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Lone wolf terrorists target police more, but attacks not more frequent

September 18, 2014

Lone wolf terrorist attacks are not on the rise as popular culture might lead one to believe -- but the attacks are changing for the worse, according to research by an Indiana State University professor.

"We find no evidence that lone wolf terrorism is increasing," said Mark Hamm, criminology professor and terrorism expert. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hamm counts 38 cases of lone wolf terrorism -- many cases involving multiple attacks, and in the past 13 years, he isolated 45 cases, most of which were single attacks.

No decade was deadlier than the 1990s -- mostly because of the 1996 Olympics bombing, anti-abortion bombers, the return of the Unabomber and mass shooter Colin Ferguson, Hamm said.

The targets, weapons and motives have changed in recent years, Hamm found. Before 9/11, these terrorists used bombs, but now high-velocity firearms are the weapon of choice, he said. The change might be a result of legislation enacted after the Oklahoma City bombing limiting the public's access to bomb-making ingredients.

Police and military personnel are now the preferred targets of modern lone wolf terrorists, Hamm said. Look at the Fort Hood and Los Angeles International Airport shootings or police assassin Richard Poplawski or Abdulhakim Muhammad (aka Carlos Bledsoe), who committed a drive-by shooting at an Army recruiting center.

Many of these attacks, too, are at close-range -- "close, personal, high velocity" is how Hamm described Christopher Dorner's attacks against police in California last year. Many pre-9/11 lone wolf terrorists never saw their victims or met them, Hamm said.

For example, Mark Essex killed five police officers and wounded five more in a 1973 shooting in New Orleans. In this attack, he stood on the roof of a hotel and shot at police. Poplawski, however, was so close to his victims, he said he could read their name badges.

For his research, Hamm defines a lone wolf terrorist by four characteristics: a person who perpetrates political violence, does not belong to (but often identifies with) an organized group such as al-Qaeda, acts alone (as opposed to the pair of Boston Marathon bombers), and does not commit violence out of grief or the pursuit of profit, vengeance or fame.

Statistically, most lone wolf terrorists are white, unemployed single males with a criminal record, Hamm said. Because these terrorists are getting younger in the post-9/11 era, they have grown up in a, media-driven paramilitary or "Rambo" culture; however, less than a third of them have actual military experience and none fought in Afghanistan or Iraq, Hamm said.

The research is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, and Hamm's database will be turned over to the government for public use.

Assisted by what Hamm jokingly describes as his "Sherlock Homies," (a play on the fictional investigator's name), he and his team started by examining 98 cases between 1940 and 2013 and analyzed the data for 21 variables, producing 2,058 searchable characteristics. It is the largest database ever created on lone wolf terrorism.

While the quantitative review is complete, Hamm continues to work on the qualitative aspect, conducting prison interviews where possible. This phase of his research will fill the holes that statistics can't tell, he said. For instance, in the late 1960s, relatively few people were killed by lone wolf terrorists - among them the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

"We have no statistic to measure the political loss of those two men," Hamm said. He describes King as "the conscience of the civil rights movement," and Hamm met Kennedy on the Indiana State campus in 1968, several weeks before he was assassinated.

Today, even the Islamic State (formerly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS) has links to lone wolf terrorism and prisoner radicalization.

"You don't come out of your mother's womb a terrorist," Hamm said.

ISIS is the "9th, 10th, 11th, 12th-order effect of prison radicalization" and traces its roots to the former Jordanian prisoner Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by the U.S. in 2006, Hamm said. His followers formed the group after his death.

A big concern for the U.S. State Department and the F.B.I. is Americans who identify with radicals such as ISIS.

"The influence of the Internet is remarkable," Hamm said.

While the practice of beheading someone is an ancient punishment in the Middle East, YouTube is new technology. Broadcasting the brutal event fulfills the definition of terrorism: "Kill one, frighten 10, 000," he said.

"This is the thing about terrorism -- it affects an entire community. That's why we're so concerned about it," Hamm said.

Domestically, attacks on the power grid are the next big threat, Hamm said. Lone wolf terrorist Jason Woodring successfully downed the electric transmission system of rural Arkansas in 2013. His vandalism affected 10,000 people and cost $3 million in repairs.

A widespread attack could take two years to correct, Hamm said, and in the meantime, "we go back to cave man days."

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Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Publications/Publications-People/Hamm-Mark/i-4VCm8Wx/0/XL/12_01_11_mark_hamm-1700-XL.jpg -- Mark Hamm

Contact: Mark Hamm, professor of criminology at Indiana State, 812-237-2197 or Mark.Hamm@indstate.edu

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or libby.roerig@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

Lone wolf terrorist attacks are not on the rise as popular culture might lead one to believe — but the attacks are more personal, use high-velocity firearms and target military and police officials.

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