How Alone is a Lone Terrorist? An Analysis of a Lone Terrorist’s Strategic Choices and Relational Fields from the 2019 Attack in Utrecht, the Netherlands
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‘Lone wolf’ or lone terrorism has traditionally been illustrated as an individual operant who does not belong to a terrorist group nor is subject to external influence. However, these defining characteristics have proven to be misleading when it comes to understanding lone terrorism. Recent studies have revealed that a lone terrorist’s social ties with external networks are essential for an individual to sustain both the motive and capability to commit acts of terrorism. This suggests a paradox to the ‘lone wolf’ concept by taking issue with the assumption that a terrorist’s choices and actions exist independently of external influence and meaning. Despite this observation, how a lone terrorist’s social interactions shape their choices and outcomes of an attack continues to represent an under-researched field. The persistence of lone terrorism in the Netherlands has stimulated debates regarding its definition and associated counter-terrorism policy-driving assumptions. Therefore, this research investigates the ‘aloneness’ of lone terrorism by examining the strategic choices and outcomes of a lone terrorist attack that occurred on 18 March 2019 in Utrecht, the Netherlands. In doing so, this study serves to contribute knowledge about how a lone terrorist’s social relationships form and inform the interpretations upon which a lone terrorist’s choice of tactics and strategies is premised. This research adopted the strategic action approach to uncover the meaning of the lone terrorist’s tactics and strategic trade-offs. This knowledge led to the identification of five specific fields of lone terrorist’s social interactions, conceptualized as relational fields, in relation to the attack. Consequently, this paper argues that ‘lone’ terrorism does not necessarily mean ‘alone’. To the contrary, a lone terrorist’s choices and outcomes of an attack are shaped by the meaning and values which are exchanged, formed and normalised through social interaction. This exploratory research offers counter-terrorism analysts a preliminary framework for understanding the social features of lone terrorism and serves as groundwork for a comparative analysis of cases.