'They like to talk': UNB professor challenges concept of lone-wolf terrorist

One University of New Brunswick professor is challenging the idea of the "lone-wolf terrorist" who emerges, appearing to have radicalized themselves in a vacuum, before committing an act of hate without provocation.

David Hofmann says stereotype of 'lone-actors' is a misnomer

David Hofmann examined the cases of Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City Bombing and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who stormed Parliament Hill in 2014 and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

One University of New Brunswick professor is challenging the idea of the "lone-wolf terrorist" who emerges, appearing to have radicalized themselves in a vacuum, before committing an act of hate without provocation.

"Nobody wakes up over night and decides, 'I'm suddenly going to plant a bomb,'" said David Hofmann, the sociology professor who published his research earlier this month.

"It just doesn't jive with what we know about this radicalization process."

Hofmann examined the cases of Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people with a bomb in Oklahoma City, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who stormed Parliament Hill in 2014 and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.

McVeigh's name is often uttered in the same breath as Terry Nichols, his co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing, but Hofmann considers them a "lone-wolf dyad."

Timothy McVeigh is escorted by U.S. marshals to a court hearing in Oklahoma City in 1996. McVeigh used almost 2,000 kilograms of ammonium nitrate to blow up a U.S. federal government building, killing 168 people. ((David Longstreath/Associated Press))

"It's two people who radicalized and planned an attack without being stuck to a larger terrorism network," he said. "However, when it came to planting the bomb — the more watershed moments leading up to the Oklahoma City Bombing — McVeigh acted alone."

Recently, a wave of scholars has been challenging the lone-actor stereotype, Hofmann said.

"It had people questioning how are lone-actor terrorists different? Are they mentally ill? They're not for the most part," he said. "Are they literally sitting in their mom's basement reading the anarchist cookbook?

"Even the name itself, lone wolf, well, it's a misnomer. They aren't lone wolves. They're embedded in much larger networks."

Inspired by 'networks'

Hofmann's research examines the 24-month period leading up to both men's attacks.

He said what he believes his research brings to the table is an understanding of how these men build and are, in turn, inspired by a series of networks, involving both willing and unknowing participants alike.

His study maps these networks and looks for emerging patterns.

"While there aren't 15 people planning an attack, there's a larger ideological, material … networks," he said. "There's a larger community that are either complicit or don't even know they're involved in spurring these individuals forth."

This photograph of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the man who killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and who was shot dead moments later in Centre Block on Parliament Hill, was found on electronic devices found in the apartment of Sabrine Djermane and El Mahdi Jamali. (Trial evidence)

They can just be people they discuss conspiracy theories with or discuss the validity of certain types of Qur'anic law.

If an objective third party heard what these attackers say, they would most likely report it to authorities. Friends and family often don't, however.

He hopes his research will assist security practitioners tasked with detecting, identifying and preventing acts of lone-actor terrorism.

What Hofmann found most surprising was how little this concept of terrorists motivated in isolation applied to the two men he studied.

"You'd think if you're planning an attack like this, if you're a lone-actor terrorist, you'd be concerned with security. You wouldn't talk about it very much. You wouldn't drop hints," he said.

"Both of my case studies — and the larger literature as well — seems to suggests these individuals aren't very operationally secure. They like to talk."