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Exploring the hidden social networks of ‘lone actor’ terrorists


Terrorism has typically been considered an organized activity undertaken by networks of individuals who share a collective identity and purpose. In recent years, media, law enforcement and scholarly attention has increasingly focused on the construct of the lone actor terrorist. However, lone actor terrorism has suffered from significant conceptual confusion, particularly with regard to whether such actors actually radicalize and/or undertake acts of violence alone. In order to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of this emerging phenomenon, this paper analyzes five lone actor attacks perpetrated in Australia between September 2014 and the end of 2017. It examines what (if any) interpersonal relationships these lone actors had with others, along with the nature of such connections and any ideological or logistical support these individuals may have provided. A personal network design is used to visualize interpersonal relationships and explore the nature of such connections. The paper concludes by discussing implications for policy and practice, and for the construct of the lone actor.

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    Islamism refers to “activism justified with primary reference to Islam” ([19], p. 1).

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    While the terms lone wolf and lone actor are often used interchangeably, the term “lone actor” (or variants) is increasingly replacing the term “lone wolf” [27]. In this paper, we use the term “lone actor” for the same reasons others have shifted away from the term “lone wolf”.


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Correspondence to David Bright.

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Bright, D., Whelan, C. & Harris-Hogan, S. Exploring the hidden social networks of ‘lone actor’ terrorists. Crime Law Soc Change 74, 491–508 (2020).

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  • Illicit networks
  • Lone actor
  • Social network analysis
  • Social networks
  • Terrorism