aggravated by his drug addiction. But he chose to lash out in a very politically significant way – at least symbolically. It may be wise in the end to interpret him as yet another victim of “jihadi” terrorist groups, since they are purposefully seeking to exploit the vulnerabilities of people like him. But his actions constitute terrorism in their nature and their consequences, whether he fully understood that or not.

           Thinking about all of this raises the third and perhaps most problematic interpretive issue: the role of religion. Here too in the case of Zehaf-Bibeau we encounter the age-old blending of issues of religious ideation, delusion, and politics. When I speak to Canadian groups, to ordinary people, I remind them of the bloody legacy of religiously inspired war and mayhem in which many of their own ancestors participated just a few hundred years ago in Europe. For a hundred years after the Protestant Reformation Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other in the name of God and with the objective of creating the ideal Christian state.  As Zehaf-Bibeau’s  mother and others who knew him have stated, religious ideas loomed large in his struggle for identity and meaning in life. They served to both assuage his illness and fortify his fight against addiction. But some of the darker aspects of religion, apocalyptic ideas and notions of the devil tempting and tormenting him, simultaneously aggravated his illness. Religion provided a language to make sense of his pain and confusion, but the language he chose is being twisted by fanatics to serve a political end, rendering his religious quest no-longer merely a private one. We are uncomfortable, as Canadians and just modern Westerners in general, in speaking about religion, and rightfully leery of drawing too strong a linkage, even inadvertently, between Islam and terrorism. But in explaining the extraordinary acts of Couture-Rouleau and Zehf-Bibeau we cannot ignore the evidence that they interpreted their acts as being about religion, as fulfilling a perceived obligation to their religious brothers and sisters and to God, no matter how distorted we may think their reasoning is about these justifications for murder. This is the messy reality of lone-wolf terrorism with which we must cope now and for the foreseeable future. But the lack of clarity in their motivations is not sufficient to stop us from calling these crimes acts of terrorism.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  Photo by ctoverdrive

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