Author Q&A session: Paul Gill | Lone Actor Terrorists

Author of Lone Actor Terrorists, Paul Gill, tells us a little more about his book and his interest for the topic.

Paul Gill | Lone-Actor Terrorists

1. Congratulations on the publication of your book Lone-Actor Terrorists! What lead you to writing it?

Thanks very much. My work on this topic began in 2011 when my colleague John Horgan and I received a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.K. Home Office to build an evidence base around the signature behaviours and routine activities of lone actor terrorists. The existing literature on the topic was quite threadbare and very little of it was of practical use to practitioners or policymakers. Around that time, there were also a number of concerns around the potential threat. A couple months after our grant proposal was successful, Anders Breivik's attacks happened in Norway which brought home how dangerous these actors can be. When we initially pitched the idea, our expectations were to look at 30-40 cases and around 50 behaviours. We ended up with a database of 119 lone actors and 180+ behaviours. So there was a lot of material to work on obviously. I was actually taken aback by the amount of openly available data on these individuals. The book is an attempt to move beyond my initial descriptive statistical work on the topic and delve deeper into both case studies and different aspects of their pre-attack behaviours like mental health issues and the role of the internet for example.

2. What is your favourite example in the book?

In terms of case studies, Anders Breivik. It is a fascinating case and there is a great deal of open-source information available (through his compendium and interrogation transcripts) about his decision-making at every point from the moment he decided to act, through all of the planning and preparation stages and right through to the day of the attacks. At first glance, the attacks look completely irrational but only through understanding the motivational underpinnings of his decision-making can it start to make sense and there is a considerable amount of the book dedicated to understanding the Breivik case.

In terms of findings, perhaps the most surprising was the degree to which these lone-actors leak really specific pieces of information about their upcoming plot to significant others. The majority of the cases, the individual tells somebody "I'm going to bomb that Mosque on Tuesday" or "I'm going to do a copycat of the Lee Rigby killing". This type of information is so crucial to law enforcement.

3. Are there any relevant world issues that your book relates to at the moment?

Just as I was finishing the book, there was a cluster of lone-actor attacks in Canada, the U.S., Australia, France, Denmark and a couple were disrupted in the U.K and elsewhere. Most of them were ISIS-inspired but there were also a couple of right-wing inspired cases in the U.S. The turn toward lone-actors is something we're likely to see more of in the coming years due to the success of counter-terrorism communities in disrupting group-based plots. It was frustrating to see a lot of the hack punditry trying to explain this uptake in lone-actors. Most of it seeks to find simple golden-bullet solutions. 'They are all mad in the head' or 'the internet caused it all' or 'this threat is unstoppable'. The book really seeks to peel away these myths and perceived wisdoms to show that lone-actor terrorism is usually the crystallisation of a number of risk factors and that in certain circumstances can be prevented and disrupted ahead of time.

4. Can you describe your book in one sentence?

Data-driven, practitioner-oriented, interdisciplinary and accessible.

5. What first attracted you to this topic as an area of study?

Prior to working on lone-actors, most of my work had centred on the role that group influences have in causing radicalisation and an individual's preparedness to conduct violence. Initially, lone-actors appeared to be counter-factual examples to my thinking so naturally I was curious about them. Who were they? What did they do? How 'lone' were they in reality? There was also very few empirically-driven and methodological rigorous pieces of academic research on the topic so there was a definite gap there to try and fill. Some of the available research was fairly alarmist and based on shaky evidence. Other research was based on very famous cases which may be outliers so the degree to which generalisations could be made was questionable. Finally and perhaps most importantly from a practical standpoint, given the fact that lone-actor terrorism is still a black-swan type event, the level of available granular behavioural data is far higher than that of group-based offenders who operate on behalf of a prolific group. Speaking from experience of previous data endeavours, it is very difficult to obtain much more than the very basic socio-demographic information of such group offenders from open sources. This is for a very simple reason. Once it is the fifth or fourth or even third Paddy Murphy who has been convicted of planting a bomb on a Belfast street on behalf of the Provisional IRA, the story is no longer front page news. Instead it is buried away in the final paragraph of a somewhat unrelated story on page ten. But, when we have rare events, these are a different story altogether. This book makes the most of this data availability.

6. Have you read any Routledge books? If so, which is your favourite Routledge book at the moment?

I regularly read the other titles belonging to the Political Violence series which this book is part of. John Horgan's 2nd edition of Psychology of Terrorism is a must-read. The first edition made me want to do research in this field in the first place and the 2nd edition is even better. Max Taylor also has a couple of books coming out which look very promising. The first is an edited collection on evolutionary psychology perspectives on terrorism that has many big names contributing. The second is an update of his previous work, The Terrorist. Since joining UCL's Security and Crime Science Department, I've also started working my way through Routledge's Crime Science book series and I'm currently really enjoying reading Cognition and Crime which has a lot of insight on offender decision-making. These types of approaches hold much promise for the future study of terrorism I feel.

7. Do you have plans for future books? What's next in the pipeline for you?

There are no specific plans just yet for another book. The rest of this year involves finishing up a few research projects centred around topics like violent online political extremism (funded by the EU), spree shooters (funded by the NIJ) and there's a couple of other lone-actor related projects on-going, one of which involves working with closed sources. We'll see where these projects take me first before devoting another summer to writing a book. 

Featured Titles

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