Deadlier in the U.S.? On Lone Wolves, Terrorist Groups, and Attack Lethality
Terrorism and Political Violence, May 2015
17 Pages Posted: 24 May 2015 Last revised: 8 Feb 2016
Date Written: May 20, 2015
Scholars, politicians, and pundits increasingly suggest lone wolf terrorists are substantial threats, but we know little about how dangerous these actors are – especially relative to other terrorist actors. How deadly are lone-actor terrorists? A growing body of empirical research focuses on terrorist organizations, but similar work on lone actors is sparse. Furthermore, attempts to explicitly compare these or other types of terrorist actors are almost non-existent. This paper considers theoretical arguments for why lone wolves ought to be especially lethal. However, it presents an argument for why terrorist groups should generally be more lethal. This argument is conditional upon the environment in which actors operate. Lone wolves should only be more deadly in states with especially strong counterterrorism capacity. The paper uses data on terrorist attacks in 15 developed countries, 1970-2010, to compare the lethality of terrorist acts. Around the world, attacks by organizations tend to be far more lethal than attacks by other actors. In the United States, however, lone wolves are generally the more lethal terrorist actors. This is argued to be because the robust counterterrorism capacity makes organized terrorism more difficult to accomplish.
Keywords: terrorism, lone wolf, lone wolves, counterterrorism, terrorist groups
JEL Classification: H56
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation