Tuesday’s attack in New York City conforms to a pattern of terrorism that has become all too common over the past few years. While much remains to be learned about Sayfullo Saipov, he fits the pattern of the new lone-wolf terrorist, which has become so pervasive and proven so difficulty to combat. The 29-year old Uzbek immigrant has no known ties to a terrorist organization and appears to have acted alone. Like the man who killed 86 people in Nice, France in July 2016, and the perpetrator of the attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, Germany last December, Saipov used a truck as an improvised tank to mow down ordinary people.
Lone wolves have, of course, been around for a long time, but their profile has changed. Classic lone wolves like Ted Kaczynski, the “uni-bomber” who killed 3 people over a decade, often exhibited symptoms of mental illness and justified their actions by concocting an idiosyncratic ideology. Kaczynski, who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, wrote a rambling anti-technology manifesto. The Norwegian Anders Breivik, who bombed a government building in Oslo and then went on a shooting rampage at a youth camp, killing 77 people in 2011, also fits this profile. He too wrote an incoherent manifesto and probably suffered from a personality disorder, although experts disagreed on the precise diagnosis.
Today’s lone wolves are different. They usually do not suffer from a diagnosable condition, although they may have dysfunctional backgrounds and/or be motivated by a personal grievance. Rather than create their own fantasy ideology, these individuals identify with an existing movement and act on its behalf. Groups like ISIS encourage them to become walk-on terrorists, promising to bless their attacks after the fact. Such individuals may be radicalized through direct personal contact or via the Internet and/or social media. Anis Amri, the Tunisian man who perpetrated the Berlin Christmas market attack, was probably radicalized in prison. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who carried out the Nice massacre, appears to have been radicalized through a combination of personal contacts in his neighborhood and online information.
Although it receives the most attention, ISIS is not the only source of inspiration for lone wolves. The rhetoric of racists and neo-Nazis has also motivated terrorists. Dylan Roof, who murdered 9 African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015, did not belong to any group or organization, but he identified with the White Supremacist movement. His website referenced specific hate groups as sources of inspiration.
Lone wolf attacks are very difficult to prevent. Terrorist cells create chatter and leave fingerprints (literally and figuratively). That makes their activities less difficult to track. Lone wolves blend more easily into society. Even if they appear on the radar of law enforcement, they seldom attract sufficient attention to justify the cost of close surveillance. Usually their first serious criminal act is the terrorist attack they perpetrate. With crowds and venues now the preferred target and vehicles the weapon of choice, protecting civilians has become almost impossible.
“Extreme vetting” of immigrants won’t work either. The lone wolves who have hit American targets in the past few years were either born in the U.S. or immigrated as children. Saipov came from Uzbekistan (a country not on the immigrant ban list) in 2010, but he appears to have been radicalized here rather than in his country of origin. He is reportedly married, has two children and worked as an Uber driver. In many ways he fit the profile of the young immigrant who came to America seeking a better life and wasonhis way to achieving. When he recovers from his gunshot wound, he may tell us how and why he went down the path of radicalization.
Understanding that process, rather than hardening targets or vetting people, offers the best hope for deterring future attacks. Friends, family members, religious leaders and teachers are more likely to see the warning signs of radicalization than law enforcement. If we can educate people to recognize when their loved ones are getting addicted to drugs and alcohol , we can also teach them to spot the signs of radicalization. Identifying vulnerable individuals and stopping the radicalization process offers the best hope of preventing future attacks.