Improving Our Predictive Capacities Against Terror Attacks by Individuals

Ajit Maan, Ph.D.

Commentary following attacks like the one in London often contribute to public terror. The public has repeatedly been told that the actions of “Lone Wolves” are “impossible to prevent” while simultaneously being told to “keep the terrorist threat in perspective.” Exactly what are we to keep in perspective if the threat cannot be prevented?

By Ajit Maan, Ph.D.

This sort of commentary articulates exactly what terrorists want us to believe.

But the facts are:

  1. Some attacks can be prevented and many have been.
  2. “Lone Wolf” is not a descriptive term. So called Lone Wolf terrorists “pose the most difficult sort of threat,” only if we misunderstand the term and approach. We often hear that it is “impossible to predict individual behavior with the same accuracy as group behavior” but that is not the case. The predictors of attacks by individuals are different than predictors of group behavior. But they are present. And they are often more psychological than sociological.
  3. We have predictive capacities that have not been adequately tapped:

Reporting by the public, friends/family is where we fall short where individual assailants are concerned. A recent study (Gill, Horgan, Deckert) found that in most cases, others know about the offender’s intent prior to the act. In 58.8% of the cases studied, the offender produced letters or other public statements expressing extremist beliefs and in almost two thirds of the cases family or friends knew in advance of the offender’s intent because they were told directly.

Incarceration: At least one third of those offenders with a criminal past became radicalized while incarcerated.  While there has been growing concern about the vulnerability of immigrant communities to terrorist recruitment and to self-radicalized actors, the role of US prisons as an optimal space for terrorist recruitment has been overlooked by the counter-terrorism community, media and the general population. This oversight is significant given that domestic criminals locked into gang-run recruitment-ripe environments are eventually going to get out. The vulnerability of inmates to recruitment is heightened by the very basics of survival and inter-dependence. Those factors coupled with a predisposition to antisocial behavior make prisoners perfect targets for terrorist recruitment. Prison gangs and terrorist organizations share a common interest in criminal activity. The motivations and incentives for joining these types of groups are very similar. The numbers suggest that we are counter-productively focused on a lesser threat.

There are other predictive behaviors:

  • Significant amounts of tactical planning go into attacks by individuals, usually they will conduct “dry runs.”
  • These sorts of attacks often directly follow interpersonal conflict: marital break-ups, job loss, etc.
  • Oftentimes the attacker has history in the location of the attack.

The success or failure of a terrorist attack does not depend on the resulting body count. It depends upon public perception and reaction. We, the public, have some measure of control over the success or failure of an attack both before and after it happens.
After an attack we can refuse to be terrified and thereby avoid creating second and third order effects. Of course, that doesn’t make the victims any less dead or injured, but it limits consequences of an attack to the victims themselves rather than to the whole of society. We have seen this sort of resilience all over the world.

And before an attack we do have some measure of control but we must stop responding to unconventional threats with conventional means. Terrorism is not a conventional law enforcement problem. It is a tactic of asymmetric warfare, and our response ought to be out of the same playbook. Traditional policing should be augmented with community policing, or from the playbook of asymmetric warfare, community engagement and stability operations.
The evidence suggests that the problem is not that this sort of attack is “impossible to predict” but rather that predictors are being ignored or going unreported. That is where we have control, and that is what we should keep in perspective.

Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is CEO of Narrative Strategies, a think-and-do tank dedicated to employing non-kinetic means to countering terrorism and large-scale conflict. She is a faculty member at both George Mason University’s Narrative Conflict Resolution Program and Union Institute and University’s Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program. She is the author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies and co-editor of Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare.

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