UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science


Scientific background

Taking the empirical study of lone actor terrorism beyond the state of the art. Data-driven studies of lone actor extremism – colloquially, 'lone wolves' – have been the exception rather than the rule. Empirically, the field is still in a relative infancy, held back by the small size of the study population, the difficulty in accessing primary data, and the pervasive issue of under-conceptualisation.

Recent research by Paul Gill and colleagues is the only instance of empirical research to focus upon aspects of lone actor radicalisation, attack preparation and attack outcome using a large-N dataset. While this ground-breaking work is of indubitable value, it has been largely exploratory, delivering statistical descriptions rather than explanations -- in other words, it does not explain why different ideological subgroups have different 'profiles' or involvement patterns; it only documents that they do. A step-change requires that research move from exploration to hypothesis-driven designs, going beyond statistical descriptions or the qualitative study of individual pathways.

To operate this step-change, the PRIME project takes on a resolutely empirical approach, drawing from open and other data sources. It builds upon the empirical foundations laid out by the work of Gill and colleagues by expending the existing database of 119 lone actor extremists, adding to its codebook to fit the specific needs of the PRIME risk assessment framework. Recognising that among the key features of lone actor extremist events are complexity and low-probability, accompanied by scarcity and sparseness of data, the PRIME project also has recourse to subject matter experts (SMEs) to strengthen its empirical basis, as recommended by the Blackett Review of High-Impact Low-Probability Risks.

Explaining radicalisation and terrorist action

In the last decade, much conceptual and empirical knowledge has been added to our understanding of the radicalisation processes which lead to acts of terrorist violence. Unfruitful profile-based approaches have been largely discarded in favour of process-based or 'pathway' models, which seek to identify sequences of stages common across the trajectories of individual actors. 'Pathways' are presented as ultimately discrete, each of them reflecting intensely individual circumstances. While there is value to these descriptive accounts, the downside of discrete models is that each new manifestation of the problem forces researchers and problem-owners to start again – if not wholly, then partly – 'from scratch'.

Hence, while radicalisation studies have advanced in recent years, a number of key problems remain to be tackled, namely: integrating the levels of explanation (i.e. establishing through which concrete mechanisms the different macro and micro levels interact) in order to tackle the problem of specificity (why these individuals radicalise when most others do not); transcending the problem of locality (i.e. getting beyond local explanations to general theories), and; achieving conceptual clarity, in the absence of which neither of the other problems are solvable.

To address these challenges and take radicalisation studies beyond the state of the art, the PRIME Project will build off the meta-theory of radicalisation put forward by Noemie Bouhana and Per-Olof Wikstrom in a systematic review of research into the causes of AQ-influenced radicalisation to develop a general risk framework for the analysis of lone actor radicalisation. Bouhana and Wikstrom's original theory organises empirical observations by clearly articulating the processes (individual vulnerability, exposure, emergence) which connect the levels of explanation (individual, social ecological and systemic 1 ), while relating them to the markers (predictors or indicators) which can be observed in specific contexts. Systemic factors are meso- and macro-level factors which impact the emergence of the social ecological context of human development. Social ecological factors are those which directly impact how and when individuals are exposed to the particular settings in which they develop and act. The category of individual factors encompasses personal bio-social factors which directly impact the outcome of an individual's exposure to these settings.

Given the need to translate the framework into a formal model (meta-script) of lone actor extremist events, it is expected that the level of conceptual clarity will be beyond what is usually found in radicalisation theory.

The PRIME project will also formulate cross-level, cross-contextual risk analysis frameworks of lone extremist action, addressing, on the one hand, the emergence of motivation and extent capability to carry out an attack, and on the other, the interaction between offender and opportunity involved in the attacks themselves (attack is, for our purposes, defined broadly as extremist illegal activity).

This work will be informed by state-of-the-art theory and research in criminology (Situational Action Theory) and crime science (Opportunity Theories), integrating this knowledge-base into clearly-conceptualised action frameworks. Here again, a key ambition will be to improve upon the current level of conceptual clarity, in order to progress to the event modelling discussed in the following section. Combined, radicalisation and action frameworks will make up a risk analysis framework of lone actor extremist events.

Developing new modelling techniques

Designing counter-measures to any problem requires, first, a clear understanding of the causal factors and mechanisms involved in the problem's emergence, and second, some way to organise this knowledge, such that it can be clearly conveyed to users (decision-makers, designers, implementers). High-level theorising can provide fundamental frameworks for risk analysis, but to support the development of practical measures theories must be translated into formal, detailed, clearly articulated models, which integrate the theory's conceptual insights with the concrete dimensions of the problem.

Attempts to tackle this modelling challenge in crime prevention have led to the formulation of an approach known as crime scripting. To date, crime scripting remains more of an art than a science. One of the main objectives of the PRIME project is to develop a scientific methodology for the design of event scripts. For the purpose of the PRIME project, a lone actor extremist event is conceptualised as an extended event, which encompasses not only the end-product of extremist activity (e.g. a terrorist attack), but also the developmental process by which individuals acquire the propensity to commit acts of violent extremism (radicalisation) and the situational process by which they acquire the motivation and capability to carry out these attacks (preparation). The scripting effort builds off research carried out within the EU-FP7 RIBS project on Resilience of Infrastructure and Building Security and the EU-FP7 BASYLIS project on the development of a mobile sensing platform for offender detection and behaviour-based scenario tracking.

Integrating communication measures

Communication is an integral component of any counter-terrorism and national security strategy. Policies and practices that do not incorporate the concepts underpinning effective communication are bound to fail. Risk communication is crucial in helping the public prepare psychologically and materially, building up resilience and minimising harm.

Though aspects of risk communication and crime prevention communication-based strategies have been studied in relation a number of events, including natural disasters, industrial accidents, and volume crimes, neither of these approaches has been formally applied to lone actor extremism. In the area of communication-based counter-radicalisation, work remains largely conceptual. The PRIME project aims to enhance the efficacy of risk communication about the radicalisation and violent activities of lone extremists by aiding the development of clear messages, based on an understanding of the differences between expert and lay perceptions of risk.

This characterisation and development of counter-extremist communication measures will take place from an empirical basis, supported by a multi-method approach; including: 1) a review of existing measures ; 2) a large-scale public survey designed to assess public perception of messages emanating from authorities on lone actor extremism, and to inform requirements for measures which are tied to levels of public trust; 3) engagement with stakeholders and practitioners with responsibility for commissioning and designing these messages; and 4) the empirically-validated script and subsequently derived 'pinch point' categories, which will serve as a concrete basis for the formulation of communication measures requirements.