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Understanding those who act alone
2.45pm: Anders Breivik uploads a self‑produced film to YouTube and writes the last message in his 1,500-page compendium. At 3:05pm, Breivik emails the compendium to over 8,000 people. He leaves his mother’s apartment and walks to a rented Volkswagen Crafter parked nearby. He drives to Grubbegaten Street, central Oslo, and arrives at 3.13pm. He stops the van 200 metres from the ‘H-Block’, a government building housing the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Justice and the Police. He waits for two minutes and puts on a bulletproof vest and a visored helmet. At 3:15pm he drives the remaining 200 metres and parks again. He lights the fuse of the bomb he developed in the month’s prior, leaves the van, and whilst carrying a Glock pistol in his hand, walks away quickly.
By 3:20pm, he reaches Hammersborg Square where he had previously parked another rental car. He drives toward the ferry MS Thorbjørn at Utøkaia in Tyrifijorden, 25 miles north‑west of Oslo. At 3:25pm, the bomb explodes, killing eight and injuring 209. At 4:55pm, Breivik arrives at the ferry and boards. He travels to Utøya Island, a venue hosting a Workers’ Youth League summer camp. He arrives at 5:18pm. and begins shooting at 5:22pm. In total, 67 were shot and killed at Utøya, two more died in their attempted getaway and a further 110 were injured, 33 by gunfire. 50 of those killed at Utøya were 18 years of age or younger.
Outrage, condemnation, and shock at Breivik’s actions quickly followed. The Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, called it Norway’s ‘worst atrocity since the Second World War’, a ‘national tragedy’, ‘unfair’, ‘incomprehensible’, and an ‘evil act of horror’. The European Union, NATO, the United Nations and over 75 states expressed similar sentiments. Condemnation of Breivik was not universal however. Three far- right elected members of parliament (one in Italy, one in the European Parliament and one in Austria) expressed sympathy for Breivik’s anti‑Islamic stance. Within a month of the attacks Norwegian far-right groups, Norwegian Defence League and the Stop Islamisation of Norway movement, reported membership growths of over 300 and 100 respectively. Within a couple of years, authorities disrupted two apparent copycat plots in Poland and the Czech Republic while a third disrupted plot’s perpetrator labelled Breivik his ‘hero’ in a series of Facebook posts.
The independent parliamentary report on the attacks acknowledged that the threat from lone- actor terrorism was underestimated in terms of the devastation it can cause. Under interrogation, Breivik distinguishes between the combat and media success of the attacks. In the early interviews, Breivik doubts his media success. He concedes that few of his co- ideologues would defend his ‘bestial actions’ (Husby & Sorheim, 2011: 16), and that the day of the actions was ‘the worst day of his life’. He acknowledges further that the events were ‘completely awful’ and that he was ‘not proud’ of what he ‘was forced to do’ in response to Labour Party policies. Much of this early antipathy towards his own actions was due to the fact that he defined these victims as relatively low value compared to the political elites of the country. On the other hand, however, he saw the attacks as a combat success, and stated that the fight will continue via ‘the pen from jail’. On the whole, Breivik states that the success of the violent actions could only be ‘measured by the spreading of the compendium’) that he wrote in the years prior which elaborated upon his ideological motivations.
The short illustration above provides a number of questions, including: Is there a lone-actor terrorist profile?; Is there a common behavioural trajectory into lone-actor terrorism?
How ‘lone’ do lone-actor terrorists tend to be?; What role, if any, does the internet play?; What role, if any, does mental illness play?; How rational are they?; What risk do they pose?; How do lone-actors learn and prepare for a violent attack absent of group membership?; How do lone-actor terrorists differ?; How can we minimise the threat of lone-actor terrorism?; Can lone-actor terrorists be detected, prevented, or disrupted prior to engaging in a violent attack?
Until recently, existing research on the topic of lone-actor terrorists was incapable of answering such questions. The literature remained methodologically, conceptually, and theoretically weak. At best, it was certainly underdeveloped, and there was relatively little that the counter-terrorism community could fully glean from what analysis had been conducted on what most still refer to as ‘lone wolf ’ terrorism (a description avoided here). This book provides the first empirical analysis of lone actor terrorism that focuses upon a range of factors including who lone‑actor terrorists are, how they differ from each other (and from other kinds of terrorists), their developmental pathways into terrorism, their pre- attack behaviours and aspects concerning their offence - commission. It therefore marks a departure from previous research on lone‑actor terrorism because it largely focuses upon behavioural aspects of each offender. The book adopts insights and methodologies from crime science, criminology and forensic psychology to provide a holistic analysis of the behavioural underpinnings of lone-actor terrorism. Based on an extensive analysis of open-source material, this book contains important insights into what an analysis of their behaviours might imply for practical interventions aimed at disrupting or even preventing attacks.
Lone actor dataset
The analyses in this book are based on a unique dataset of 111 lone actors. The dataset includes over 180 variables spanning socio‑demographic characteristics to ancillary and antecedent behaviours to terrorist event‑related behaviours. The variables cover the life span of the individual’s development, later radicalisation and right through to the execution of the terrorist event. As such, this book encompasses what LaFree refers to as the third major development in the empirical study of terrorism; the expansion of our knowledge of terrorism based on ‘specialised data sets on specific subsets of terrorism cases’. Rather than treating all terrorists homogeneously, recent improvement in our understanding of terrorist behaviour has come through disaggregated analyses that focus upon types of terrorist behaviours, roles, and functions. This book seeks to build upon this strand of research and bring the field closer towards a scientific approach to terrorist behaviour.
High profile examples such as Anders Breivik pushed the threat of lone-actor terrorism to the forefront of national security across the world. This book focuses upon lone-actor terrorism from 1990 to mid-2014, because during this period movement leaders of different ideological shades explicitly called for an uptake in lone-actor operations. Each chapter focuses upon a different aspect of lone-actor terrorist behaviour, and how to potentially counter the threat. It also takes stock of a few factors including the strategy of lone-actor terrorism (and how it differs across ideologies), the drivers behind its diffusion across ideologies, the dynamics that make lone-actor terrorism a threat, definitional issues (it would not be a terrorism book without such an endeavour) and what the existing literature has to say on the topic.
About the author
Dr Paul Gill is a lecturer at UCL’s Department of Security and Crime Science. His research applies behavioural science approaches to the study of criminals, crime patterns, and criminal behaviour. His research has been funded by the US. Department of Homeland Security, the US Office of Naval Research, the US National Institute of Justice, the UK Home Office, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the European Union and the UK North-West Counter Terrorism Unit. He has published in several leading criminology, psychology, and political science journals. The European Consortium for Political Research awarded his PhD the best political science dissertation in
Europe in 2010.
Lone Actor Terrorists: A behavioural analysis is published by Routledge – a world leading academic publisher in Humanities and Social Sciences.