Terrorism has typically been considered an organised activity undertaken by networks of individuals who share a collective identity and purpose.
However, in recent years, media, law enforcement and scholarly attention has increasingly focused on the construct of the lone terrorist – although Flinders University criminology expert Associate Professor David Bright argues that this approach may be flawed.
“The lone actor concept appears might do more harm than good in providing an explanation of the causes and origins of terrorist acts,” says Associate Professor Bright.
“Significant confusion surrounds correct profiling of lone terrorists. There are key unanswered questions about the extent to which such people actually radicalise and undertake acts of violence alone.”
Associate Professor Bright warns that the inaccurate profiling of a lone terrorist may deflect attention away from links they have with other individuals including established terrorist groups.
To better understand this phenomenon, Associate Professor Bright worked with Associate Professor Chad Whelan of Deakin University and Shandon Harris-Hogan of Victoria University to analyse five lone actor attacks perpetrated in Australia between September 2014 and the end of 2017. They used a personal network design to examine interpersonal relationships and connections they had with others and the nature of these connections.
Their research paper – Exploring the hidden social networks of ‘lone actor’ terrorists, by David Bright, Chad Whelan and Shandon Harris-Hogan – has been published in Crime, Law and Social Change journal. (DOI 10.1007/s10611-020-09905-2)
The paper discusses implications for policy and practice, with Professor Bright saying the lone actor concept needs to be re-evaluated, because while some individuals undertake their attacks alone, they are usually connected to a broader network of individuals providing varying degrees of ideological and logistical support for these attacks.
The researchers identify a need for more detailed analysis of the personal histories and interconnectedness of apparent lone terrorists.
“If we incorrectly continue to look at the lone terrorist threat as a phenomenon of socially isolated, uncommunicative people, we risk impeding our ability to effectively detect, prevent and mitigate the danger,” Associate Professor Bright.
Therefore, he says network-based analysis of lone actors can reveal the extent of their reliance on ideological and/or logistical support from their local social networks.
Such an approach could not only improve understandings of the role and function of social networks underpinning terrorist acts, but also potentially identify more targeted approaches to disrupting, and/or conducting interventions with, wider terrorist networks.