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The rise of the lone wolf – countering terrorists who act alone

Terrorism has been on the front page for quite some time. Interestingly, defining terrorism is proving quite difficult. The Crown Prosecution Service will define the phenomenon (Terrorism Act 2000) differently than the FBI does. Scholar and political analyst Bruce Hoffman suggests that terrorism “as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change”. And that it is “specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack.” (Bruce Hoffman, Inside terrorism, Columbia University Press).

In relation to terrorism, the lone wolf is traditionally defined as someone who is not part of or led by an outside organisation. But, few lone wolves truly act alone. That said, the label is significant and countering approaches towards this group are often unique. Terrorists who act alone pose a different kind of threat, and thus call for a different response, than those who are led by an extremist group.

Lone wolves are not a new phenomenon, but in recent years, the number of attacks by them has grown. ISIS in particular has embraced the tactic and in their wake have inspired copycats. All over the world, these attacks continue to fuel Islamophobia and isolate Muslim communities. Similarly, lone wolf terrorist attacks are increasingly used by right-wing extremists in the UK as well as in other Western nations.

And although lone wolves do not usually kill in vast numbers, their psychological impact on the public is momentous. Many are unaware of just how easy and cheap it is to execute a lone wolf attack with little to no preparation, and no major backing from terrorist groups. Individuals are operating alone and committing simple, yet violently destructive acts of terrorism whilst leaving barely any warning or traces that could pre-empt their attacks.

The recent string of lone terrorism attacks illustrates the growing prevalence of lone terrorism in the UK and demonstrates just how easy it is for these individuals to fulfil their motives. The Westminster attack involved only a single perpetrator, Khalid Masood, who went on a murderous vehicle-ramming and stabbing rampage on the Westminster Bridge and Houses of Parliament in March 2017. Masood exemplifies the lone wolf, carrying out his highly unpredictable attack without any assistance from radical organisations.

The London Bridge attack presented itself in a similar vein, involving armed assailants who managed to harm over 50 people in less than ten minutes in June of that same year. Other attacks worth mentioning include the assassination of Labour MP Joe Cox by a far-right terrorist in June 2016. Also, a white supremacist killed 51 people and injured another 40 at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019.

And of course, we must mention the Manchester Arena, lone offender, suicide bombing that occurred at an Ariana Grande concert. These kinds of attacks do not require extensive planning, assistance or external communication but have become one of the most significant threats to public safety.

What has been done to prevent future instances of lone terrorism?

Here are several public areas in which counter terrorism measures have been ramped up recently in the UK:


Airports remain as one of the biggest targets due to having significant vulnerabilities in issuing total lockdowns and securely moving such large groups of people safely and quickly. Security checkpoints pose a new challenge to managing safety as they create long lines of travellers who can potentially be targeted by attackers. The reinforcement of security measures such as extending surveillance perimeters around major airport terminals, with plans for immediate explosives and weapons screenings to be added for people entering are just some of the measures implemented to date.


Temporary concrete and steel anti-terrorism barriers have been integrated around London’s major bridges to prevent future hostile vehicle-ramming following the 2017 Westminster and London Bridge attacks. However, plans to transition from temporary to permanent barriers have been halted due to issues with government funding in 2022 and it is uncertain when permanent barriers will be installed.

Sports arenas 

Football stadiums which are commonly filled with large gatherings of sports fans and concert goers, serve as potential targets for an attack. After the Manchester Arena bombing, venue management company ASM Global has made improvements to its venues with enhanced CCTV and upgrades to unauthorized access prevention control systems. They have also been testing AI security screening and have introduced the measurement of security audits against KPIs.

Railway stations  

Railway stations have yet to be fortified with similar airport protective measures but security screenings at railway entrances have been disputed due to disruptions it would cause for travellers, so for now no plans for additional security have been implemented.

Public shopping areas 

Pre-existing buildings are difficult to infrastructurally fortify but efforts to restrict non-essential vehicles from the perimeter of shopping centres has been implemented, and future shopping centres are being designed to limit the degree of projectiles during an explosion, with blast-proof architectural designs already in motion.

Political institutions 

Security has tightened at London’s political institutions since 9/11 with the addition of bollards bordering Parliament paired with an improved comprehensive screening of visitors.

The growing threat from lone terrorist attacks demonstrates that it’s no longer just the carefully crafted plots the public needs to fear. Instead, it’s the unplanned small-scale and even opportunistic attacks that are changing the way we go about our daily lives.

To learn more about country specific counter terrorism measures or to discuss how to protect yourself in a high risk location that you are looking to travel to, get in touch with us by email at



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