How to spot and catch mentally-disturbed "lone wolves"

Efforts to detect surveillance are a critical means of spotting lone wolves during the target selection and planning stage

Editor’s Note: The following article by Scott Stewart, The persistent threat of mentally disturbed lone wolves, is republished with permission of Stratfor, a company that uses a unique, intel-based approach to analyze world affairs, and provide global awareness and guidance to individuals, governments, and businesses. Scott Stewart supervises the day-to-day operations of Stratfor's intelligence team and plays a central role in coordinating the company's analytical process with its business goals. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

Article updated on July 31, 2017.

On the afternoon of Jan. 30, 2014, the mother of a Pittsford (New York) man made a terrifying discovery. Her son, 44-year-old Benjamin Smith, had disappeared from the family home armed with a lever-action rifle and left a disturbing note for his mother that said, among other things, “I am going to work for George W. Bush and the Pentagon” and “I have to slay the dragon and then Barbara Bush is mine…”

The U.S. Secret Service was able to use Smith’s cell phone to track him, and he was located and arrested early the next morning in midtown Manhattan, some 330 miles from Pittsford. At the time of his arrest, Smith was armed with his rifle and a machete. Barbara Pierce Bush, the daughter of former President George W. Bush mentioned in Smith’s letter, works and resides in Manhattan.

Perhaps the best example of the problems lone wolves pose for investigators is Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.
Perhaps the best example of the problems lone wolves pose for investigators is Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

In a time when so much attention has turned to the very real threat posed by grassroots jihadists, the Smith case is a reminder that not all lone wolves are ideologically motivated, and that mentally disturbed individuals pose a persistent threat that is hard for law enforcement and security officers to detect and defend against.

the Challenges lone wolf suspects pose for Law Enforcement

Mentally disturbed gunmen are well known for perpetrating mass shootings such as the September 2013 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard or the July 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

They have also posed a significant threat to high-profile individuals. John Hinckley (who shot and seriously wounded President Ronald Reagan), Mark David Chapman (who murdered John Lennon), and Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James Garfield, are all examples of such assailants. 

In this analysis we want to focus on the latter type of lone wolf – those who target specific high-profile individuals.

As we have discussed elsewhere, lone wolf assailants pose unique problems for law enforcement and security officers. They are difficult to identify before they act because they are widely dispersed geographically and are distributed across the ideological and social spectrum. In these cases, traditional police intelligence efforts are of limited effectiveness because there is no group to penetrate or communications between co-conspirators to intercept.

Perhaps the best example of the problems lone wolves pose for investigators is Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, who began sending improvised explosive devices in 1978 but was not arrested until 1996.

During those 18 years, Kaczynski sent 16 devices, several of which either did not explode or did not function as designed.

Although these failed attacks allowed authorities to recover a large quantity of physical evidence, Kaczynski’s isolation kept him from being identified. It was only after the publication of Kaczynski’s “Unabomber Manifesto” in 1995 that his brother came forward to the FBI and identified him as a possible suspect.

That said, such assailants are not impossible to guard against. Mentally disturbed lone wolves frequently take actions before an attack that make them vulnerable to detection by a proactive, protective intelligence program that incorporates investigation and surveillance detection or countersurveillance.

lone wolf Indicators

In the Smith case, the Secret Service was greatly aided by the fact that Smith left a note, that his mother warned authorities about his intentions and that the authorities took the warning seriously and took action to find him. It is not unusual for mentally disturbed individuals to leave notes or make excited utterances to friends or family members revealing their intentions. Sadly, there are many cases in which lone assailants provide such warnings but those warnings then are ignored and do not surface until after an attack has occurred.

According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Smith had a history of violent behavior, and in 2011 he was arrested for assaulting a man along the Erie Canal towpath and then yelling, “All you Pakistanis and Indians are all going to be killed! Go home!” Such an incident likely influenced Smith’s mother to go to the police and for the sheriff’s office to take the mother’s warning seriously.

Direct warnings are not the only activities that can bring a mentally disturbed lone wolf assailant to the attention of law enforcement or security officers.

Such individuals frequently attempt to make written or telephonic contact with their targets before initiating physical contact. Indeed, the quantity of correspondence that high-profile individuals such as the secretary of state or a corporate CEO receive from people who are obviously mentally imbalanced is simply astonishing.

Some of this correspondence is angry in tone, some of it is fawning or expresses an unhealthy sexual interest and sometimes it is mostly or totally incomprehensible. It would not be surprising if Smith had previously come to the attention of the Secret Service for attempting to contact Barbara Pierce Bush.

But even when a mentally disturbed individual self-identifies, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between harmless individuals and those who intend to conduct violent acts. This is further complicated by the fact that mental health is seldom static, and sometimes the mental state of individuals once assessed as harmless might deteriorate to the point where they could take action on their delusions or perhaps even become violent.  

It is also very hard to assess what event might set a mentally disturbed individual off and cause them to act. In one case Fred Burton and I worked in the late 1980s, a mentally disturbed man from Massachusetts traveled to Washington, D.C., intending to kill then-Secretary of State George Shultz. This man (a decorated combat veteran) decided he needed to kill Shultz because he had seen the secretary on a Sunday morning interview program and decided that Shultz was the person who was using a satellite to control his mind.

Fortunately for the agents assigned to Shultz’s protective detail, that person told his mother he was going to kill Shultz, she alerted the police and her heavily armed son was located and arrested before he could launch an attack -- much like the Smith case last week.

surveillance of lone wolf suspects

In addition to making threats and contacting their potential target, the point at which mentally disturbed lone wolf assailants are most vulnerable to being identified before an attack is when they are conducting pre-operational surveillance of their potential targets – when they are stalking, in other words. Since pre-operational surveillance involves establishing patterns, potential attackers are required to stalk their targets several times.  

Lone wolves are especially vulnerable to detection during the surveillance phase because they do not have others to assist them.

Conducting solo surveillance against a moving target is one of the hardest tasks any professional surveillance operative can be tasked with, and is especially difficult for an amateur. In solo surveillance, the operative is forced to reveal himself repeatedly over time and distance and in different environments.

Also, people unskilled in the art of surveillance, especially those who are mentally disturbed, will frequently commit many errors of demeanor. This odd behavior and crude surveillance technique – they frequently stalk and lurk – make them easy to pick out.

This vulnerability is magnified if the target is employing surveillance detection or countersurveillance operations to search for potential threats.

Surveillance detection and countersurveillance – the processes of detecting and mitigating hostile surveillance – are an important aspect of protective security operations. Good surveillance detection and countersurveillance operations are by their nature proactive, meaning they provide a means to prevent an attack from happening by identifying a potential threat before an attack can be launched.

This can be a group effort performed by a dedicated surveillance detection or countersurveillance team, or it can be done by individuals who simply make the effort to be aware of their surroundings and watch for people or vehicles that seem out of place.

Because of this, efforts to detect surveillance – whether by law enforcement, intelligence agencies, corporations or individuals – are a critical means of spotting lone wolves during the target selection and planning stage, the time the operation is most vulnerable to detection and interdiction.

It is important to be able to recognize hostile surveillance by a lone wolf before the next phase of the attack cycle begins, because once an actual attack is in progress, it is too late to prevent it – all security can do is react. 

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.