A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Lone actors significantly less involved in extremism


Lone actors significantly less involved in extremism

New study identifies characteristics of lone-actor extremists

August 26, 2013Mary Beck

Involvement in extremist movement activities is significantly lower among violent lone-actor extremists than other violent far-right extremist offenders, according to a new article by researchers from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Reponses to Terrorism (START). The study found that far-right lone-actor extremists who have committed homicides were less likely to have participated in movement-related activities such as publishing movement materials and attending protests or rallies, and found no evidence that loners rely more on extremist propaganda to "self-radicalize" than other types of offenders.

The study, recently published in Criminology & Public Policy, reveals differences between far-right loner extremists and other violent far-right extremists in the United States by examining 139 fatal attacks between 1990 and 2010 recorded in the Extremist Crime Database.

Authors Jeff Gruenewald, Steven Chermak and Joshua D. Freilich believe this research on lone actors is important in light of an increasing number of lone-actor terrorist attacks since Sept. 11 and can help inform policies and strategies to prevent lone-actor attacks. Gary LaFree provided background for the study in the introduction, "Lone-Offender Terrorists."

The study found that lone-actor attackers are more likely to have a reported history of mental illness (more than 40 percent) compared to less than 8 percent of other far-right extremists. However, the researchers found no significant difference between lone-actors and other far-right violent extremists in terms of reported abuse of drugs or alcohol before or during attacks. More than half of both lone-actors and other far-right violent extremists had some sort of adult criminal record.

The study identified five significant characteristics associated with lone actors. Compared to other violent far-right extremists, lone-actors are more likely to:

  1. Possess prior military experience;
  2. Struggle with mental illness prior to the attack;
  3. Be younger in age;
  4. Have separated from a partner through divorce or death; and
  5. Attack on or after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Gruenewald, Chermak and Freilich hope their results may provide direction for better modifying counterterrorism efforts to prevent lone-actor attacks, citing partnerships with federal law enforcement agencies and other government and private organizations and sharpening threat assessment investigations as particularly important methods of countering these attacks.

View the full study, "Distinguishing 'Loner' Attacks from Other Domestic Extremist Violence: A Comparison of Far-Right Homicide Incident and Offender Characteristics," by clicking here.