20 years on: 9/11, Lone Wolves, and the threat of “New Threat-ism”

September 13 2021

Alasdair Kempton

The attacks of 9/11 ‘changed everything’ for terrorism research – or, so at least the story goes. Brian Jenkins of the RAND corporation famously captured the field’s zeitgeist with a rephrase of an earlier version of his work, stating the ‘new type of terrorists’ “want a lot of people watching, and a lot of people dead” (own emphasis). This line came to define the era of “new terrorism”, where the ‘old rules’ of discretionary targeting were replaced with indiscriminate violence. Hijacked planes were turned into missiles, not hostage situations and there was a genuine fear that a terrorist might try – and succeed – in using a “Weapon of Mass Destruction”.

This line of debate spurred a series of reclassifications of political violence. Most focused on binary debates of ‘new’ versus ‘old’ terrorism. Others engaged in slightly more nuanced modelling of the phenomenon, such as David Rappaport’s “Four Waves” model of terrorism, which traced the historical prevalence of particular ideologies (from anarchism of the 19th century to modern religious violence). Debates of the validity of these various classifications raged, and publications exploded. True, some dissented – critical scholars frequently pushed back on this trend, but even then the relevance of their work depended on the sheer scale of those orthodox works to which they responded. Perhaps Fred Halliday (2002, p. 32) had it best, when he argued that “it is as hard to disprove as it is to prove…  the world did not change, the sun did not darken… Yet enough has changed and will continue to change, for this to be recognized, already, as one of the landmarks of modern history”. Yet if it changed, it was we who shifted the discourse – and as this blog argues, not for the last time, and to no benefit to our work as scholars.

Since 2010 the public face of terrorism (at least, as far as the literature is concerned) has changed again. The apparent shift from ‘organised cells’ of (particularly) neojihadist actors to self-radicalised ‘lone wolves’ – often inspired by Al-qaeda and Islamic State propaganda – spurred a renewed focus on the “changing face” of terrorism. Quickly publications flowed, some adding a ‘fifth wave’ to Rappaport’s model, others taking on the challenge of “The growing threat” ( Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat by Jeffry Simon), or the new “Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism” (same title, Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaiij). Even more recently, these debates have re-emerged with an emphasis on the rise of right-wing violence, such as that perpetrated by Andres Breivick in Norway in 2011, or Brenton Tarrant in New Zealand, 2019.

“Lone wolves”, however, are nothing ‘new’ to the practice of terrorism. The earliest use I’ve encountered was by extremist author Alex Curtis, before being co-opted by the FBI’s investigation into Curtis and his associates. The occurrence of self-radicalising violent actors, too, can be traced back to well before the current literature. Indeed, the headlines of The Argus, an Australian publication from the last century, were once emblazoned with the news of “The Battle of Broken Hill”, an attack committed by two disaffected Afghan residents of the small mining town in New South Wales.  It bore all the hallmarks of an archetypal “Lone Wolf” attack. The men blended personal grievance with a larger religious and political narrative, placing themselves as soldiers in a far away conflict– but, nevertheless one in which their new country of residence was involved. Moreover, both men went to great pains to explain not just their solidarity with the cause, but their solitude in planning the attack; “…nobody else has told me to do this. I have told nobody, as God is my witness, and nobody knows except us two”. While the narratives would not be out of place in the modern discourse, they date back to 1914, declaring an allegiance to a different Caliphate (the Ottomans) in a very different war.

“Weapons of Mass Destruction” (a catch-all for Chemical, Biological, Nuclear and Radiological weapons) too, have a longer history of terrorist use. Throughout the 1990’s, the Japanese Millennium cult Aum Shinrikyo made substantial use of biological weapons – including an unknown number of attempted and successful assassinations with nerve agents, and culminating in their use of Sarin on a mass casualty attack on the Tokyo Subway system in 1994.  This incident – and other less notable examples such as the Rajneeshpuram salmonella attack In Oregon (USA) in 1984 – all predate this ‘9/11 moment’ by a wide margin.

The third hallmark of ‘new terrorism’ is the nature of massive casualty attacks themselves. These are aimed at causing as much widespread damage as possible, invoking Jenkins “lots of people watching and lots of people dead”. The 9/11 attacks certainly fit this bill, being the single most destructive act of terrorism to date. However, subsequent attacks (while still deadly) have failed to reach such destructive potential – suggesting this a ‘lucky’ outlier rather than a trend. Furthermore,  the ‘new terrorism’ discourse misplaces earlier incidents such as the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1920 Wall Street Bombing – both similarly indiscriminate, and lethal. Absent a clear criteria for what ‘mass’ casualty is, one must take the intention to kill at face value. At that point, little seems ‘new’ about this kind of terrorism.

The drive to identify and codify ‘the next big threat’ has become somewhat of a trope within the discipline. This ‘New Threatism’ has two key effects on the discipline; it continually inflates the threat of terrorism itself – frequently far above its direct impact and ability to serve its own purposes – and it misplaces the history of both techniques and ideologies. While certainly making for engaging titles, and no doubt attracting significant funding, this pursuit of the ‘next new thing’ in terrorism research is ultimately detrimental to the field. These ideas and tactics both have long histories – histories often acknowledged (if somewhat rewritten) by the violent actors themselves. If meaningful ground is to be made in understanding this form of violence and those that practice it, a crucial step in solving any problem, scholars must be more reflective of this history, providing proper context for their contemporary research subjects. Finally, the importance of the body count should not be overstated. Terrorism ultimately derives its power from the “lot of people watching”, as the dead are not renowned for their political activity. Elevating the current actors to ‘the next big thing’ does more to serve their purposes than it does our own.


Halliday, F. (2002). Two Hours that Shook the World, September 11, 2001: Causes & Consequences London, Saqi Books.

Hamm, M. and R. Spaaij (2017). The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism. New York, Columbia University Press.

Jenkins, B. M. (2006). The New Age of Terrorism. The Mcgraw-Hill homeland security handbook. D. Kamen. New York, Mcgraw-Hill117-130.

Simon, J. (2016). Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat. Amherst, Prometheus Books.