Violent hate crimes offer insights into lone-actor terrorism

Jessica Rivinius

Understanding the patterns of violent hate crimes may help law enforcement officers better understand lone-actor terrorism. When compared to group-based terrorism incidents, violent hate crimes are more predictive of when and where lone-actor terrorist attacks occurred, according to new research from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).

In the United States between 1992 and 2010, locations where the 101 lone-actor terrorism incidents occurred shared more demographic similarities with the locations of the 46,000 violent hate crimes than with the locations of 424 group-based terrorist attacks over the time period.

Similar to group-based terrorism and violent hate crimes, lone-actor terrorism is more likely to occur in counties with larger populations, lower levels of home ownership, and higher percentages of non-Hispanic whites. START_IUSSD_UnderstandingLoneactorTerrorism_Sept2013_cover

“We think this is likely for two reasons: one, home owners may exert more control and surveillance over their immediate neighborhood, and two, there are likely fewer suitable targets -- businesses, abortion clinics, government buildings, in residential areas with high home ownership rates,” said Victor Asal, lead author and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Albany, SUNY.

Unlike group-based terrorism and violent hate crimes, lone-actor terrorism is not more likely to occur in counties with higher percentages of residents living in urban environments, higher percentages of male residents between 15 and 24 years of age, or higher unemployment rates. The researchers also found that lone-actor terrorists tend to attack in less populated states, leading them to conclude that lone-actor terrorists may be a more serious threat outside the major population centers than in larger cities.

“Though our research cannot predict the time or place of future attacks, we hope that knowledge of these trends and risk factors can be useful from an intelligence perspective and can inform strategies for prevention,” Asal said.

Asal and his fellow researchers – Kathleen Deloughery, University at Albany, SUNY, and Ryan King, The Ohio State University – examined the timing, locations, methods, targets, and geographic distributions of lone-actor terrorist attacks, group-based terrorist attacks, and violent hate crimes that occurred between 1992 and 2010. They then used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to assess whether the counties in which lone-actor terrorism occurred shared common demographic characteristics with those that experienced group-based terrorism and violent hate crimes.

The study was funded through START by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Resilient Systems Division. It is part of a series of studies in support of the Prevent/Deter program. The goal of this program is to sponsor research that will aid the intelligence and law enforcement communities in assessing potential terrorist threats and support policymakers in developing prevention efforts.