The lone wolf is the terrorist face of the 21st century. And he is blurring the lines that once divided different forms of terror and political violence. The Orlando nightclub killing on June 12, the worst act of violence by a single person in the US’ history, is an example of how the different categories and definitions of terrorism are blurring. That President Barack Obama felt obliged to call the killing both an act of terror and a hate crime is indicative of how terror is metamorphosing since 9/11.
The Orlando attack is a reminder that much of the preventive counterterrorism strategy used by governments depends on terrorist communication. But if an attacker keeps to himself, he becomes invisible to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Most successful pre-emption of such attacks has been done through tip-offs by the local community, family or friends. Omar Mateen, the Orlando gunman, left a trail of domestic violence and radical Islamicist sympathies but never enough to indicate he was ready to cross a thin blood-red line into full-fledged terror. Mateen’s action also indicates that the degree of violence a lone wolf is capable of inflicting is today almost at the same level of an organised team attack – one of the key differences that existed between the two forms of terrorism. With terrorists finding it harder to hit symbols of government or high-profile structures, they are turning to almost any place where civilians congregate. This makes countering this threat more difficult.
Finally, the distinction between international and domestic terrorism is also blurring. Mateen seems to have seen himself as an Islamic State (IS)-inspired fighter. But his choice of a gay nightclub was as much a reflection of his own biases. Not unlike the IS terrorists arrested in India, most of whom have chased a half-dozen different labels including the Indian Mujahideen and al-Qaeda, Mateen would probably have declared affiliation to any organisation. This does not mean IS is not to blame. In fact, the terror-State is seeking out such people on the Internet, giving them advice on how and what to attack, and then making statements legitimising their actions. It also does not mean a more traditional-structure terrorism has disappeared – after all, India’s primary threat continues to be from groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Governments will face increasingly difficult decisions when confronting this lone-wolf menace. In the case of the US, for example, its lax gun-control laws are undermining its ability to prevent such attacks. A more universal problem will be in the area of civil liberties. Should sociopaths with violent tendencies be detained preventively for being wife-beaters or verbally supporting political extremism? Surveillance will again become a source of contention as liberal democracies continue to confront a zero-sum game between liberty and security.