Lone wolf terrorism – learning from the Breivik case

There is an urgent need to better understand lone wolf terrorism, in general, and the Breivik case, specifically, placing the threat in the right context. This analysis is based on the principles of transformative learning theory, an educational aspect of adult learning theory, probing the life experiences that transformed Breivik’s worldview and drove him to the point to accept and implement violent practices. 

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By Andreas Dafnos

An individual qualifies as a lone wolf terrorist when he 1) operates individually, 2) does not belong to an organized terrorist network, 3) acts without the direct influence of a hierarchy, and 4) implements his tactics without any direct outside command (COT, 2007). This definition has two advantages. First, it clearly distinguishes the attacks committed by one individual and the attacks committed by more than one individual; helping us understand the differences between individual terrorism and group terrorism. Second, it is the definition employed in the study of COT (2007) and Spaaij (2012) – one of the very few in-depth analyses to explain the patterns of lone wolf terrorism.

Considering the Breivik case, the present thesis assumes that he is not a typical lone wolf terrorist due to the on-going debate about whether he was truly alone or instead a member of a terrorist network. Breivik devoted large parts of his manifesto to discussing the Knights Templar; explaining their history, political role and objectives, plus how he joined the organization in 2002. Furthermore, he fuelled speculation about the topic by giving two contrasting testimonies after his arrest. According to the first, he perpetrated the assaults alone; later he asserted that he participated in a group with two more cells.

There is, however, no evidence that Breivik was a member of the Knights Templar, or that the Knights Templar constitute an established terrorist organization. For instance, the Norwegian police are convinced that Breivik conceived and implemented the operations without assistance. At the same time, this does not necessarily mean that Breivik lied; he may, for instance, be trying to create an additional cover story. Several questions arise that may lead to confusion. Are Breivik’s references to the Knights Templar true? If not, is he a liar or/and insane? If yes, why was the organization unknown to counter-terrorism agencies? What are the true intentions behind his enigmatic stance? It is clear that the Knights Templar play a role in Breivik’s mentality.

The current study takes for granted that life experiences and events described in the manifesto are the outcome of a rational man, as reflected by the decision of the Norwegian court. Hence, Breivik is not a lone wolf terrorist, inasmuch as he is a member of the Knights Templar. On the other hand, to go over his self-conducted interview and diary of the last 82 days before the operations, almost all references describe the ways he conceived, planned and prepared the attacks on his own. For example, Breivik makes the next question to himself (2011, p. 1,459): “how do you manage to motivate yourself considering the fact that you are planning a large operation alone, with no one to confide in?” Hence, he can be assumed to be a lone wolf terrorist.

In order to resolve this vagueness, I concur with Bakker & de Graaf (2010, p. 2) who point out that a lone wolf terrorist can also be a member of a terrorist organization as long as this is not “a hierarchical organization in the classical sense of the word.” Besides, Breivik states that although he would prefer to have some support from the non-hierarchical network, he managed alone to become “a self driven and highly effective manifestation of an independent resistance cell” (2011, p. 901).

Applying transformative learning theory

Breivik dedicated almost nine years to preparing the attacks. It is, therefore, important to explore the experiences and events that appear to play a role in his transformation into a terrorist. The hypothesis suggests that Breivik’s radicalization was a cumulative process which affected his meaning perspectives. Transformation takes place in ten successive steps, with every step representing a readiness for change that eventually leads to the acceptance and use of violence (Wilner and Dubouloz, 2010). Hereby, I explore the radicalization process of Breivik through the lens of transformative learning theory.

Step 1: Experience of a disorienting dilemma

Breivik devotes a large part of the manifesto to describing his personal account of life experiences and events that shaped his personality and guided his decisions. The prevailing notion points to the threat that Islam poses to Europe, which Breivik believes will make slaves of future generations. The first incident that seems to disorientate Breivik concerns a change in behavior of his best friend, a Pakistani Muslim. Breivik is nearly 16 years-old when his friend decides to join the Pakistani community in Oslo; an act of betrayal that shatters their friendship according to the manifesto. This is a moment of personal crisis for Breivik, who says “I remember that pride and certain moral codexes/principles have always been very important to me…The majority of people who shared these principles of pride were the Muslim youths and the occasional skinhead” (2011, p. 1,463). It is important, therefore, to understand that Breivik appreciates the companionship with Muslims; with his high expectations resulting in a great sense of disappointment in this instance.

Breivik notes that his former Pakistani friend deliberately rejects the Norwegian lifestyle, as it is not compatible with the principles of Islam. The Pakistanis hung-out together and engaged in violent activities, such as beating and raping ethnic Norwegians. One incident involves the cases of two Pakistani and one Turkish girl. Breivik is 10 years-old when the girls, one after another, unexpectedly disappear from school. Later, he finds out that it was their families that sent them back to their home countries due to the fact that they were overly-familiar with Norwegian culture. In addition, Breivik keeps account of several assaults and robberies caused by Muslims during the period 1994-1999, describing in detail the scenes and protagonists of each incident. As a consequence, these disorienting dilemmas challenge the interpretation of his meaning perspectives, creating doubts about the role of Muslims and Islam.

Step 2: Self-examination (i.e. feelings of fear, shame, anger and guilt)

Before the disorienting experiences, Breivik believes that Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion which aims to preach and spread love. He also thinks that Islam and Christianity share some common ground. The perceived behaviour of Muslims, however, makes Breivik feel deceived, frustrated and disgruntled. His disappointment is evident – “I was unable to make the correct conclusions” (2011, p. 1,452). He could not see the truth while being at school. Maybe, this is the first time that he begins putting the pieces of his later ideology together. He labels society hypocritical and perceives Islam, the government, Western media and the extreme left as a net that interweaves conspiracies against Europe; the traitors, as mentioned previously.

Moreover, Breivik is 16-17 years old when he joins the youth branch of the Progress Party; the Norwegian voice against immigrants. The media call its members racists, Nazis or fascist pigs. This is one of Breivik’s worst fears. He is terrified about the idea that someone will classify him as a racist. The latter seems to affect his social life, since he is extremely cautious about factors that may damage his social image. Reviewing his self-examination reports, Breivik admits that “if I had met myself 12 years ago I would probably think I was an extreme and paranoid nut, who believed in conspiracy theories” (2011, p. 813). However, as time goes by this belief fades and Breivik moves towards violence.

Step 3: A critical assessment of assumptions

The concept of critical reflection constitutes a distinguishing element of transformative learning theory and represents the ability to question established assumptions and expectations. In the case of Breivik, the event that tips the scales is NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999. At that time, Breivik is still struggling to assimilate the experiences of previous years into his meaning structures. After the invasion, he comes closer to the conclusion that Islam and the traitors are responsible for the Islamic colonization of Europe. Breivik states that the war against Serbians will lead to “a future where several Mini-Pakistanis would eventually be created in every Western European capital” (2011, p. 1,454); adding that this tendency will create a chaotic and unacceptable situation.

Several more issues make Breivik reflect deeper on his assumptions. For example, he feels dissatisfied with his government for granting the Nobel Peace Prize to the leader of Palestine, Yasser Arafat. Interestingly, this particular event took place in 1994; however, Breivik goes through a period of assessing whether uncritical experiences of childhood remain functional during adulthood. Therefore, he cannot derive adequate answers from his habitual way of thinking. He begins reading various theories of political science, such as Islamism, socialism, capitalism and egalitarianism. Breivik says that “I then, for the first time, understood why I hadn’t learned anything of relevance about Islam at school, and the motives for suppressing the truth on these issues – political correctness” (2011, p. 1,453). It is apparent that he is entering a new phase where the transformation of his meaning perspectives is under way.

Step 4: Recognition that one’s discontent and process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change

Breivik is 16-17 years old when he turns to politics. Various events created a sense of confusion and discontent which lead Breivik to join the youth organization of Progress Party; the only political party that propagates anti-immigration ideas and actively resists multiculturalism. It is plausible to assume then that Breivik’s decision is based on his need to interact with people who share the same concerns and feelings; to communicate and identify with like-minded thinkers who have negotiated a similar change in beliefs and who assert the threat posed by multiculturalists.

Breivik is in search of group identification; a common trait that involves the classification of an individuals’ world into two categories – us versus them. Individuals who identify and sympathize with a group (i.e. us) feel well when the members of the group live with prosperity; whilst individuals who oppose a group (i.e. them) feel content when the members of the group are in trouble, and vice versa (Moskalenko, McCauley & Rozin as cited in Nijboer, 2012). Breivik appears to react in a similar way, blaming the traitors for criticizing the values and practices of the Progress Party. He thinks that they are hypocrites for attacking the only party that cares for Norway, expressing anger towards the media which conceal the violent riots of Muslims aiming to hide the truth from Norwegian people.

Step 5: Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions

Around 2000, Breivik realizes – probably for the first time – that democratic means cannot defeat Islamization. He asserts that discussions with multiculturalists have lasted 40 years, yet no progress has been achieved. Breivik does not feel that the Progress Party can ignite radical change and, therefore, begins seeking alternative way to express his opposition to multiculturalism. It is then that he sees violence as an attractive and potential tool to fight the supposed enemy. It is obvious that Breivik struggles with the disorienting dilemmas overwhelming his life, but he is not ready to use violent means since the transformation is not complete yet.

According to his personal record, a major problem at the time is that there exists no resistance movements that appeal to him. As such, he tries to reach groups that represent his views, and this is the reason why he cannot imagine himself being part of a racist-anti Jewish movement. Breivik contacts a Serbian group on the internet and this seems to be the moment that changes his life. Through this Serbian movement he connects with several individuals in Europe, plus the group that later forms the Knights Templar. Breivik becomes a founding member of the movement in 2002. During a meeting that takes place in London, Breivik describes how proud he feels of this achievement; particularly as he is the youngest member.

In addition, this is the period that Breivik explores new relationships. He feels blessed and privileged to have the opportunity to meet a Serbian Crusader Commander in Liberia who introduces him to the Knights Templar. It is plausible to say that after his involvement in the revolutionary movement, as he calls it, Breivik feels more confident and shifts in a new direction. He rejects the idea of following democratic ways and appears to lose faith in the authorities. He decides to postpone joining the army until he is eventually dismissed (Ravndal, 2012a) – “I avoided the mandatory draft service when I was 18 because I didn’t feel any loyalty to the ruling political parties” (2011, p. 1,486). Finally, having explored new roles and relationships, Breivik makes the decision to plan the next steps of his personal campaign.

Andreas Dafnos graduated from Maastricht University (in collaboration with United Nations University) with a masters degree in Public Policy and Human Development, specializing in risk and vulnerability.  Mr. Dafnos is a member of the Economic Chamber of Greece.

This article is published as part of TransConflict’s project, Confronting Extremism, which aims to improve understanding about the concept of extremism itself, plus the groups and ideologies that manifest extremism in their aims, rhetoric and activities. 

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  • Spaaij, R. (2012). Understanding lone wolf terrorism: Global patterns, motivations and prevention. London; New York: Springer.
  • Wilner, A. S., & Dubouloz, C. (2010). Homegrown terrorism and transformative learning: An interdisciplinary approach to understanding radicalization,. Global Change, Peace & Security formerly Pacifica Review: Peace, Security & Global Change, 22(1), 33–51.

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13 Responses

  1. For-me-to-know

    “Breivik contacts a Serbian group on the internet and this seems to be the moment that changes his life.”

    Given that Breivik was an extreme psychotic, do you have any evidence to support this eye-catching assertion? Do bear in mind that “Breivik contacts a Welsh group” would be rather less compelling, especially for Guardian readers.

  2. Breivik was someone who was taken over by his logical mind which is a common error with OCD type people. I don’t think you are justified in substituting extremism for terrorism. Extremism is not a crime and does not need to be confronted. Remember that those who live by the sword die by the sword.

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