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A Threat from Lone Terrorists

When assessing the threat from terrorism, it is typical to think in terms of groups or organizations, but Dr. Jeffrey D. Simon, founder of Political Risk Assessment Company, believes that lone operators will increasingly pose threats to stability. He spoke at the ASIS International annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif. Simon is the author of “The Terrorist Trap: America’s Experience With Terrorism.” He is a former RAND analyst.

Simon said most definitions of terrorism fail to include the lone operator even though some past acts of terrorism, including vehicle and aircraft bombings, hijackings and product tampering, were directly attributable to solitary actors. He says that not needing a group or leader decision-making process frees the lone operator to act upon whatever scenario is imagined, and there are no limits or constraints imposed by others on that scenario.

Also, the lone operator does not have to worry about alienating others in a group, or supporters of a cause. Because such operators work alone, they are difficult to identify or capture. Some make skillful use of the media to increase the disruption or fear caused by the threat or act of terrorism.

Simon explained that the motivations of lone operator terrorists are as individual as the persons themselves. It may be a political or ideological motive that is the underlying factor, or it may be a religious, ethnic, nationalist or financial motive. Some are seeking revenge, and others act idiosyncratically. Simon says that the threat from lone operator terrorism will grow because such motivations play on alienation, anger and frustration from the economic downturn, grievances, conflicts and the emergence of what Simon calls “the technological wave of terrorism.”

Because they are lone operators, they tend to be ignored by strategists developing modes of combating terrorism. That is ironic, said Simon, because lone operators have been responsible for creating much widespread fear in recent years. There is also a “misperception,” he said, that nothing can be done about the lone operator.

Innovative strategies must be developed to deal with the lone operator threat. These strategies can be preventive or responsive, but they can lessen the threat. Improved detection devices are needed in post offices. The use of CCTV and other types of surveillance in public settings should be expanded. Continued study of methods to identify the early warning signs of a lone operator threat should take place. Increased public awareness of these signs and advances in biometrics and surveillance can help make people aware of impending threats.

On the response side, Simon said advances in forensic sciences and utilization of psychological profiles can help point out lone operator terrorists. A lull in any attacks should not result in complacency by law enforcement. In the event of such an attack, law enforcement should prepare for “copycat” incidents.

While there should be ways devised to entice the lone operator to communicate in any way, there must also be safeguards to counter a “hero” status that may be generated by such communications as covered by the media or among the public. There could be escalation of violence with each subsequent attack so law enforcement must be prepared for such a contingency.

Police and security should work together to design scenarios and simulations involving lone operator terrorist attacks. Studies of lone operator cases should be done to find similarities and patterns in such factors as tactics and behavior of the lone operator, and response to the operator’s attack.

“Lone operators illustrate why combating terrorism is an endless struggle,” Simon said. “While we can never defeat terrorism, we can be better prepared for different contingencies.”

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2011

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