Commentary: Underlying Psychology of Lone Wolf' Terrorism

By Post, Jerrold M.; McGinnis, Cody et al. | Clinical Psychiatry News, August 2015 | Go to article overview

Commentary: Underlying Psychology of Lone Wolf' Terrorism


Post, Jerrold M., McGinnis, Cody, Moody, Kristen, Zayas, Jessica, Clinical Psychiatry News


The recent attack in Chattanooga, Tenn., on two military facilities in which four Marines and one sailor were killed has the hallmarks of a lone wolf terrorist attack. Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, age 24, reportedly said 3 days before his attack that "life is short and bitter" and that Muslims should submit to Allah, for the time "may pass you by." Abdulazeez's parents were increasingly concerned about his drug abuse and depression, and sent him to Jordan last year to break the downward spiral of his life, according to news reports.

A sharp increase in Islamic State sympathizers plotting against U.S. targets occurred after a communique circulated widely on the radical Internet called for waging jihad against the United States in retaliation for the bombing of ISIS positions. Although Abdulazeez said ISIS was "a stupid group and it was completely against Islam," he reportedly was particularly influenced by Anwar Al-Awlaki, former senior al-Qaeda official, and had his sermons in his possession.

Al-Awlaki, dubbed "the Bin Laden of the Internet" before his killing in a drone attack in 2011, was gifted in providing externalizing rhetoric to the many frustrated, alienated Muslim youth not feeling accepted into American society. Three themes can be found in al-Awlaki's sermons: 1. Muslims are victims. Their economic and social difficulties are caused by "them." 2. "They"--the enemy out to humiliate and defeat Muslims--refers to the West, especially the United States, Great Britain, and Israel. 3. Therefore, jihad is required by all Muslims to defend Islam, which is under attack by "them." These repetitive messages on the Internet were attractive to the rising number of alienated Muslims, and are present in al-Qaeda and ISIS messaging today.

The New York Times recounted the story of a woman it called 'Alex," a 23-year-old college dropout living in rural Washington state who communicated with Islamic State supporters online for several months.

Alex, who filled her time babysitting a couple of days a week, teaching Sunday school, "streaming movies on Netflix, and updating her social media timelines," came dangerously close to boarding a plane--with her 11-year-old brother--for Austria, where her virtual community promised her a Muslim husband. What psychological patterns were at work with Alex, and what are the underlying psychological patterns of "wolf pack" terrorism?

Our studies of this phenomenon reflect not one but four different patterns, suggesting a typology of motivations. Based on an extensive review of open-source journalistic reports, we examined the available psychobiographic information and histories of 43 lone wolf terrorists and have been able to differentiate four types of lone wolves: glory seekers, hero worshipers, lonely romantics, and radical altruists (Behav. Sci. Law 2014;32:306-34).

Glory seekers are individuals who feel the world does not understand or appreciate their talents. This frustration generally stems from unrealized expectations of success, acceptance, and recognition from within their new community. An example of a lone wolf glory seeker is Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, who became increasingly isolated and radical, and converted to Islam in prison. He reportedly confided to an FBI informant that he hoped to carry out an attack at a military processing station even more devastating than Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's massacre at Fort Hood, Tex. "We're trying to send a message; we're trying to get something that's gonna be on CNN and over the world," he was quoted as saying.

The hero worshipers are those who, by an idealized other, are persuaded to enter the path of radicalization and carry out an act of violent jihad. …

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