One of the biggest news stories of the last few days has been the trial of the right-wing mass-murderer Anders Breivik who killed 77 people using first a car bomb and then a gun assault against a political youth camp. Not too long ago the world was also shocked as a man in Toulouse repeatedly employed hit-and-run tactics in a wave of terror across the city. But why are lone wolves - people who attack without the support of a group or conspirators - such a threat?
Firstly because it is incredibly difficult to discover their actions before they strike and just as hard to find them afterwards. The West currently relies heavily on Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) as the major tool for discovering terrorism. But if the terrorist does not contact anyone or have previous links to suspect groups SIGINT becomes harder and harder to use effectively. In the case of Breivik in particular he is not only a home-grown terrorist but a white one at that. With so much attention paid to Islamic extremism and foreign nations entering the country, a target who does not fit the religious, ethnic or political profile is often completely missed.
Another issue is that, partly because of the difficulties in discovering them, Lone Wolves can be immensely damaging. Terrorism, whatever it's motive, does not have to be big or costly in lives or property, it just has to be terrifying. Take 9/11 as an example; it killed around 3000 people, a relatively small number, but it's greatest effect was destroying the feeling of invulnerability surrounding most Americans belief in their countries power. Breivik may only have killed 77 and the Toulouse gunman even less but it is the fear that is important and it is the fear which gets political results. With the general ease of obtaining or creating simple weapons any person, be they a right-wing nationalist like Breivik or a religious fundamentalist or anything else, can employ terror to change the world around them. Fear of the unknown, of the hidden, of the violent is far easier to create than it is to find and stop and therefore a much worse prospect for society than large-scale attacks which are easier to find than to stop once they are in motion.