At approximately 2:40 in the afternoon of March 22nd, British-born Khalid Masood — a violent criminal who had previously been investigated by MI5 for links to extremists — deliberately drove into pedestrians making their way across Westminster Bridge. He killed a mother on her way to collect her children from school, a pensioner, and two tourists. After crashing the rented vehicle into the gates of Parliament, Masood ran into New Palace Yard and stabbed an unarmed policeman to death before being shot and killed by plainclothes officers. In contrast to other recent attacks in Western nations, which have frequently (sometimes incorrectly) been labeled acts of “lone-actor” terrorism, Masood’s assault was followed by a volley of articles with titles such as “Remote-Control Terror,” “Don’t Bet on London Attacker Being a Lone Wolf,” and “The Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist.” Analysts were keen to point out that “lone-actors” are very rarely truly alone and that instead they tend to emerge from within broader, extremist milieus. Moreover, what sometimes seems like lone-actor terrorism at first glance turns out to be connected to, if not directed by, foreign terrorist organizations. Yet the official word on Masood is that, regardless of his associations, he acted “wholly alone.” To accurately understand the nature of terrorism today, patient, measured analysis and consistent use of terminology are necessary. It is therefore important to re-examine the concept of lone-actor terrorism and to try and appreciate where it fits within the overall spectrum of jihadist terrorist activity in the West.
Many, if not most “lone-actor” jihadists (including Masood), are indeed connected to other extremists and terrorists in some shape or form. Such connections have been greatly facilitated by the growth of social media and encrypted communication applications, which have also enabled the rise of virtual “planners” or “entrepreneurs” and so-called “remote-controlled” or “enabled” attacks, such as those in Würzburg and Ansbach, Germany, in July last year. Moreover, the number of jihadists with bona fide connections to foreign terrorist organizations, including training and combat experience abroad, has risen sharply since the outbreak of conflict in Syria and Iraq. Western security services are currently bracing for a potential surge in the number of returning foreign fighters.