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Saudi Arabian Lone Wolf Terrorism in 2011-2016 Essay



During the 20th century, people used to associate acts of terrorism as mass bombings of carefully selected buildings, hijacks of planes and another form of mass transportation, holding of hostages while negotiating for certain demands to be met and so on. During this era, individuals who wanted to join terror gangs used to attend terrorist camps and get teachings from jihadi mosques where radical Imams led religious teachings. However, the concept of terrorism has greatly changed during the 21st century. This is especially so after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. A form of terrorism that has greatly gained popularity during this era is the act of lone terrorism (Weinma, 2012).

Unlike in the past where terrorist acted as a group to achieve specific demands, most acts of terror conducted in contemporary times are instituted by a single individual, the ‘lone wolf’, who could be your friend, neighbor or colleague, radicalized through the internet or any other form of media and plots his/her strikes at the comfort of his/her home (Weinman, 2012). As such, a lone wolf can be defined as a person or a small group of people who use conventional terrorist approaches to achieve specific set goals and objectives. These objectives could be politically or ideologically directed and in some cases could result in the targeting of innocent civilians.

Acts of lone terrorism have been reported in all corners of the globe, including the Middle East, Europe, Africa, America, and Australia. In 2011, for instance, Kosovar Albanian shot two American Airmen in Frankfurt. During the same year, Anders Breivik committed the Norway attacks that resulted in the death of 77 individuals. In the United States, Kevin Harpman placed a pipe bomb on the route that was to be followed during the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial march in 2011.

This bomb was, however, discovered and detonated. On December 15th, 2014, Man Monis took hostages under a siege in Sydney that resulted in the death of three individuals including Monis himself. In 2011, Salman Taseer assassinated the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Salman acted as a lone wolf, but it is believed that he was associated with a larger terrorist group.

These are just examples of lone-wolf attacks that have been conducted all around the world. From a critical point of view, it is evident that these acts have resulted in social and political instability in the affected regions in addition to the loss of innocent lives. Lone wolves have also been much more successful in conducting their attacks since it is difficult for law enforcement to discover their planned attack before their execution and also difficult to establish their identity afterward. This has mainly been accredited to the fact that lone wolves rarely air out their visions, inclinations or plans. Even though lone wolves are believed to be detached from terror gangs, it is evident that they do communicate, share ideas, and seek guidance and support from official or unofficial gangs.

In this respect, therefore, this paper will critically analyze the concept of lone-wolf terrorism. Using Saudi Arabia as its case study, this paper will critically analyze three lone wolf attacks that have been conducted in Saudi Arabia between 2012 and 2016. To realize its aim, this paper will focus on how lone wolves contact terrorist organizations, what are their goals and motivations, what kind of training do they go through and who trains them, what are their sources of funding and most importantly, what are the factors behind the change in terrorism policy from organized groups to lone wolves.

The Lone Wolf

The term ‘lone wolf’ was coined in the late 1990s by American supremacists in a bid to encourage racists to commit violent acts alone as individuals and not as a group (Weinman, 2012). They considered this approach as tactical since it was hard for law enforcement agencies to know where and when a racist violent act will be committed and by whom. A lone wolf can be defined as an individual who commits violent acts by himself or together with a small group of like-minded individuals in the support of either a group, movement or ideology, but independent of their organization, structure, directions, or chain of command (Weinman, 2012).

In practice, a lone wolf believes in the ideologies of an extremist group but does not have any form of contact with them. Additionally, lone wolves selected their plan of actions as well that the tactics that they follow in the course of planning and executing their terror plan to achieve the goals and ideologies of the terror groups in which they are following. However, it is critical to note that these acts could be similar or different to the ones used by the very group that the lone wolves are following. Given the mode of operation of lone wolves, law enforcement agencies have found it extremely difficult to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance as compared to convectional terrorist groups whose members, headquarters, and ideologies are known. It is due to this fact that there is no standard profile for lone wolves (Weinman, 2012). However, they stated that their typologies could be understood by analyzing their ideologies as well as their religious background.


Terrorist acts have been recorded for a long time in history. Perhaps the earliest recorded act of terrorism was recorded in the first century in Judea, where the group, Sicarii Zealots murdered individuals who supported Roman rule (Biswas, 2010).

However, in modern history, the term terrorism was associated with acts committed by the ruling regime to command authority over its subjects. Ruling during the French Revolution era, the Jacobins used various forms of violence, including mass executions to demand loyalty from its subjects as well as intimidating any possible enemies within the state. It is only after the 20th century that terrorism was associated with groups other than the ruling government. This included anarchists, socialists, nationalists, and fascist groups especially in colonial states that were fighting to gain independence and self-rule.

Acts of terrorism are not new in the Middle East. Operating in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood targeted British soldiers and any Egyptian politician who was believed to be in support of British rule from the late 1940s. The then Prime Minister, Mr. Nuqrashi was a victim of this terror group after being assassinated in 1948 (Rinehart, 2012). However, after the fall of British rule in 1952, this group was quickly cracked down even though it is still operational up to the present day.

Operating in Algeria, the National Liberation Front (NLF) widely resisted French rule using terror tactics in 1954. Using large-scale compliance violence, this group controlled several villages where they forced residents to execute individuals who were loyal to the French rule. Using this and other tactics, FLN managed to secure the independence of Algeria in 1962.

Towards the end of the 20th century, terror acts shifted in focus from aiming to realize political freedom to achieving ideological goals and objectives. For instance, Pan Am flight 103 blew midair in Scotland as it was traveling from London’s Heathrow to New York’s JFK Airport on 21st December 1988 killing everyone on board. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan national was found guilty of this crime and was sent behind bars for 27 years in Scotland. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, several suicide bombing incidents were reported in Palestine. The suicide bombers were affiliated to terror groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

However, it is the 9/11 attacks in the United States that changed the face of terrorism in the modern world. These attacks comprised of a series of four coordinated attacks by the world’s leading terror organization at the time, Al-Qaeda. Led by Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda considered these attacks as “Holy War’ in retaliation to the involvement of the United States in support of Israel, killing of innocent Muslims in Somalia, support of Russia reigns over Muslims in Chechnya amongst others.

These attacks resulted in the death of approximately 3000 people. It is after these attacks that the United States and other nations across the world increased their intelligence and response towards terror attacks and terrorism in general. This has significantly reduced the operations of Al-Qaeda all around the world as well as other terror gangs. However, new terror gangs such as ISIL have sprung up and terrorism has gradually changed its operational tactics from a group based on individual-based (lone wolf).

Terrorism in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

Like many nations across the globe, Saudi Arabia is a victim of terrorism, especially in recent times. Between 2012 and 2016, numerous acts of terrorism have taken place, resulting in the loss of life and destruction of property. While different terror groups have been linked to these attacks, ISIL is considered as the leading terrorist group in Saudi Arabia. Either acting as a group or influencing individuals to act on their behalf as lone wolves, the effects that this group has had on Saudi Arabia are devastating. Therefore, before critically analyzing lone wolf case studies in Saudi Arabia, it is important to focus on trends of terror attacks in this nation with particular focus on who, what, and why terror groups conduct their acts in this nation.

On 22nd May 2015, a bomb exploded in a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia’s Qatif region, killing 21 people and injuring many more. ISIL claimed responsibility for this incident and stated that many more attacks of a similar nature would follow. A week later, another bomb exploded near a Shia mosque in Dammam killing four individuals. Both of these attacks occurred during Friday prayers and their nature was relatively different as compared to earlier terrorist attacks that had been carried out in Saudi Arabia. However, it is critical to note that these attacks were carried out by Saudi citizens who were in one way or the other related to ISIL. These individuals are radicalized locals who originate from the southern border where there has been a war between Saudi forces and Houthis. They pose a huge threat to the overall internal security of the nation.

It is therefore clear that they have commenced spreading to other parts of the nation, especially given the fact that the 26 suspects and the bomber himself of the Qatif incident are all citizens of Saudi Arabia. The same trend has also been experienced in other terror attacks. For instance, the police shootings of 8th April 2015 in Riyadh resulted in the arrest of 93 suspects most of whom were Saudi citizens. On November 20th the same year, three Saudi citizens affiliated with the IS group were arrested in connection to the shooting of a Danish citizen. Earlier that month, 77 individuals were arrested in connection with the shootings of Shia Muslims in the Al-Dalwah village in Eastern Saudi Arabia. Of the 77 arrested, 73 were Saudi citizens. Finally, a total of 135 arrests were made in December 2015, 109 of the suspects being Saudi citizens.

It is believed that most of these attacks in Saudi Arabia are a result of the activities of lone wolves especially with regards to the Qatif bombings. Additionally, the Saudi government asserted that the bomber in the Qatif incident was wanted for being a member of an ISIL affiliated terror cell that comprised of 26 other members, all of whom were Saudi citizens. As such, it is believed that that the militant Sunni organization in Saudi Arabia has played a significant role in the inspiration of lone-wolf attacks in Saudi Arabia, hence the increase in terror attacks by individuals across the nation (Gambhir 9).

The terror attacks that took place before the Qatif bombings neither did have a clear motive. They also did not use sophisticated terror tactics. However, it is after these bombings that an escalation from rudimentary terrorist technics to shootings and bombings was experienced such as the planned car bomb against the US embassy. Thus, from a critical point of view, it is evident that these attacks are directed towards Westerners, Shia Muslims, and law enforcement agents. This directly fits with ISIL’s method of operation. In his speech during a ceremony of accepting allegiance by various groups (some of which originate from Saudi Arabia), ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stated his organization will either directly or indirectly attack the Saudi’s royal family, their soldiers, Shia Muslims as well as Westerners. It is thus a result of ISIL’s influence that lone wolf terrorist has sprung up in Saudi Arabia during this period.

There are several reasons for the change of terror attacks in Saudi Arabia. Ideally, IS and in particular, the lone wolves radicalized by this group should target areas of interest such as oil fields, embassies, regions inhabited by Westerners, government buildings and so on. Several years back, these were ideal targets for terrorist organizations when their acts were organized and executed as a group. However, given the fact that the tactic has now shifted mainly to lone-wolf operations, the security detail on these ideal targets is too high to guarantee a successful attack. Additionally, it is argued that ISIL is trying to reduce the number of Sunni Muslim casualties in its attacks.

Lone Wolf Attacks In Saudi Arabia between 2012 and 2016

Several lone-wolf attacks have been carried out in Saudi Arabia between 2012 and 2016. For instance, in early November 2014, three masked gunmen opened fire at a crown in a Shia mosque in al-Ahsa during the religious holiday of Ashura killing five people and injuring many others (The Guardian, 2014). The gunmen fired at random as they were leaving the worship area and in the process killed and injured innocent civilians.

Several videos of the attacked were uploaded online with one showing a body lying in a pool of blood surrounded by people screaming and calling for help. The al-Ahsa region comprises mainly of Shia Muslims in a kingdom that is mainly comprised of Sunni Muslims. The main grievance that Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia have is discrimination based on faith and religious beliefs.

In another attack, two policemen were shot dead by a gunman in Riyadh on the 8th of April 2015 (Aljazeera, 2015). The two suspected individuals were both Saudi citizens. Yazid bin Mohammed Abdulrahman Abu Niyan claimed responsibility for the attack. He claimed to have followed orders from ISIL. In the process of investigation, three bomb-laden vehicles, several firearms and ammunition, money, and mobile phones were discovered.

The mobile phones that were found had communication evidence between the suspect and ISIL operators from Syria. At the time, the police were also searching for another suspect of this incident, Nawaf bin Sharif Samir al-Anzi, who was believed to have driven the vehicle while Abu Niyan fired towards the policemen. It is also believed that the driver also filmed the incident, probably as a means of showing evidence of their activities as well as media to be uploaded on the Internet. From the investigations conducted, it emerged that the two suspects received money, ammunition, and weapons to carry out the attacks from an unknown individual whom police are yet to identify.

In July 2015, a car bomb exploded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia killing the driver and injuring two police officers (Albawaba, 2015). This attack came about during a period where the state was on high alert regarding attacks from ISIS and its affiliated members. According to the Ministry of Interior, it is believed that these attacks targeted police officers who came from the Shia Muslim community. This attack occurred when a policeman stopped a car for a routine police check where the driver blew the car up and died as a result. This attack occurred on the road that leads to Al-Hair prison, a facility that holds up most of the radical Muslims in the state. Based on its manner and the victims, this incident is a prime example of a lone wolf attack that has been radicalized by ISIL.

The tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims that has come about as a result of the war in Syria and the growth of Sunni Jihadis has greatly affected the overall security of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has been criticized for funding ISIL and also because most of its citizens have fought in Iraq and Syria as a result of being radicalized by extremist religious leaders. By critically analyzing these attacks, it is evident that the perpetrators have been influenced by a terrorist organization, ISIL to be in particular, in one way or the other. It is thus critical to have an understanding of how they can contact terrorist organizations, groups, or cells, their sources of motivation and the goals they want to achieve, their source of training, and how they manage to fund their operations.

Lone Wolf Motivation

Different individuals are motivated by different factors that encourage them to join and participate in terrorist acts around the world. Therefore, it is critical to determine the typology of a lone wolf as a means of understanding the factors behind their motivation and hence their possible cause of action (Panctuci, 2011). Thus, the motivation behind lone wolves acts was used to identified develop the classification system below based on the means and the context of their radicalization, the tactics in which they use to engage in their terrorist activities as well as the framework that is used to support their activities:

  1. Loner.
  2. Lone Wolf.
  3. Lone Wolf Pack.
  4. Lone Attacker.

A loner is a person who is looking forward to carrying out or is already engaged in terrorist activities using the influence developed as a result of being exposed to extremists or terrorist cells, group or organizations. It is critical, however, to point out that such terrorists tend to use the extreme ideology of the organization they have been influenced by to support their decisions and course of action about the terrorist acts that they have committed. Furthermore, these individuals usually do not have direct contact with the cells, groups or organizations that they have adopted their extreme ideology. Instead, they have access to these groups through passive means such as the internet or interaction within the society.

Lone wolves operate in a relatively similar manner as compared to loners. Their main source of motivation comes from the ideology and beliefs of the extreme cell, group or organization that they are infatuated with. However, in the process of planning and executing their actions alone as individuals, lone wolves tend to have some level of contact with operational extremists. In most cases, these individuals do have some form of contact with the terrorist cell, group, or organization that they are affiliated with and in response acts as some form of command or control structure of such organizations.

Therefore, their resultant acts are usually motivated and guided by terror organizations in one way or the other. For instance, the suspect in the shooting of two police officers in Riyadh on the 8th of April 2015 confessed to having had communication of ISIL extremist from Syria. Even though the nature of this communication is not clear, call logs between the suspect and the terror gang were found on the mobile phones that were discovered in the course of the investigation. Additionally, the investigation also found out that there was a contact person who allegedly supplied the suspects with money, ammunition, and weapons to carry out the attacks.

A lone wolf pack is relatively similar in operation as compared to a lone wolf. However, the pack comprises of a group of ideologically motivated individuals who self radicalize (Weinman, 2012). This definition is directly related to the “bunch of guys theory” that postulates that like-minded individuals who possess similar ideologies and motivation radicalize and join Jihad (Sageman, 2004). In the process, their social affiliation through jihad results in the development of strong bonds based on friendship, kinship, and religion. Over time, the interaction of wolf packs in such a setting results in the progressive growth of intense faith and beliefs that in turn results in the overall acceptance of the Salafi Jihadi ideology among the wolf pack members. It is from this ideology that the wolf pack gains their overall terrorist ideologies, goals, and motivation.

Lone wolf attackers have the same mode of operations as loners, lone wolves, and lone wolf packs. The only difference is the fact that lone wolf attackers usually have a direct form of contact and exhibit a clear form of command and control with the terrorist organizations or groups that they are affiliated with (Gibbs, 2012). From a critical point of view, it is evident that the form of contact between lone-wolf attackers and terror gangs is through active extremists and not through indirect channels such as the internet or other online portals. Based on this fact, lone-wolf attackers have been described as a one-man terrorist cell whose motivation and ideology are directly controlled by a specific terrorist group (Bakker, 2010).

From a different perspective, lone wolves can either be distinguished as either chaos or career lone wolves (Weinman, 2012). Chaos lone wolves usually conduct a single, but deadly terror attacks. The motivation behind such acts is usually maximum damage and casualties as a result of their acts. For instance, the suicide bomb in Qatif is a prime example of an act conducted by a chaos lone wolf. On the other hand, career terrorism is usually conducted by lone wolves who engage in a series of low-level terror acts over a long period. Even though the motivation behind these acts is to instill maximum damage towards its targets, career lone wolves are usually risked aversive hence increasing their chances of survival that will, in turn, enable them to continue with their terror acts in the long term.

Using the rational choice approach, the motivation behind the actions of a lone wolf greatly determines their course of action and mode of execution. Based on this distinction, lone wolves can be classified as either risk-seeking or risk aversive (Pantucci, 2011).

Risk-aversive lone wolves usually conduct low scale terror attacks while in turn engaging in more legitimate activist projects. Such individuals could be your neighbor, friend, colleague or even relative, but use their everyday activities as a cover for their terrorist acts. Risk seeking lone wolves, in contrast, engage in high-risk terror activities that aim at instilling maximum damage over their targets.

In this respect, it is evident that these individuals are willing to risk their exposure and even capture to achieve their terrorist goals. The policemen shootings of 8th April 2015 in Riyadh is a prime example where the suspects filmed the event as a means of gaining publicity over their acts. From a critical point of view, it is evident that for risk-seeking lone wolves, the risk involved in committing their acts is much more significant as compared to the cause that is to be achieved by the terror group or organization that they might be affiliated with.

Contact Between Lone Wolves and Terrorist Organizations

The classification of lone wolves and the motivation behind their action clearly showed a link between them and terrorist organizations. Therefore, from a critical point of view, lone wolves do not operate alone but are indeed in contact either directly or indirectly with terrorist cells, groups, or organizations (Pantucci, 2011). The internet is considered as the leading medium that supports communication between lone wolves and their affiliated terrorist organizations. The report on Combating Terrorism asserted that lone wolves act alone, but are recruited, radicalized, trained and directed by others through various forms of media such as the internet (Helfstein, 2012).

This study analyzed 80 terrorist incidents across the world between 1993 and 2010 that matched the lone wolf criteria. Of all the 45 individuals who were involved in these attacks, all of them had either traveled abroad or joined larger terrorist organizations for training purposes during their radicalization process. Yazid bin Mohammed Abdulrahman Abu Niyan, for instance, had received his training before his terror attack incident on the 8th of April 2015 that resulted in the death of two policemen in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At the same time, individuals who had fought in Iraq and Syria had conducted most of the lone wolf attacks in Saudi Arabia that occurred between 2012 and 2016.

After critically analyzing the role of the internet in lone wolf attacks, the internet is indeed a powerful communicating tool used by terrorist gangs and lone wolves to achieve their goals and objectives (Pantucci, 2011). The internet acts as a locus through which radicalizing materials, training videos, and other forms of media can be uploaded by terrorist groups and extremists for easy access to lone wolves.

As such, the internet acts like a portal through which people with the ideology and motivation to commit various acts of terror interact. Through this avenue, they can communicate, share ideas, provide further instigation and provide specific instructions to carry out terrorist-related activities directed towards specific targets. This, in turn, results in the development of an online community of radicalized individuals that offer social identity and connection to some members who do not have such ties in the real world. Such individuals tend to become loyal and ready to do what it takes to ensure that their terror ideology, goals, and objectives are realized.

Another report concluded that lone wolves plan and execute their operations by themselves (AIVD, 2012). However, this report also pointed out that lone wolves do not radicalize in isolation. This is because radicalization is considered a social process that requires the influence of like-minded individuals for it to be successful. Given the fact that lone wolves hardly are in contact with radicalized individuals in real life, the internet thus provides them with the avenue to meeting and interacting with such individuals over the online portal.

Therefore, communication through the internet has been successful in not only recruiting many lone wolves but also in the sharing of jihadist propaganda in the process of radicalizing lone wolves. As such, the internet has provided jihadist and extremist groups with an avenue of interaction by acting as their principal means of communication. At the present moment, terrorist organizations have a strong online presence all around the world. This portal is thus used for recruiting, training, and the radicalization of a lone wolf. At the same time, this avenue has also been influential in the process of raising funds for terrorist activities through acts such as cyber-attacks.

A Change of Terrorism Policy

As it has been asserted earlier, the approach to terrorism has changed over time from armed organizations to lone wolves. This has been because intelligence over-organized terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda have increased over time. Additionally, the running and management of these groups have proven to be tedious and expensive. At the same time, organizations such as Al-Qaeda are finding it difficult to sustain their operations due to the loss of their first, second and to some extent, third-generation leaders most of whom have either been arrested or assassinated (Weinman, 2012). Others have chosen to disassociate themselves from terror organizations and their related terrorist acts.

In response, such organizations have increased over time discouraged their radicalized followers from traveling to war zones to join their cause. Instead, they are currently supporting the approach of individually planned and executed attacks against specifically identified targets. This clearly shows the support of lone terrorism. In 2003, for instance, Al-Qaeda urged its sympathizers to act on their own and not to wait for instructions from the organization.

At the same time, the increased lone wolf attacks in Saudi Arabia have come about partly as a result of radicalized individuals returning home after fighting overseas and also and partly because newly radicalized Saudis find it difficult to go overseas and join terrorist groups. Terrorist organizations also find it cheaper and efficient to fund lone wolf attacks as compared to maintaining a full-armed organization, especially given the results of lone-wolf attacks are much higher as compared to


The period between 2012 and 2016 saw numerous acts of terrorism taking place in Saudi Arabia resulting in the loss of life and destruction of property. While different terror groups have claimed responsibility for these attacks, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is considered as the leading terrorist group in Saudi Arabia and has played a critical role in radicalizing lone wolf operations in this state.

This group has thus been responsible for radicalizing, motivating, and commanding the actions of lone wolves through the internet and other forms of media. Lone wolf believes in the ideologies of an extremist group, but the form of contact that they have varied based on the ideology and motivation of the lone wolf. Additionally, lone wolves select their plan of actions as well that the tactics that they follow in the course of planning and executing their terror plans to achieve the goals and ideologies of the terror groups in which they are following although to some extent, they get these instructions from the terrorist groups that they are affiliated with.

This paper has identified the internet as the main mode of communication between lone wolves and the terrorist organizations that they are affiliated with. It is through this media that they receive training, weapons, motivation, guidance, and support. Given the mode of operation of lone wolves, law enforcement agencies have found it extremely difficult to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance as compared to convectional terrorist groups. In this respect, the Saudi government needs to take into consideration measures that will combat lone-wolf terrorist activities to ensure the safety of its subjects in a bid to guarantee political and social stability in the short run and the long run.


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