Radicalization of the Lone Wolf:
The Starting Point

by Richard F. Rempo, M.S.

“You didn't worry about this even two years ago -- about individuals, about Americans, to the extent that we now do. And - that is of - of great concern" said former Attorney General Eric Holder some time ago about the homegrown threat of domestic terrorism and the lone wolf.  He went on to urge that “the threat [of terrorism] has changed … to worrying about people in the United States, American citizens – raised here, born here, and who for whatever reason, have decided that they are going to become radicalized and take up arms against the nation in which they were born.” As the threat we face inside the U.S. on our own soil increases, so does the number of questions posed regarding terrorism in this post 9/11 world we occupy.  Why are these people killing?  Why do they aim to destroy the very morals and values we represent?  Where is this hate born? Moreover, how do we counter this emerging threat?     

Although many believe the answer to these and many other related questions can be answered by addressing the root causes of terrorism when we actually must delve into the routes to terrorism-the psychology of radicalization according to Dr. John Horgan.  Radicalization describes the process where an individual adopts an extreme religious, social, or political ideology.  Consequently, when such views and behavior take a turn towards violence, we see a shift to act of terrorism.  This process is influenced by groups or peers that urges an individual to identify with a terrorist ideology as we most recently witnessed with the San Bernardino Shooting by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik that killed 14 people and wounded another 21 more.

Indeed, radicalization is the process that leads to terrorism and those experiencing this process exhibit observable signs-behavioral changes that not only family members, friends, and those closely associated with an individual, but others in the community as well.  Starting with alienation, the would-be terrorist is drawn to a sense of self-righteous commitment and self-sacrifice that terror organizations and those committed to a cause seem to perpetuate.  Couple these elements with a strong affinity to a particular religion and this simply adds just one more justification to turn to violence and commit terrorism.  This, of course, is evidentiary in the cases of the Tsarnaev brothers who were responsible for the Boston Marathon Bombings and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian native known as the “Underwear Bomber” who attempted to take down a commercial airliner on Christmas Day of 2009.

So where do we go from here and how do we fight this emerging threat that is becoming commonplace here in the homeland?  Aside from mainstream counterterrorism efforts, we should, continue to look to the Horgan’s routes to terrorism as another angle.  We know there is a ‘commonality’ amongst lone wolves as it relates to a certain degree of commitment to, and identification with, extremist movements.  The radicalization process certainly does not take place in a vacuum, hence it is critical to aim our investigatory efforts toward, and cooperate with, the communities which are afflicted.  Researchers and counterterrorism experts alike agree with the notion that having an effective counter-radicalization strategy simply hinges on building a positive rapport that leads to effective community engagement.  Moreover, we must understand   the criticality of promoting passive and active aversion towards terrorism in those communities and garner the help of its influential community members in the process.   

Learn more about CSU's Homeland Security Degrees After an attack and soon after an investigation ensues, it becomes clearly apparent that the attackers were involved such activities that acquaintances, friends, and coworkers should have noticed and contacted law enforcement about any concerns or red flags.  All too late, we find that many witness come out after a tragedy, as in the case of San Bernardino and Fort Hood, citing fear of being labeled a racist or bigot.  Other legitimate concerns are that many witnesses become reluctant to offer information and come forward in fear of not appearing credible and looked at as “the boy who cried wolf” or a sort of a “snitch”.  These few examples are legitimate hurdles that hinder our counterterrorism efforts and, as farfetched as it may appear, this is where the “See Something, Say Something” Campaign is extremely advantageous.  The notion is quite simple and straightforward-if it doesn’t look or feel quite right or prompts you to the point of discussing it family or friends for the sake of personal sanity, you should alert the authorities as this could certainly save the lives of others or your own.

Absent the reasons why one chooses terrorism or which counterterrorism measures we deem as effective or appropriate, it is abundantly clear that the war has changed.  At its inception, close to 15 years ago, it was clear who the enemy was.  Al Qaida was a large terror network mainly localized in a general geographical region and we adapted accordingly.  Moving forward, with an obscure picture of who and where our next enemy will emerge from next, it is salient to once again- improvise, adapt and overcome to this new challenge in order to secure our nation in this post 9/11 world that has now become the new norm.

Richard F. Rempo, M.S. is an Adjunct Professor of Homeland Security for Columbia Southern University.