Think Tanks
Printable version

RUSI : New Study: European governments neglecting the threat of extreme right lone actor terrorists

A new study reveals how lone-actor terrorists are often less secretive than might be expected. It argues that their behaviour and activity can provide warnings of their extreme views or even intention to act and calls for a holistic response to meet the challenge.
  • 1 in 3 (33%) lone actor terrorists in Europe since 2000 have been motivated by extreme right-wing beliefs, compared to 38% that were religiously-inspired
  • Reveals how views and intent of lone-actor terrorism can be detected through changes of behaviour and activity
  • Calls for holistic response, combining public communication, community outreach and collaboration with social media companies.

​Access papers from the study at:

Lone-actor terrorists are perceived as presenting acute challenges for law-enforcementpractition ers in detection and disruption. By definition, they act without direct command and control from a wider network, and it is assumed that without such communications they may evade the ‘tripwires’ that would usually bring them to the attention of the authorities. 

The study argues that ‘lone actors should not be considered as detached as is often presumed’ and claims that ‘the machinery of counter-terrorism is not well attuned to detecting a significant aspect of the lone-actor terrorist threat.’

Significantly, this study reveals that while the focus for authorities is on religiously-inspired lone actor extremists, there is an equal number of far-right extremists who may go undetected. 88 per cent of religiously-motivated terrorists were caught through intelligence-led intervention, while 40 per cent of right-wing extremists were ‘uncovered with an element of chance’.  

Clare Ellis an expert at RUSI and a contributor to the study suggests that ‘Security forces were far more likely to be watching the broader pool of religiously inspired extremists than far right extremists and indeed reflects broader threat assessments and corresponding priorities across the EU.’ 

According to Melanie Smith, an expert at Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and another contributor to the study, ‘religiously-inspired terrorists remain the primary concern for European governments. However, our research shows that extreme right lone actors are almost equal in number. The majority of policing and security resources remain focused on preventing attacks from ISIS-inspired individuals. This needs to change in light of the refugee crisis. European governments need to commit more resources to detecting and preventing extreme right lone actor terrorists’. 

Entitled ‘Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism’, the study is led by RUSI and a consortium of policy institutes including Chatham House, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the University of Leiden. Their findings are published in eleven papers. The 18 month study has analysed a database of 120 lone actors from across Europe in order to improve understanding of lone-actor terrorists, their behaviour, and their activities in the period leading up to their intended attacks. It outlines the policy implications of analysis of perpetrator behaviour, ‘leakage’ of extreme views or intention to act, and interactions with public authorities in the time leading up to the attack.

Melanie Smith highlighted how the research ‘found that 1 in 3 lone actor terrorists exhibited some form of link to a radical or extreme group despite planning and undertaking their attack alone. Police and security services should continue to monitor non-violent groups, particularly on public social media platforms, to spot individuals who may be becoming violent.’

Raffaello Pantucci a RUSI expert and another contributor to the study said, ‘This form of terrorist threat is often perceived as the most difficult to detect and disrupt, yet nearly half of all perpetrators in the database (46 per cent) exhibited outward signs of their extremist beliefs or even their intention to act.’

This study found that religiously inspired perpetrators ‘tended to exhibit indicators of extremism to friends or family, whereas right-wing terrorists were more likely to signal their extremist views online. This has clear implications for how efforts might be targeted.’ The study calls for public awareness programmes highlighting the threat in anon-alarmist fashion and targeted campaign on social media for far-right extremists and through families and social networks for religiously inspired threats. 

The study’s findings also have ‘implications as most radicalisation awareness programmes are mainly aimed at detecting and preventing radicalisation among youngsters’ says study contributor Dr. Edwin Bakker of the University of Leiden. ‘Additional programmes for different target groups are needed to deal with the issue of lone actor terrorists of whom most are in a different age category.’

The study also found that 35% of the lone-actor terrorists has been reported to have a mental health issue. Contributor Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn of Leiden University said:  'At first glance, this might look like a very high number, but when compared to data on the general population (about 25% experiences a mental health issue) this number appears not to be extremely high.'

Furthermore, the broader conclusions about lone actors use of guns fits with broader European concerns about the easily availability of firearms in parts of Europe. As study contributor and Chatham House expert Benoit Gomis puts it, ‘Firearms accounted for 89 per cent of lone-actor terrorism fatalities in Europe between 2000 and 2014, contrasting sharply with explosives - only 4 per cent - although the two were used with similar frequency. This demonstrates the need for greater action, and European cooperation, to reduce the circulation of firearms throughout Europe.’

Related documents:

Lone-Actor Terrorism Policy Paper 4: ‘Leakage’ and Interaction with Authorities

This fourth policy paper of the Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism series examines how lone-actor terrorists reveal their intent to commit attacks and recommends a targeted approach based on the characteristics and motivations of the specific threat

Lone-Actor Terrorism: Policy Paper 1: Personal Characteristics of Lone-Actor Terrorists

This first policy paper of the Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism series focuses on the personal characteristics of lone-actor terrorists and provides a number of policy recommendations

Share this article

Latest News from
Think Tanks

Derby City Council Showcase