February 1, 2010  

Essay: The lone wolf and his pack

Friends and colleagues are our best pointers to an extremist

The term “lone wolf” was popularized in the 1990s to refer to an extremist who acts alone to avoid incriminating others. American extremists are often lone wolves, and many of these wolves were active in 2009. In May, anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder killed a Kansas abortion provider. One month later, Abdulhakim Muhammed shot two soldiers, killing one, outside a Little Rock Arkansas recruiting station in anger over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later in June, self-proclaimed white supremacist and anti-Semite James von Brunn, who recently died in prison at age 89, killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Finally, in October, Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 service members at Fort Hood, Texas.

After Hasan’s attack, members of Congress called for predictive profiling to prevent future attacks. The Senate Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman, called for a forward-looking and “preventive” inquiry. Sen. Susan Collins expressed her concern that the federal government had been unable to “connect the dots that would have allowed a clear picture of the threat to emerge.”

I developed such a model in 2006 after years of talking with militiamen, tax protesters and terrorists from Northern California to the Middle East. Some were fighting civil wars; some were fighting private battles. All of them were disaffected to some degree. What differentiated the reconcilable from those who were not? The true extremist enjoyed the fight. He was not primarily motivated by political causes (though he often invoked them). He was instead addicted to bullying — political bullying. And he was often lonely.

In the aftermath of such attacks, the public is left to wonder what ideologies fuel such hate and which groups are to blame. With lone wolves, the answer is none. Bullying personalities are drawn to extreme ideas, not transformed by them — antisocial world views merely reflect their personal struggles. The lone wolf label is both misleading and true. Most bullies want a group to lead, and most successfully gather a few friends and followers. But their networks are unstable and usually implode. Bullies cannot get along with others for long. As a Spokane, Wash., criminal intelligence officer told me, “everyone wants to lead, no one wants to follow.”

What do political bullies have in common? I developed my model from a 2001 survey of 10,000 Army personnel who answered numerous questions, including whether they had been asked to join or participate in extremist groups or activities. Of those surveyed, 3.2 percent reported being approached by extremists before joining the Army and fewer (1.4 percent) after joining. Estimates among civilians are similar. While this survey sampled only soldiers, it is probably representative of society. A 1995 Los Angeles Times poll of the adult public, for example, reported 3 percent of 1,000 knew a member of an “antigovernmental citizen militia group.” A 1995 CBS News poll reported 4 percent of nearly 600 knew someone “who might belong to a militia group.” Neither of these surveys indicates that service members are any different from the civilian public. While the Army study didn’t isolate the rare lone wolves in the ranks, it does say something about who was considered for the pack.

Drawing from theories as diverse as social movements, terrorism, criminology and classroom bullying, I developed a statistical model to test hypotheses that those who are befriended by extremists are somehow different from those who are not. I expected to find that those who were recruited by bullies were primarily men with lower self-esteem who were dissatisfied with their jobs and more apt to take risks, seek thrills and disobey daily rules. I also tested whether those who are approached by extremists possessed a “bully-victim” mentality — perceiving themselves as victims and then taking their frustrations out on others. I ran several models to determine the independent contributions of various demographic measures and survey responses to the overall probability of being recruited to join or participate in extremism.

Whom do extremists seek for friends? Not surprisingly, men are 10 percent likelier to be recruited by extremists than women, though the effect is smaller than one might expect from watching the nightly news. How were they recruited? It’s not clear. But many who reported exposure to extremist magazines, fliers or videos had been recruited (17 percent to 20 percent), followed by those who’d seen extremist Web sites (15 percent), posters (14 percent), tattoos (13 percent), symbols/slogans (12 percent) or heard extremist audiotapes/CDs (11 percent). These different media are in descending order by complexity of content and how actively one must participate to receive the message; the messenger is probably more important than the message or the medium. Extremist messages that require one’s full attention, such as reading a newsletter or a blog, may be recommended by acquaintances gauging interest. Viewing posters and tattoos may be a more fleeting event, but one that requires a certain familiarity to enter a private room or to see a teammate in civilian clothes. Hearing music or seeing symbols and slogans may reflect more random exposure to extremism.

Extremists often claim discrimination as a motivation. Men who thought women would be promoted ahead of them were 4 percent likelier to be recruited for extremism than those who did not, and troops who reported being religiously discriminated against were recruited in higher proportions than teammates who were not (16 percent versus 1.9 percent). The soldier who believed he would not be promoted as high as his performance merited was 9 percent more likely to be recruited. It appears that those who perceive themselves to be falling behind are indeed more vulnerable to being befriended or approached by extremists.

Risk-taking is the factor I was most interested in testing after interviewing extremists and reviewing case studies. Many of them had a fatalistic, devil-may-care attitude. They often took foolish risks jeopardizing planned attacks. Timothy McVeigh, for example, was caught leaving Oklahoma City with no license plates, a small defiance tied directly to his belief of “sovereign citizenship.” Journalists Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck interviewed former associates of McVeigh in their 2001 book “American Terrorist”: “McVeigh didn’t hit it off with his two new housemates, and he left after a month. [John] Kelso said McVeigh was a great soldier, but ‘weird, strange … a racist.’ He was also annoyed by McVeigh’s driving. … ‘He drove very, very fast,’ Kelso said of McVeigh, ‘No conscience for laws at all.’”

Behaviors such as fast driving and a refusal to wear seat belts may capture some complex combination of fatalism, thrill-seeking and rejection of the ordinary rules that impose order on society and constrain individuals. Of all traits in the Army data, the one with the strongest effect, by far, was daily risk-taking. Those who strongly disagreed with wearing seat belts were 27 percent more recruited than those who buckled up.

Does the workplace environment matter? Probably. Soldiers who were recruited for extremism reported more problems in their units with fighting, alcohol and drugs, indiscipline, crude language, poor unit cohesion and lack of respect from the chain of command. Sociologists and political scientists have long known that disciplined institutions led by fair leaders are most stable. In the Army, this appears true. Even more importantly, disciplined units and organizations are self-policing units. The higher a group’s standards, the more likely its members are to run out those who don’t adhere to them.

Can we profile extremists with pinpoint precision? No. My model accurately predicted 28 percent who were recruited (close to one in three), but falsely identified 7 percent who were not recruited. While this model performs well explaining such a rare event, it denies people the presumption of innocence they deserve. My bully algorithm, if applied in real life, would be bullying by a different (albeit social scientific) method.

In short, lone wolves need to bully. They are often men who feel they are discriminated against and as a result are falling behind. They are risk-takers, and they may be exposed to and share extremist messages with others. I’ve learned — as much from personal observation as from statistics — that these indicators are valid and reliable. But the clearest sign of a bully is being warned about that person by those who can no longer stand his company. This is as true in the military as it is in civilian workplaces, schools or prisons. As I talk to law enforcement and court officials, most say, “We are not worried about right-wing groups; we are worried about those who are kicked out.”

In the course of my field work, I interviewed two leaders on the far right who illustrate the point that a bullying personality is of far more concern than any particular set of beliefs. One was serving as public affairs officer for a North Carolina militia. The other was an upstate New York “constitutional scholar” who was later shot by police and sentenced to prison for this confrontation. These two men, who shared some of the same ideas of limited government, diverged in their ability to fit in society. But both agreed on whom we should fear.

How well did these two get along with others? The constitutionalist was alienated from his community and his wife. Over coffee, I asked him whether his family approved of his activities or discouraged him from being an activist. “My former wife, in the beginning, was very much for it. But then, she started getting worried and became my former wife. I’m not going to give it up.” How did he get along in the community? “I took the building department, the police department, all the councilmen including the supervisor, all to federal court. They didn’t like that idea. I had fun.” He talked at length about political correctness, traditional roles for men and women, and how his civil rights had been violated by the police.

The militia leader, on the other hand, wanted his group to be “community oriented.” “For 12 years, we’ve done toy drives for needy kids,” he said. “We help with Thanksgiving dinners, safe candy drives at Halloween. … We work here with the local law enforcement, the local police department. … When one of the hurricanes came though, we collected money and manpower, went in three semis, took bottled water, first aid supplies and manpower down in uniform like the National Guard.”

What about risk-taking? The militiaman did not try to impress me with tales of law breaking. The constitutionalist, however, proudly recounted a traffic stop over a loud muffler: “A so-called loud muffler. … Do [the police] have a degree in loud mufflers? Vindictive. It was an absurd thing. … So I got in my car and left. They followed me. I knew what they were following me for. And they had their lights on. ‘Screw you,’ I said, ‘You show me the state law that says I have to stop. Show me. Show me the law.’ There is no law. We check all these things out.”

Both of these men, however, agreed that there are people even too extreme for them. The militia leader explained, “Any time you have any kind of organization, you’re going to have some bad apples. And there’s no way to get rid of all those bad apples until they’re just exposed. … I try to root out the racism factor. I try to root out the mad bomber, the child molester. … I guess it’s first impressions — anybody that gives me the impression that they may be dangerous to some extent, no matter what that extent is.”

The constitutionalist agreed. He recalled an anonymous phone call from a militia member who used obscenities and threatened him to forgo nonviolent activities: “He says, ‘You think that you’re going to win your protesting by your fliers. … by your newspaper? There’s only one way you’re going to win. That’s with the barrel of a gun.’ I say, ‘Oh really?’ Click [mimics hanging up a phone]. I don’t want to talk to him. I didn’t want to hear nothing about it. … Do I want to see bombed-out buildings? Do I want to see dead bodies all over the place? No, I don’t. Not at all.”

Two men — both right wing. One in trouble with the law and the other working within the law. What we can learn from them is that we ought not to focus on ideas, ideologies and groups, a profiling strategy that backfires by isolating the like-minded but law-abiding people who will first notice and report a disturbed personality. Instead, we need to watch for those people who bully or are vulnerable to recruitment by bullies. Most importantly, we must listen to and intervene on behalf of those friends and colleagues — even those extremists — who would kick the lone wolf out of the pack.

LT. COL. EUGENIA K. GUILMARTIN is the author of several studies on domestic terrorism and has a PhD in political science from Stanford University. She is an Army military police officer in Afghanistan. The opinions of the author are her own and do not express any official position of the Army or the Defense Department.