August 22, 2019

The Story of a Lone Wolf

What connects people like Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt, Beate Zschäpe, David Sonboly, William Atchison, Pekka-Eric Auvinen and Anders Breivik? We have barely heard most of these names and if we have, we have quickly forgotten them.

Florian Hartleb. Einsame Wölfe: Der neue Terrorismus rechter Einzeltäter. Hoffmann und Campe Verlag GmbH, 2018. 256 pp.

Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt and Beate Zschäpe belonged to a cell called the NSU—National Socialist Underground—which murdered at least ten people over the course of 13 years (1998–2011): nine migrants and one policeman. David Sonboly, in his late teens and of German and Iranian background, opened fire on people in a McDonald’s and on the street in Munich in 2016, killing six people and wounding 36. In 2017, William Atchison killed two students and himself in a school shooting he carried out in Aztec, New Mexico, US. Pekka-Eric Auvinen organised a mass shooting at Jokela school in Finland in 2007, killing eight people and wounding 12 with a semi-automatic gun. There is no need to elaborate on Anders Breivik’s crime at this point.

All of them were so-called lone wolves, i.e. fanatical terrorists operating on their own. At times, their terrorist acts were planned in advance with mathematical precision. They were withdrawn from public life and did not belong to any large radical organisations, but they communicated with other like-minded people via the internet. Several of the aforementioned people copied and communicated with each other using social networks for neo-Nazis. In addition, all these people were right-wing radicals who believed that there is only one way to save Europe—to establish a one-man army and start killing migrants, authorities and prominent left-wing liberals in particular, be they journalists, opinion leaders or other people speaking to the general public.

Florian Hartleb is a German political scientist whose thesis subject was left- and right-wing populism. Today, Hartleb is considered an expert on terrorism, extremism, populism and digitalisation. Last year Hoffmann und Campe published his German-language book Einsame Wölfe: Der neue Terrorismus rechter Einzeltäter. The book is the only study of its kind in the German language and a is very versatile summary of analysis of right-wing lone wolves.

First, it must be pointed out that—characteristic of academic studies published in German—the book is heavy on German material as well as theories and concepts created in the German academic space. Nevertheless, the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look into an entirely new world, which we generally do not think about or know much about.

At the beginning of the book, the author points out a not very surprising truth: at a time when the European world-view tends to see Islamic terrorism as the greatest threat, it is actually accompanied by equally dangerous right-wing terrorism, the existence and scope of which is not understood. One of the reasons for this is that right-wing crimes are often not classified as political terrorism. For instance, the police and investigative authorities tend to view school shootings as acts of revenge for bullying or unrequited love. In so doing, investigators frequently ignore evidence that criminals often lived in a right-wing virtual world long before this and were often textbook neo-Nazis. On other occasions, they refuse to acknowledge their right-wing background because the criminal might also have been from a mixed family, where one of the parents was a migrant—as was the case with David Sonboly, who changed his name to a German one because his parents had named him Ali.

Hartleb claims that several researchers who study terrorism believe that right-wing terrorists kill more people than Islamic terrorists. As a counterbalance, he also highlights studies that cast doubt on this claim.

The core of the book is an analysis of the biographies of nine prominent terrorists. Hartleb divides these people into three groups: a) isolated and disappointed; b) unsuccessful ambitious dangerous people; and c) rootless radicals. The latter group includes American-Swedish immigrant Peter Mangs and David Sonboly.

Despite each person having their own story, studies of the biographies of terrorists tend to reveal some common denominators. These are people who feel they have been wronged by the world and who blame both their country and their government for this. Many have had very negative experiences with their parents and several have had fathers whose bad parenting was counterbalanced with determined right-wing radicalism. Lone terrorists are characterised by belief in conspiracy theories, lack of empathy towards the suffering of others and, at times, extreme narcissism. Thus, the Norwegian Breivik considered himself the last Knight Templar, for instance.

Terrorists generally leave behind political manifestos and testaments; Breivik’s, for instance, ran to more than 1,000 pages, albeit mostly plagiarised material. In general, their activities are designed to send a message to society, even though some of them believe that they could trigger a global race war through their killings. Lone-actor terrorists are generally disappointed in their country and society, do not trust anyone and therefore decide to withdraw to their room and the virtual world. Moreover, many consider themselves extremely attractive men who have received undeservedly little attention from the opposite sex.

Their main source of inspiration and the base for their community is the internet. This is where they radicalise themselves, communicating with like-minded people all over the world. As Hartleb repeatedly emphasises, a lone wolf is not an individual who stands outside society, but an indicator of developments in that society. They feel as if they are unjustly abandoned in an increasingly individualised world, where career success serves as an important yardstick.

The last part of the book also tries to give advice on how to prevent lone-actor terrorism. Right-wing extremist virtual communication networks should be better mapped and controls on pro-gun groups tightened. Many lone-actor terrorists are members of the so-called Reich Citizens’ (Reichsbürger) Movement—which does not acknowledge its own country as a legitimate civil society—and create their own virtual states.

Hartleb’s book comes at the right time, but its format makes it difficult to read. In addition to lacking an index and list of sources (references to literature are given as footnotes), reading is also made difficult by the structure of the short chapters—often only a few pages long—making the whole book feel disjointed.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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