Following the terrorist attacks in January on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, numerous media reports claimed the incidents shared a common aspect with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing: namely, that both involved perpetrators who were “lone wolves,” and who engaged in “leaderless resistance.” This is false.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers implicated in the bombing, were indeed such “lone wolves.” Tamerlan, who was killed in a confrontation with law enforcement, was a lone wolf because he had failed to find any organized group to link up with. He had apparently looked for affiliates in the US, in Chechnya, and in the surrounding region of Russia straddling the Caucasus Mountains—a hotbed of attacks by terrorists claiming allegiance to Islam, as well as his ancestral homeland. After failing in those efforts, Tamerlan appears to have played the dominant role in the Boston attack in an alliance called a “folie à deux,” a literary and psychiatric term derived from a French phrase meaning any passion shared by two people.
The three perpetrators of the attacks in Paris, on the other hand, apparently had links to terrorist groups, and at least one had been trained in the Middle East. Therefore they were not “lone wolves,” and were not engaged in “leaderless resistance.” Despite this, US Attorney General Eric Holder, while in Paris for briefings on terrorism following the attacks, told reporters that the US was “at war” with “lone wolf” terrorists. “That is the thing that I think keeps me up most at night,” he added, “this concern about the lone wolf who goes undetected.”
This all may seem like irrelevant nitpicking over terminology, but it is important in understanding how terror cells are tracked by intelligence agencies. It is also relevant to defending our civil liberties from further erosions by widespread and indiscriminate surveillance. Attorney General Holder and other officials—intentionally or not—are conflating terms. Meanwhile, tracking a lone wolf is very difficult, which is one reason why the Tsarnaev brothers were not detected by intelligence agency sweeps of data. Holder, however, seems to be using fears raised by the shocking Paris attacks to justify increased blanket surveillance at home.
Holder’s not alone. Speaking in Paris in December 2011, then-US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano highlighted the risk of attackers with no ties to known extremist networks: “There’s been a lot of evolution over the past three years … The thing that’s most noticeable to me is the growth of the lone wolf, the single attacker who lives in the United States or elsewhere who is not part of a larger global conspiracy or network.”
As for the lone wolf’s ugly cousin, “leaderless resistance,” organized groups or cells can use it too, but it is accurate only if no member has ever participated in organized political violence as a current or future goal. Similar to “phantom cells,” “leaderless resistance” refers to spontaneous, autonomous, unconnected underground cells that seek to carry out acts of violence, sabotage, or terrorism against a government or occupying military force. As scholar Simson L. Garfinkel points out, the term is sometimes used too loosely “to refer to networked organizations with hub-and-spoke architecture.” Put simply, Garfinkel adds, “Such terminology is incorrect.”
Chip Berlet is an alt media veteran and expert on apocalypticism who has served in investigative roles from High Times to the Defending Dissent Foundation. His forthcoming book, Boston’s Marathon Apocalypse: Fanaticism, Murder & the Shining Beacon on the Hill, is due out on Write to Power Books.