Review of my book on lone wolves in European Eyes on Radicalization (10 July 2020)

Lone Wolves: The New Terrorism of Right-Wing Single Actors

Florian Hartleb, Springer, 2020, 196 pages


European Eye on Radicalization

Dr. Florian Hartleb is Managing Director of Hanse Advice in Tallinn (Estonia). He lectures at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and the University for Police of Saxony-Anhalt (Germany).

His research mainly revolves around political radicalism and populism, with a particular emphasis on Right-wing contemporary populism.

He was appointed as an official investigator of the City of Munich following the terror attack of July 22, 2016 — in which nine people, plus the perpetrator David Ali Sonboly, lost their lives — and the book Lone Wolves: The New Terrorism of Right-Wing Single Actors largely stems from the knowledge acquired while investigating that episode.

On July 22, 2016, in the vicinity of the Olympia shopping mall in the Moosach district of Munich, 18-year-old Iranian-German, David Ali Sonboly, opened fire on some teenagers at a McDonald’s restaurant before shooting at bystanders in the street and in the mall. Nine people were killed and 36 were injured. After hiding for around two hours, Sonboly shot and killed himself just as the police found him.

Sonboly had strong xenophobic views and Der Spiegel reported on accounts from his fellow online gamers who talked about the perpetrator’s anti-Turkish messages and admiration for Germany’s Right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.[1]

Mutual Inspiration of Lone Attackers

In the author’s words, the book intends to provide an in-depth analysis of far-Right lone attacks, with particular attention to the process of mutual inspiration between different terrorists. Hartleb based his research on primary sources, such as approximately 4,000 pages of investigators’ files, thus creating a highly empirical analysis that is worth reading.

The book is divided into five chapters. The first one deals with far-Right terrorism and the persistent underestimation of this threat worldwide. The second scrutinizes the complex notion of “lone wolves” in its different meanings, whereas the third chapter digs into the realm of ideology, motives and objectives through multiple relevant case studies, ranging from those involving Frank Steffen, Thomas Mair and Luca Traini to attackers such as David Copeland, Pekko Auvinen and Anton Petterson, as well as the aforementioned Sonboly.

The fourth chapter tackles the understudied trends related to the internationalization of the radical Right and of special note is the alt-Right discourses based on conspiracy theories and identitarianism. Finally, the last chapter is policy-oriented and provides a number of recommendations on prevention and assessment of the threat posed by the alt-Right — both online and offline.

Dangers of Depoliticizing Attackers’ Profiles

One of the main insights provided by Hartleb relates to the persistent trend of considering far-Right and xenophobic acts of violence as simply emotional and hate-filled, whereas little attention is paid to the operational details — the planning and organization. The author warns that this misleading approach is based on what he calls depoliticization and pathologization of the attackers’ profiles, a problem that has cropped up in other areas of the anti-radicalization field. He provides multiple examples of this persistent fallacy, and demonstrates the attackers’ highly-developed ideological motivations.

The book enriches the complex debate concerning the typology of lone wolves, which has proven to be remarkably controversial in its scope and variations. In this respect, Hartleb adopts a nuanced but clear approach, highlighting that the classification “single actor” (or lone wolf) merely refers to the planning of the actual terrorist event. It does not negate the fact that the acts may be a consequence of communicating and interacting with kindred spirits or groups.

In short, the author does not really reject the contributions recently provided within the debate by scholars such as Schuurman et al. in “End of the Lone Wolf: The Typology that Should Not Have Been”.[2]

Lone Wolf: A Flawed Typology

The paper argues that the “lone wolf” typology should be fundamentally reconsidered for two main reasons: First, ties to online and offline radical milieus are critical to lone actors’ adoption and maintenance of both the motive and capability to commit acts of terrorism. Second, in terms of pre-attack behaviors, the majority of lone actors are not the outstandingly capable and self-sufficient terrorists the “lone wolf” moniker alludes to.

In the last chapter, Hartleb provides a number of interesting long-term recommendations to deal with the alt-Right and alt-Right lone-actor terrorists. A particularly informative point is made when addressing the notion of brutalization of open discourse, which according to the author is characteristic of our era and is having disastrous consequences in legitimizing violence.


Prevention must always begin wherever it can achieve success relatively easily, and that’s why protecting young people should be a special concern for our societies and more monitoring must be devoted to far-Right groups.

Lone Wolves: The New Terrorism of Right-Wing Single Actors is a remarkably interesting work that provides a well-documented and wide-ranging analysis, both from a theoretical and an empirical perspective.



[1] “Amokläufer David S, Einsam, krank und fest entschlossen” [Gunman David S.: decided lonely, sick and laid], Der Spiegel, July 24, 2016.

[2] B. Schuurman, L. Lindekilde, S. Malthanerc, F. O’Connor, P. Gill, and N. Bouhana. “End of the Lone Wolf: The Typology that Should Not Have Been”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol.2, no. 8, 2017, pp. 771-778.