No counter-terrorism approach could eliminate a Breivik lone wolf threat

Counter-terrorism attempts to eliminate Breivik-style attacks would require clampdowns on liberties unacceptable in modern societies. We need another way.

By Mark Littler,  a quantitative social researcher with an interest in terrorism, the far-right, and counter-extremism policy. He is currently based at the University of Manchester, though has worked for several think-tanks and political risk consultancies engaged in the study of terrorism.

The recent events in Norway are an abomination, and people of all nationalities and political persuasions have rightly jumped to condemn Anders Breivik, his ideology, and the indiscriminate nature of his attacks.

While the shock and grief resulting from these events will reverberate around the globe for some time, policy makers, both in Norway and elsewhere, will already have started to engage in a process of reflection and analysis, attempting to make sense of the attacks and learn lessons from Norway’s counter-terrorism strategy that can be applied to combating future attacks.

I strongly suspect that this process will end by concluding that no reasonable counter-terrorism measures could have identified or thwarted a lone attacker such as Breivik.

Indeed, as Annabelle Lever’s work with Compass highlights, counter-terrorist policy must balance the democratic freedoms which we, as an open society, enjoy against the safety that comes from the intrusive abrogation of the individual’s rights.

To prevent attacks from small cells of dedicated and disciplined terrorists or ‘lone wolf’ madmen such as Breivik would require measures so invasive as to irreparably damage our way of life, and as such, the legislation necessary to implement them would be unlikely to enjoy sufficient support to be enacted, leaving us with little choice but to accept terrorism as the cost of living in a democratic state, and to seek comfort in the fact that it is, relative to other risks, a comparatively rare occurrence.

This is, however, not to suggest that the mores of electoral politics will not force some kind of action; certainly politicians depend on popular support which, if current rhetoric is to be believed, demands fresh proposals be brought forward to tackle the ‘new’ risk posed by the far-right. Most likely this will take the form of a hard-line application of existing anti-terror legislation to groups such as the EDL, and the ‘ratcheting up’ of political rhetoric, further stigmatizing the group’s members.

While this may be emotionally satisfying, to approach counter-terrorism policy in such a fashion would be to view it purely as an exercise in public theatre. This would be a grave mistake.

Both my own research and that of others suggests that a more effective, alternative, approach may be better employed.  Criminological literature has long noted the low levels of social capital, trust, and confidence among far-right extremists (see work by Hagan, Merkens and Boehnke in the 1995 American Journal of Sociology).

Furthermore the relationship between low stocks of social capital and involvement in violence has been established (for example, Rosenfeld, Messner and Baumer’s 2001 Article in ‘Social Forces’), suggesting  that aggressively targeting and demonizing individuals who are already disenfranchised and socially marginal may have the unintended consequence of driving them further into violence and extremism.

Reducing the chances  of such groups to engage with their legitimate political concerns (such as unemployment and lack of opportunity) through non-violent channels will make things worse rather than better.

Indeed if Matthew Goodwin’s contention that group membership acts as a proxy for other social maladies is accepted, then engaging with these underlying causes may well improve individual members’ stock of social capital, providing them with more opportunities to pursue their policy goals through non-violent channels. This would reduce the likelihood that they will resort to the commission of acts of terrorism and involvement in extremist groups.

While I do not wish to act as an apologist for the (clearly abhorrent) ideological positions and actions of many far-right groups, I believe that we have little to lose from targeting these underlying problems, and everything to lose from a ‘tougher’ application of existing counter-terrorist measures.

Which is not to say that we are responsible for the actions of terrorists, but rather, to note (as have countless others) that such individuals are a product of their social environment, and to suggest that we target policy accordingly.

In the absence of any method of reliably and consistently identifying terrorists pre-attack, such an approach represents, I believe, our best chance of reducing terrorism and securing a safe future for ourselves and others. However, whether politicians will withstand the pressure for immediate action and take such a long-term view remains to be seen.

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8 Responses to “No counter-terrorism approach could eliminate a Breivik lone wolf threat”

  1. DrKMJ

    No counter-terrorism approach could eliminate a Breivik lone wolf threat: : writes Mark Littler #Utoya #Breivik

  2. Matthew Goodwin

    No counter-terrorism approach could eliminate a Breivik lone wolf threat | @leftfootfwd |

  3. EagleEyes

    No counter-terrorism approach could eliminate a Breivik lone wolf threat #terrorism #Norway

  4. Noxi

    RT @leftfootfwd: No counter-terrorism approach could eliminate a Breivik lone wolf threat: : writes Mark Littler…

  5. Stephen W

    This is a really sensible article. Good for you Mr Littler.

  6. DavidG

    While I don’t disagree with the sheer common sense of lancing the disaffection that drives so many far-right hate campaigners, there’s a problem when their views are part of a spectrum of hatred that starts in the heart of the community and is widely accepted as ‘reasonable’ at its less intense levels. As someone who has experienced my own share of hate on the streets for being visibly disabled (never mind I’m middle-class, white, straight, etc), the sheer breadth of discontent is something that most people in the community fail to recognise. In a spectrum of discontent extending over millions, the statistical likelihood is that there will always be people on the extremes, some of whom will be drawn to violence. Whether it be an Anders Breivik, or the five people convicted last week of the murder or manslaughter of Gemma Hayter (, the problem is not to ensure that no one progresses to that extreme of hatred, but that as few as possible do, because we must always recognise that that peak of hatred is out there, and be ready to deal with it.

    WRT Breivik, I’m not so convinced that he was unstoppable, though I fully accept the prospect of the complete lone-wolf. The reports of Breivik’s on-line persona, if accurate, seem to indicate that it was wide enough that automated analysis might have had a chance of identifying it as sufficiently disturbing to deserve a closer look by a human investigator. We can only look at his manifesto in retrospect, but if he had already been flagged as a person of concern, would its posting several hours before the attack have been enough time to raise an alert? Perhaps even to do something to stop his second attack if not his first?

  7. Erik Lundeby

    Risikoen for ABBer kan ikke elimineres. Klok kommentar fra britisk forsker.

  8. Anders Holt

    Ja: RT @eriklundeby Risikoen for ABBer kan ikke elimineres. Klok kommentar fra britisk forsker.

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