Understanding Lone-Actor Terrorists: The Global Context and How it can be Applied to New Zealand

Author: Tillett, Josinta1

Published in National Security Journal, 29 August 2021

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20210829.01

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While the Christchurch mosque attacks on 15 March 2019 were asserted to have changed New Zealand’s national security context, arguably the possibility of such an attack was foreseen, and, internationally, there was evidence of increasing risk of such attacks occurring. This paper explores the current state of international lone-actor research, and looks at how this can be applied in an endeavour to prevent future attacks in New Zealand. This paper combines an overview of the international lone-actor phenomenon, with New Zealand’s historical and contemporary terrorism context, and explores the extent that international research may have a bearing on current and future lone-actor terrorism risk here. It argues careful attention to identifiable indicators and protective factors, as well as local context, as essential in the contemplation of current and future attempts to pre-emptively identify and prevent potential lone-actor terrorism in New Zealand.

Keywords: Lone-Actor Terrorist, Terrorism, New Zealand, al- Qaeda, Islamic State, Right Wing Extremism, Risk Indicators, Protective Factors


The day of the 2019 terrorist attacks in Christchurch is considered by some, both within and outside of New Zealand’s Government, to be the day New Zealand’s national security context changed. While this may be so, it can also be argued that such an attack, by a lone-actor terrorist, was already considered possible, if not likely, in New Zealand. Indeed, researchers and world leaders had already highlighted the growth and higher-risk of lone-actor terrorism to the West1, and it had been cited as the most significant terrorism risk to New Zealand2. This paper seeks to answer the question: what is the current state of international lone-actor research, and how can this help New Zealand in its endeavour to prevent future attacks? This paper will overview the development of the lone-actor phenomenon internationally, briefly outline New Zealand’s historical and contemporary terrorism context as well as explore the extent of international research and the bearing it may have on New Zealand’s current and future lone-actor terrorism risk. It argues careful attention to identifiable indicators and protective factors, as well as local context, as essential in the contemplation of current and future attempts to preemptively identify and prevent potential lone-actor terrorism in New Zealand.

In part, the high risk of lone-actor terrorism is due to it being difficult to prevent. Difficulties arise from the solitary nature of related attack planning, hindering identification of attackers prior to terrorism events.3 Identification is difficult because lone-actors mostly work alone, are less likely to communicate with others, and planning is less obvious to security agencies.4 In addition, security agencies are unable to apply a lone-actor typology that would assist with identification, as academic research has not been able to prescribe one5. Developing a typology is difficult because of behavioural and characteristic variations of lone-actors, inaccurate information provided by friends and family on successful attackers, and inaccurate reporting by media and authorities.6 In New Zealand, the absence of historical attacks, as well as a lack of attention paid to the domestic terrorism context by successive governments, also complicates this.7

Despite the reported high-risk of lone-actor terrorism and difficulties in preventing it, New Zealand security agencies need to ensure as much as possible they are enabled to counter this risk. These agencies, particularly Police, the Security Intelligence Service and Customs, must not only respond to such attacks, but must also seek to detect potential lone-actors before possible attacks occur. These agencies currently identify, triage, and prioritise possible lone-actors. Early detection is important to prevent plans from forming and to identify rehabilitation options for potential lone-actors. However, in the general absence of a specific lone-actor profile, New Zealand agencies would benefit from an evidence-based approach to undertake these prevention tasks, particularly to support the heightened security requirements following the Christchurch attacks.8

This paper seeks to fill this gap, by providing New Zealand security agencies with insight to current international research on lone-actor terrorists, particularly their characteristics, and suggests how this research might be applied to New Zealand. This has been achieved by considering the relevant international studies on lone-actor terrorism, analysing them for thematic consistencies and differences, and drawing out the main established identifying factors attributed to lone-actor terrorists. These characteristics are then compared to known case studies of New Zealand lone-actors, which in turn are assessed against a random control sample of routine criminal offenders using anonymised data. This was done to test the efficacy of an indicator-based approach to assessing the risks of potential lone-actor suspects. This paper identifies a number of characteristics which are common among lone-actor terrorists, with further data that relates more specifically to New Zealand circumstances. This paper reveals the possibility of developing an assessment criteria relevant to a New Zealand context.

Two issues need further explanation before proceeding. Firstly, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism itself, and when it comes to specific types of terrorism definitions also vary. The definition of ‘lone-actor terrorism’ used in this research was developed at a 2015 Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism workshop in The Hague:

The threat or use of violence by a single perpetrator (or small cell), not acting out of purely personal-material reasons, with the aim of influencing a wider audience, and who acts without any direct support in the planning, preparation and execution of the attack, and whose decision to act is not directed by any group or other individuals (although possibly inspired by others).9

This definition aligns with those used by other researchers in the field, including Ramon Spaaj (2012) and Gabriel Weimann (2012), discussed below. The term ‘lone-actor’ is used here instead of ‘lone-wolf’ to avoid misconceptions that the latter term raises, including perceived levels of cunning and lethality.10 Secondly, New Zealand has historically lacked specific terrorism-related legislation. Its first enactment in 1987 – the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act – dealt only with specific powers in an ‘international terrorist event’ and has never been evoked. It was not until the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) 2002 that a ‘terrorist act’ became an offence, and even then in 2007 the complexity of the Act’s wording rendered it practically unusable unless applied after the fact. Until Brenton Tarrant pleaded guilty in 2020 for the Christchurch mosque attacks, legally speaking New Zealand had never had a terrorist. Academic attention on terrorism in New Zealand has also been lacking, until John Battersby more recently authored a number of articles focused on the issue. Battersby argues that despite the legal deficiency, New Zealand has experienced terrorism, and certain acts committed here – if committed in most other countries – would have been regarded as terrorism.11 Therefore, the New Zealand cases discussed in this article are those that, in the assessment of the author, meet the definition outlined above and, if not ‘legally’ regarded as terrorism in New Zealand, they are nevertheless relevant to a discussion about it.

1 Josinta Tillett holds a Master of International Security (intelligence) from the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University. This article is based on her research dissertation. Josinta is very grateful for the guidance, mentorship, dry humour and wit of her research supervisor, Dr John Battersby. Any correspondence in relation to this article, please contact the Managing Editor, NSJ at cdss@massey.ac.nz.