The Extreme Right Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’

Dr Paul Jackson (Senior Lecturer in Modern History), was inspired to write the following blog following the death of Jo Cox, MP.

On 22 July it will be five years since Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Oslo.

Dr Paul Jackson, from the University of Northampton

Extreme right political violence is often steeped in the mythology of the ‘lone wolf’: the idealisation of the activist who decides to stop talking about ‘doing something’ and take it upon himself carry out some sort of attack on the political system. What is this mythology and where has it come from?

So-called ‘lone wolf’ activists are implementing a strategy to help further the aims of an ideology they come to believe in. Anders Breivik is a classic example of this type of activist, while in Britain examples such as David Copeland and Pavlo Lapshyn demonstrate these figures have an impact here too. While in general terms an idealisation of politicised violence by such lone individuals stretches back into history, in current extreme right contexts the ‘lone wolf’ mythology was largely created through the energies of a pair of extreme right activists based in America, Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, during the 1990s. They wanted to find new ways to popularise a neo-Nazi inspired mythology, one that sought to legitimise unpredictable violence as an alternative to ‘above ground’ activism.

Metzger and Curtis’s writings built on a longer tradition of neo-Nazi activism in America, from the American Nazi Party, to Louis Beam’s ideas on ‘Leaderless Resistance’, to the neo-Nazi group National Alliance. This neo-Nazi culture has always been international in scope, and by the 1990s British activists linked to groups such as Combat 18 and the British National Party, as well as various clandestine book clubs, were keen to import ideas from the American neo-Nazi scene. This included the ‘lone wolf’ mythology.

How is this ‘lone wolf’ mythology articulated? The idealisation of ‘lone wolf’ activist has often been purposefully vague when talking about inciting specific acts of violence, yet it has often been presented in a way that licenced, in a more woolly and guarded manner, political extremism. Collectively, and through a dizzying array of underground magazines, political essays, pieces of fiction, extreme music, as well as other media, a culture has emerged that includes the ‘lone wolf’ mythology. This culture identifies those to hate (such as black people and migrants) as well as those to blame and potentially target (especially Jewish people and mainstream politicians), while also talking in highly emotive terms about threats to the very continuance of the white race. David Lane’s 14 Words slogan epitomises the hyper-paranoid and racist tenor of this alternate world, and is a common sight at extreme right demonstrations in Britain today.

From this milieu, people inspired to action can ‘join the dots’ between identifying the problem and implementing a solution, and so are encouraged to make a choice to take things into their own hands. To support them when doing so, the ‘lone wolf’ mythology allows an activist who wants to cross this line to think about themselves in several crucial ways.

Firstly, the ‘lone wolf’ mythology fosters a profound sense of opposition to the political and cultural mainstream, to the point where society is viewed as facing some sort of immediate, existential threat — one that it is claimed mainstream culture simply does not understand. Secondly, it legitimises action taken by those sensitive to this seemingly unseen crisis, arguing they actually form part of a Vanguard working towards a revolution. The mythology even claims that future generations will come to idealise members of this supposed elite.

Thirdly, ‘lone wolves’ are told to act alone or in tiny cells, and are encouraged to believe that, although they may not see them, there are others like them ‘out there’ too. Basically, the mythology suggests that other cells are also acting in hidden ways, and they are either already doing something to subvert the system or they will be triggered to do so as a result of some ‘inspirational’ action. Finally, it encourages people who engage in political violence to think of themselves as heroes, essentially helping them believe their actions will yield far greater significance that is ever likely to be the case.

The trashy extreme right novel The Turner Diaries epitomises all of these themes, and is probably the single most well known piece of literature of this type. However, the extreme right has developed a wide range of other materials too, each re-articulating the ‘lone wolf’ mythology in myriad new ways.

Often, figures such as Ramón Spaaij who research this phenomenon show that a mental health issue of some description is part of the makeup of the thinking of the people who become inspired by the mythology of the ‘lone wolf’. Is this issue important? Crucially, as with the cases of David Copeland and Anders Breivik, such analysis also stresses that mental health issues usually do not absolve such figures of responsibility for their actions, and so they are still able to make considered decisions over time to carry out violence. The role that is played by mental health issues is important to recognise among those who act alone, but it should not be exaggerated, and it should not be used to argue, simplistically, that extreme right violence is not motivated by a powerful ideology.

Given that there is a genuine role played by ideology, it is also crucial not to be misled by the term ‘lone wolf’ itself. After all, this term is a product of extreme right culture, one designed to help make a strategic distinction between the wider movement’s ‘above ground’ organisations, and the more extreme actions of an individual — yet it is a term often recycled uncritically in media coverage. While legally speaking such ‘lone’ activists may well be solely responsible for their violence, in reality the people who carry out this type of activity are far from ‘lone’.

Academics including Pete Simi have long called for greater recognition of the extremist communities generated by the extreme right, and argue for a deeper understanding that this milieu fosters patterns of violence, not ‘isolated incidents’. Identifying the many connections with the wider extreme right community is vital for getting under the skin of those who come to see themselves as ‘lone wolves’. After all, either face-to-face, or online, contact with other extreme right sympathisers is is usually how potential ‘lone wolves’ will become aware of the mythology and strategy in the first place.

How prevalent is this extreme right culture in Britain? Currently, there are well over 100 identifiable extreme right groups in the UK, with a following probably in the low thousands, which can help to foster this type of very extreme perspective. These include the National Front, National Action, Blood & Honour, the North West Infidels and the British Movement. Usually, these have ambiguous membership structures, and so often extreme right activists will move though a variety of these groups over time. In recent years, of course, such extreme right activity now includes online activism, and here a vast culture of extreme right media and message boards are available at the click of a button. Within this milieu, it is quite likely that people will eventuality encounter material promoting a ‘lone wolf’ mythology as one strategy for action.

What needs to be done to happen to keep this threat in check? Given its diverse nature, spread across myriad groups, and online too, it is not possible to simply ban the entire extreme right movement. Moreover, this would fuel the paranoia that helps to sustain the extreme right. However, it certainly needs to be monitored carefully, probably more that it has been for the past few years. Its access to the Internet needs to be restricted as much as current legislation will allow, and Internet companies that help it disseminate extremist material ought to be shamed into doing more to curtail its influence.

Finally it ought to be made more difficult for the extreme right to mount demonstrations. For example, the cost of policing the English Defence League alone probably now exceeds £70,000,000. If less demonstrations of this type were allowed, this money could be better spent on tracking extreme right activism and promoting anti-racism educational projects. The extreme right poses a manageable threat, but how this threat is managed and resourced by the state ought to be reviewed.