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Anatomy of Lone Wolf

The recent attack on Westminster in London once again highlighted the phenomenon of the "Lone Wolf" terrorist. Although the term suggests the spontaneous and unpredictable transformation of an innocent into a kind of murderous beast, such wolves are actually "lone" only in a very limited sense. They differ from their background in degree, distinguished by critical extras such as 1) the willingness to use violence; 2) the training to employ it; and 3) the means necessary for an attack.

A lone wolf or lone-wolf terrorist is someone who prepares and commits violent acts alone, outside of any command structure and without material assistance from any group. However, he or she may be influenced or motivated by the ideology and beliefs of an external group, and may act in support of such a group.

He starts as an outsider but without these criminal extras, the pre-Lone Wolf remains essentially inside the law. While he might adopt behavior hostile to the host culture for so long no open incitement and acts of violence occurs he may not be hindered -- and may even be admired by the politically correct.

This 'critical ingredient' theory was prominent in British Prime Minister Teresa May's statement to the House of Commons on the attack. According to May, MI5's mistake was failing to notice that attacker Khalid Masood had made the move from mere "ideology and beliefs" to the level of the Lone Wolves.

"Mr Speaker, it is still believed that this attacker acted alone, and the police have no reason to believe there are imminent further attacks on the public.

"His identity is known to the police and MI5 and, when operational considerations allow, he will be publicly identified.

"What I can confirm is that the man was British-born and that - some years ago - he was once investigated in relation to concerns about violent extremism. He was a peripheral figure.

"The case is historic - he was not part of the current intelligence picture.

"There was no prior intelligence of his intent - or of the plot. Intensive investigations continue."

At some unnoticed point -- "intensive investigations continue" -- the "peripheral figure" of Masood acquired the extra ingredient that boosted him over the border and turned him into a soldier for ISIS, killing 5 and maiming or injuring 40 more. The essential thing to grasp is he did not have far to go. Like many other Lone Wolves exposed to "extremism" -- whatever that means -- he was conveyed to the very edge of the legal line without actually crossing over, awaiting only someone to take him by the hand into a 1) willingness to use violence.

The 2) training and the 3) means were ingredients easily supplied. Over the last 8 years, ISIS has developed a set of very effective combat skills in the battlefields of Iraq and Syria that are readily adapted to Western cities. The pool of trainors is assured. All they had to do was adapt these experiences to the availability of materials in the West. Masood's ramming attack (and the French Riviera and Berlin attacks) is a variant of the classic car-bomb strike adapted to compensate for a lack of readily available explosives in Western Europe.