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Social media is a ‘force multiplier’ for a lone wolf on the edge

A common criticism of research on lone wolf terrorism is that lone attackers are “not so lonely” and they often have involvement with extremist groups. There is some merit to that argument. Consider the historic assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

After escaping from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967, James Earl Ray made his way to Los Angeles where he joined the 1968 presidential campaign of the former segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who was running on a third-party ticket behind the slogan “Stand Up for America.”

{mosads}Ray became a volunteer at Wallace campaign headquarters in North Hollywood, where he trolled the streets and taverns imploring people to vote for Wallace. Ray identified with Wallace’s rants against big government, his championing of the working man, and his stark position on race relations.

It was in Alabama that MLK had achieved his greatest civil rights victories, so Ray designed a plan to assassinate King based on the bizarre belief that by killing King, Ray could gain recognition from the millions of white Americans who condemned King, further believing that if Wallace were elected president, he would pardon Ray after a brief sentence in an Alabama prison. “Demagogues often fail to understand what their poison does,” remarked an assassination expert of Wallace’s influence. “They create an environment where lost souls can feel like they’re empowered to do something like [assassination], and that the culture will smile on their crime.”

The rest we know: On April 4, Ray stalked Dr. King to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and killed him with one shot from a rifle. George Wallace was an enabler of Ray’s act of lone wolf terrorism. Even though Wallace had nothing to do with planning and executing the attack, without him Martin Luther King may not have been murdered in the prime of his life.

Lone wolf terrorism is political violence waged by individuals who act alone; who do not belong to an organized terrorist group; and whose tactics and methods are implemented by the individual without outside direction. Yet, lone wolves do not live in a social vacuum and their violence may be enabled by incendiary ideas communicated in political speeches, books, propaganda, and media coverage of terrorists who have preceded them. In “The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” Ramon Spaaij and I discovered 123 cases of lone wolf terrorism in the United States between 1940 and mid-2016. Roughly 70 percent of them were influenced by enablers from the fields of politics, religion, literature, and media, as well as other terrorists. But that was not our only important finding.

Lone wolf terrorism is based on leaderless resistance, a strategy premised on the notion that a terrorist group, no matter how secret or well organized, simply cannot evade law enforcement. Hence, terrorism is more readily accomplished by individuals rather than a group. Lone wolf terrorists act to advance ideological beliefs of an extremist movement, but they typically never have personal contact with the movement leaders they identify with. Since the advent of social media, extremists across the political spectrum have sought ideological validation of their toxic opinions through anonymous online sympathizers that function as communities of belief by transferring personal frustrations onto a transgressive “other.” This represents the most significant transformation in the history of lone wolf terrorism.

Online sympathizers create a “force multiplier” of extremist messaging by providing personal and ideological support to others while simultaneously allowing them to operate anonymously within their chosen community.

Online sympathizers broaden the base of support for leaderless resistance, often to worldwide audiences. Social media makes it possible for a person to become radicalized in the solitude of his or her bedroom through linking with virtual “friends,” electronically exchanging militant propaganda, and even acquiring technical know-how for committing terrorism through online manuals. In this way, incipient lone wolves become “keyboard Nazis” or “cyber Jihadists” who are known to other extremists only by their online identities.

The more they increase their involvement with online sympathizers, the more they isolate themselves from people in their real-world communities, which, in turn, makes it easier for them to change identity and live outside of ordinary social arrangements, thereby fueling the radicalization process that makes terrorism possible.

Such was apparently the case with Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old man police say stormed into the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, shouting hate for Jews and killing 11 worshipers in a merciless 20-minute attack. Bowers had used the social media network Gab to post anti-Semitic messages and spouted conspiracy theories opposing the migrant caravan. An alternative to traditional platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Gab was a fringe venue known for its appeal among alt-right sympathizers.

The Pittsburgh massacre occurred just one day after the FBI arrested 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc Jr., who is accused of mailing 13 bombs to prominent Democrats and CNN. In Facebook and Twitter postings, Sayoc broadcasted his support for President Trump and his contempt for those the president might consider enemies. One post showed a photo of Sayac at a Trump rally wearing a “Make America Great Again” ballcap.

These events leave us with two tests of the public will. One is to resolve a longstanding ambivalence about the radical right in America. Ten years ago, in a report famously dismissed by Congress, DHS warned that “White supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat because of their low profile and autonomy.” Law enforcement’s challenge is to find needles in the haystack of online sympathizers who support violent acts of leaderless resistance.

The other test involves Trump. In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, a man who lost a loved one in the attack told reporters: “This didn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a growing trend of white nationalism. And that has been enabled by Trump, who traffics in the kind of conspiracy theories that we know were foremost in the mind of the shooter.” That test will be resolved at the ballot box.

Mark S. Hamm is professor of criminology at Indiana State University and senior research fellow at the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Hamm is the co-author of “The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism.”

Tags domestic terrorism Donald Trump Hate crime Homegrown terrorism Lone wolf Terrorism

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