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Lone Wolf Terrorism: Vulnerabilities and Risks in Autism

post by Clare Allely 18th July 2017

Terrorism involves committing violent acts for political, religious or ideological reasons. Traditionally, terrorism is characterised and understood as a group phenomenon (Nesser, 2012). Relatively recently, there has been the emergence of a new type of terrorist threat - the “lone wolf” terrorist (Barnes, 2012). Over the last decade, the rise of lone wolf terrorism has created the need for an understanding of the pathway from radical ideology to radical violence. Such understanding would inform the development of more effective identification strategies (Buggy, 2016). It is extremely rare for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be involved in terrorism. The prevalence of individuals with ASD being attracted or recruited by terror organisations is unknown. In a recent study, Corner, Gill and Mason (2016) identified five individuals with an ASD (3.3%) in their sample of 153 lone actor, solo or dyads who engaged in terrorism. It is important to caution here that there is no direct link between ASD and terrorism. Although there is no conclusive evidence supporting the notion that individuals with ASD are more violent compared to individuals without ASD, there may exist specific generative and associational risk factors which may increase the risk of offending among individuals with ASD (Im, 2016). However, when an individual with ASD does associate with extremists or terrorists, Al-Attar has highlighted the role played by autistic special interests, fantasy, obsessionality, the need for routine/predictability, social and communication difficulties, cognitive styles, local coherence, systemising, and sensory processing, in terrorism pathways and modus operandi (Al-Attar, 2016). They are also potentially the conditions which extremists are increasingly exploiting in individuals they target for recruiting and training. Searching for a “need to matter” or social connection, and support for someone who is alienated or without friends, may also present as risk factors. Individuals with ASD may be more vulnerable to being drawn into increasingly more involved commitment. This is because individuals with ASD have a tendency to hyperfocus on their fascinations/interests at the expense of other attachments/life interests. Lastly, developing fixated interests in terrorism, bomb-making, and/or martyrdom, when combined with a desire to relate to others, and impairments in being able to critically analyse the philosophy and beliefs of a social group (and just focusing on particular facets due to central coherence difficulties), can result in the individual with ASD being recruited or used by terrorists. It is possible that individuals with this combination of factors may be the most vulnerable.

I have just published a paper with my colleague, Dr Lino Faccini, in the Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour (Faccini & Allely, 2017) where we presented cases, of individuals with ASD, that ranged in involvement with terrorism consistent with the “degree of radicalization” scheme towards terrorism by Kruglanski and colleagues (2014). Cases were presented of individuals who are passive and active supporters, fighters, and one case of a suicide bomber. We also presented the case of an individual with strongly suggested Asperger’s Syndrome, who planned and engaged in a complex lone wolf attack. We presented specific case information to illustrate how the ASD functionally connected to the path towards being inspired to act on behalf of a terrorist’s cause, joining a terrorism organisation and engaging in directed attacks, or engaging in lone wolf terrorism. Our paper clearly highlights the need for clinicians carrying out forensic evaluations of individuals with ASD who have engaged in terroristic actions/behaviour to investigate whether their ASD symptomatology is functionally related to their terrorisic actions (Faccini & Allely, 2017). On a case-by-case basis, clinicians needs to consider how the diagnosis of ASD may have presented as a contextual vulnerability, and how it is connected to the dynamics of the offense. Clinicians also need to make sure that justice, rehabilitation and management, are informed by an understanding of the individual’s diagnosis of ASD (Al-Attar, 2016).

The majority of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) never become involved with the criminal justice system. However, there is a small subgroup who do. It is crucial that we explore the potential vulnerabilities in this small subgroup that might put them at greater risk of being drawn into/getting involved in particular crimes or being recruited by others to engage in offending behaviours. One of the key reasons for this is to develop a greater understanding of what these vulnerabilities might be for particular crimes in order that preventive strategies can be put in place to help protect some of these individuals. Current research does not show a direct link but autistic people may be at greater risk of supporting or engaging in terrorism. For those that find themselves faced with such charges, is it imperative that there is research and understanding of how their characteristics of autism may have contributed to their behaviour (the charge that they are faced with). Despite the sensitive nature of such topics, it is nevertheless crucial that it is further investigated.

Link to the paper:
Faccini, L., & Allely, C.S. (2017). Rare instances of individuals with autism supporting or engaging in terrorism. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, 8, 70-82.


Al-Attar, Z. (2016). Autism & Terrorism Links–Fact or Fiction. In 15th International Conference on the Care and Treatment of Offenders with an Intellectual and/or Developmental Disability. National Autistic Society.

Barnes, B.D. (2012). Confronting the one-man wolf pack: Adapting law enforcement and prosecution responses to the threat of lone wolf terrorism. Boston University Law Review, 92, 1613-1662.

Buggy, K. (2016). Under the Radar: How might Australia enhance its policies to prevent ‘lone wolf’ and ‘fixated person’ violent attacks? Indo-Pacific Strategic Papers. Available from: http://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/IndoPac/Buggy_IPSP_Final.pdf

Corner, E., Gill, P., & Mason, O. (2015). Mental health disorders and the terrorist: A research note probing selection effects and disorder prevalence. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 39, 560-568.

Faccini, L., & Allely, C.S. (2017). Rare instances of individuals with autism supporting or engaging in terrorism. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, 8, 70-82.

Im, D. S. (2016). Trauma as a Contributor to Violence in Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 44m 184-192.

Kruglanski, A. W., Gelfand, M. J., Bélanger, J. J., Sheveland, A., Hetiarachchi, M., & Gunaratna, R. (2014). The psychology of radicalization and deradicalization: How significance quest impacts violent extremism. Political Psychology, 35, 69-93.

Nesser, P. (2012). Research note: single actor terrorism: scope, characteristics and explanations. Perspectives on Terrorism, 6, 61-73.

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