Inigo Montoya’s Take on the Term ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorism

“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride, 1987

Whether you are a professional couch potato or an accomplished academic, you have no doubt heard the term ‘lone wolf’ to describe a terrorist attack, especially in the last year and a half. The term is thrown around without much thought much like Vizzini’s emphatic use of “Inconceivable!” Why is this? Well, it’s a quick soundbite and the concept is easy enough for a viewer (and reporter) to grasp. The term is sexy and sounds like the title of a Tom Clancy novel (may he rest in peace). However, despite its pervasiveness in the media and its conceptual simplicity, the term ‘lone wolf’ to describe terrorist attacks is inaccurate and its use lazy and problematic. Let me make one thing clear (cue Bill Clinton), it is time for us to retire this term and instead call these attacks what they are: terrorism.

Lone wolves found in nature are those that have been forced out of the pack. Whether they were seen as dead weight or beaten out by a competitor, the lone wolf is an outcast and is no longer connected to its social group. The idea of the social group, or lack thereof, is the most important element in the wolf/lone wolf metaphor. While ‘group’ in this instance refers to physical members, I would like to extend this idea include ideological inspiration. Thus, a ‘lone wolf’ in this instance is not only lacking physical belonging but ideological as well. But how does this tie in with terrorism?

While scholars and experts debate on the minutia of the definition of terrorism, one thing is clear nearly across the board: an act of terror requires a political goal or objective. While this does not require a terrorist to be tied to a specific group, it does require at the very least association to an ideological or political movement. Take Andre Breivik for instance. Acting completely alone, Breivik murdered 76 people in Oslo, Norway. His objective other than killing as many civilians as possible was to make his political manifesto known to the world. In it he called for the expulsion of Islam from Europe and criticized the perceived hold that feminism had on Europe. He carried out his attack for clear political purposes inspired by right-wing extremism. Thus, he was not a ‘lone wolf’ attacker but a right-wing terrorist.

What about Islamic terrorism?
The ‘lone wolf’ label has been used in dozens of attacks throughout the world such as the recent Nice attack, the attack in San Bernardino, and the Orlando shooting. This qualification of the attack is simply incorrect. Each of the attackers in these examples were directly inspired by the radical ideology of ISIS. The fact that these individuals were not official members of the Islamic State is irrelevant. What is important is that they are all closely tied to radical Islamic ideology that calls for the execution of those who do not adhere to Sharia. These terrorists acted according to the global jihadi movement as opposed to being ostracized by it.

Why does the use of ‘lone wolf’ matter? It matters because it fails to address the key component of the wave of terrorism that the world is facing: Islamic extremism. The ‘lone wolf’ label does not have any analytical power and is unable to provide any insight as to how to address the reason for the attack. Correctly qualifying a terrorist act helps to reveal the motives, sources of inspiration, and possible paths to radicalization that are responsible for the attack. Armed with this information, everyone from the average citizen to law enforcement officers, to the policy makers can begin crafting ways to combat radical Islamic terrorism. While an effective strategy is a topic for another time, creating strategies without knowing exactly what you are fighting is just…inconceivable!