There is no perfect profile of a terrorist. This is one of the main findings in the growing body of literature around terrorism.
Terrorists and those radicalised towards extremist ideologies come in all shapes and sizes.
Yet, one of the key features that has appeared to distinguish terrorists from mass murderers is that they have been motivated more clearly by an ideology than by personal reasons. Increasingly, this line is becoming harder to draw.
The last two cases to afflict Europe — the massacres in Nice and Munich — highlight this difficulty, with both cases appearing to contain elements of both.
Unfortunately it is still too early to know categorically what was going on in Nice and Munich.
While the early coverage around both focused on the fact that the Nice murderer was operating alone, and the speculation around the Munich shooter that he may have been motivated by some violent ideology, instead we are now seeing confusing indicators of other directions.
French authorities have arrested five others in connection with the Nice attack, while it appears the Munich shooter may have had a fixation with mass shootings and was possibly inspired more by Anders Breivik than Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
But what both cases appear to have in common is disturbed young men who are angry at the world around them.
In both cases, stories have emerged of potentially confused sexuality, confused religious identity, anger management issues and family disputes. Rather than being ideologically committed terrorists, they may simply be using the method of a terrorist attack — under whatever ideology — to excise personal demons.
This appears to be an increasingly common phenomenon. It is difficult to know exactly why this is happening.
Certainly, the phenomenon of “lone wolf” terrorists is on the increase and groups such as Daesh and Al Qaida have urged their adherents to adopt this methodology for some time.
But in many of these cases it is not clear the lone wolves have totally bought into the ideology they claim to be fighting for.
Man Haron Monis, the Australian-Iranian who held up a coffee shop in Sydney in 2014, was only a recent convert to Sunni Islam and brought the wrong flag with him to his allegedly Daesh-inspired attack.
Omar Mateen, the shooter who killed 50 at an Orlando nightclub apparently claimed some allegiance to Al Qaida, Hezbollah and Daesh — competing organisations.
Playing into Daesh’s hands
But it is possible the noise surrounding groups such as Daesh is drawing lost souls towards it. It is almost impossible to turn on the television without hearing about Daesh, terrorism or political violence.
If you are a socially awkward individual with violent tendencies and are seeking some sort of meaning in your life, then the methodology of a lone wolf spree under the banner of such a group may be appealing. It will provide you with a way to punish the world around you while also giving meaning to your act.
Given the manner in which Daesh and other groups push out their message of violence and offer a very low bar for entry to themselves, it is very easy to latch on to the ideology as you may loosely understand it and use it as an excuse to express your anger. There is also an element of the copycat about such attacks.
This is nothing new — the murder in London of soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale has generated numerous copycat incidents. The same week, Alexandre Dhaussy, a recent convert to Islam and known to authorities more for his petty crime than his violent Islamist links, stabbed soldier Cedric Cordier in La Defense in Paris.
In August 2014, Brusthom Ziamani, a young man who had fallen into the orbit of violent extremists after he was thrown out of his family home, was arrested in London on his way to carry out an attack emulating the Rigby murder.
In January 2015, Zack Davies launched a machete attack on a south Asian man at a Tesco in Wales while shouting “white power”, saying it was to avenge Rigby. Later investigation showed Davies was an isolated, paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far Right and claimed to have been inspired by Jihadi John videos. The profile of what we consider a terrorist attack is increasingly hard to define, in the same way that the specifics of what terrorists look like is ever harder to grasp.
Fundamentally, a terrorist is someone motivated by a political ideology rather than personal anger — but this line is becoming blurred.
The profile of the average terrorist is melding with that of a mass killer, presenting authorities with an almost impossible task to prevent every attack.
— Telegraph Group Limited, London 2016
Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.