Treating Lone-Actor Terrorists Like School Shooters

A Better Approach than Countering Violent Extremism

Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen wrote a thoughtful op-ed in early February noting that one of the key warning signs for school shooters also applies to “homegrown” terrorists, specifically “lone wolves” (or more accurately lone actors). Both types of criminal offenders have a tendency to confide in family, friends or peers about their intentions to commit an act of violence.

However, the public would be well served to know that parallels between school shooters (and mass rampage shooters in general) on the one hand, and lone-actor terrorists on the other, go well beyond “leaking” information.

These similarities can inform thoughtful discussions on how to prevent acts of violence, especially since the dust from the San Bernardino shooting has settled, at least for now.

Overlooking Important Parallels between Mass Rampage Shooters and Terrorists

Until fairly recently, there was debate as to whether San Bernardino was an act of terrorism or another case of “workplace violence.” The discussion hinged on whether the perpetrators were influenced by an ideology.

However, public fixation on ideology is often a distraction from identifying practical solutions to stopping attacks. Seeing lone-actor terrorists and mass rampage shooters as highly distinct types of violence is misleading.

In fact, research on lone-actor terrorists suggests ideology is one motivating factor among several identified in a perpetrator’s background. Researchers have identified a growing body of evidence highlighting strong parallels that carry over into context-specific observable warning behaviors and personal issues that move a person toward violent action.

These parallel findings underscore the importance of friends and family in preventing acts of violence — something that, to his credit, Bergen quickly points out. Beyond this point, it appears Bergen and I part ways.

Moving Away from Failed Approaches…

Bergen uses these findings to suggest that this will yield better ways of conducting investigations to stop attacks before they happen, noting, “The prevalence of leakage in terrorism cases has opened up some potential investigative avenues for the FBI.”

In the security field, we have a saying: “Threat = intent + capability.” Just because someone may have the desire to carry out an attack doesn’t mean he or she has the means to do so. Engaging in surveillance of an individual is problematic when someone is lawfully exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of expression, even if those views are distasteful.

The issue gets particularly controversial when individuals, who have vile intentions but lack the capability to carry them out, get arrested during sting operations in which law enforcement authorities had provided them with the technical know-how and (fake) weapons.

Some argue that it is better law enforcement arrest suspects before they get their hands on a real weapon. Others counter by questioning whether the person is a danger in the first place, often saying the person is being “set up” and “entrapped.”

Individuals disclosing violent intentions to family and peers should not be ignored; they need to be taken seriously. In cases where such individuals have easy access to weapons, arrest may be necessary. Better investigations, particularly those based on evidence of individual criminal wrongdoing, are a very good thing.

However this scenario does not seem to apply to all terrorism arrests, including instances in which law enforcement agencies have supplied the capability to the suspect. In those cases, it may be possible to consider alternatives to further surveillance and arrest.

… and Toward a More Promising Direction

Here, parallels between mass rampage shooters and lone-actor terrorists become particularly useful. If the movement into violence for mass rampage shooters and lone terrorists are similar, then effective responses are probably also similar.

One of the key practices for effectively stopping cases of mass rampage shooters is use of threat assessment teams. Despite their ominous-sounding name, they actually seek to use punitive measures, like arrest, as a last resort in an attempt to prevent violence. A wide range of public and nongovernmental stakeholders use these teams, including K-12 schools, universities, houses of worship and workplaces.

The teams are made up of a group of multidisciplinary experts — including legal counsel, mental health professionals, law enforcement and social workers — and are a comprehensive attempt to divert a person away from moving into violence. Where possible, team members use alternative tools such as crisis counseling and hospitalization, to de-escalate a dangerous situation in which a person is at risk of harming himself/herself or others.

While identifying effective alternatives is important, they also need to be supported by a larger policy effort to ensure they are widely adopted. Recently I proposed an alternative policy framework — National Outreach for Hazards and Threat Education (NO HATE) — that aspires to put these parallels into practice.

Aside from adopting and adapting proven practices, like threat assessment teams, NO HATE has two other promising benefits. First, local communities, not federal agencies, are the main stakeholders in a bottom-up effort to put troubled individuals into counseling rather than handcuffs.

Second, given the similarities between lone-actor terrorism and mass rampage shooters, the issue is framed under a larger effort to combat “targeted violence.” It moves beyond the narrow and fear-inducing public discourse of “terrorism,” which some studies suggest is ineffective at increasing vigilance and resilience against violence. (In fact, other studies suggest “terrorism” framing is associated with increased prejudice against perceived out-groups, in this case, Muslims).

Talking about “targeted violence” beyond “terrorism” or “countering violent extremism” provides an opportunity for Muslims to engage in a public discourse of partnership and collective action without the stigma of collective guilt.

Both potential benefits serve to provide a more comfortable environment for parents, peers and others to speak out when they are troubled by a person’s behaviors. They can turn to a trusted source of help that will listen to their concern, take it seriously and treat it with the utmost professionalism, confidentiality and care.

In the effort to prevent lone-actor terrorist attacks, learning from our successes to prevent mass rampage shootings reflects a common-sense approach. It puts policies on a much stronger, highly promising foundation of evidence. In turn, this allows communities and policymakers to take a significant step toward addressing concerns over fairness and civil liberties while strengthening the safety of our nation.

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  • About the autor
    Alejandro Beutel

    Alejandro J. Beutel is a researcher for Countering Violent Extremism at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Views expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily the views of START and ISPU.

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