SIMAD and Lone Wolf Terrorism Prospects and Potential Strategies to Address the Threat

The number of terrorism incidents increased over the past 20 years, reaching 8,441 in 2012 and more than 5,000 in the first half of 2013. Of all terrorism, the lone wolf type is the most insidious, because it is exceedingly difficult to anticipate, given the actions and intent of individuals acting alone. Yet the participants in a Real-Time Delphi study conducted in October December 2013 by the Israeli Node of The Millennium Project maintained that nearly a quarter of terrorist attacks carried out in 2015 might be by a lone wolf, and the situation might escalate: about half of the participants in the study thought that lone wolf terrorists might attempt to use weapons of mass destruction around 2030.

In the context of this study, a lone wolf terrorist is defined as a single individual acting essentially alone who kills or injures people or inflicts significant damage on essential infrastructure in a single occurrence or over time, or plans to do so, in order to bring about political, religious, or ideological aims. Lone wolf terrorists are not directed by outside hierarchies. Targets may be specific groups or undifferentiated masses of people. Weapons may include firearms, homemade bombs, computers, poisons and biological agents, and, in the future, easier-to­produce weapons of mass destruction or disruption (WMDs), including self-manufactured chemical weapons and biological agents as well as weapons of military grade that may have been taken from military stocks or laboratories or purchased on the black market. Cyber terror is also included when it results in massive destruction or loss of life.

There are many known lone wolf incidents, from the use of conventional weapons to incidents involving ricin or anthrax and incendiary attacks and other forms of mayhem.  A special category of lone wolves are those who use or plan to use weapons of mass destruction, called SIMAD (single individual massively destructive). This term was coined in “The World Wakes Up” S&T 2025 scenario prepared by The Millennium Project in 2002 (available in GFIS in Research under Science and Technology 2025 Global Scenarios). It is meant to convey the threat posed by psychopathic individuals who plan to do harm with weapons that are capable of killing and injuring large numbers of people or destroying or incapacitating infrastructure. In the decade that has passed since the scenario was written, the plausibility of SIMAD has increased.

The lone wolf problem is global and multifaceted: On the one hand, there is the possibility of escalation of weaponry, including genetic coding and essentially undetectable computer viruses. On the other hand, there may be new means for early detection of potentially aberrant behavior. Some scientists argue that fMRI and other imaging tools could help to identify potential terrorist inclinations. However, the social implications of searching for potential lone wolves, as well as what to do about them if they are found, can compromise civil liberties and present ethical dilemmas.

In order to explore some of these threats and dilemmas, the Israel Node of The Millennium Project initiated a Real-Time Delphi study with some 50 people from around the world who had expertise in an appropriate domain.
The study’s objectives were to:

  • Reach a broader understanding of the potential future nature, likelihood, and time frame of lone wolf threats.
  • Identify technology domains that have the potential to increase or change the nature of these threats.
  • Explore policies and approaches concerning the access to information about potentially harmful technologies, as well as to curb their potential impact if they were to be deployed.
  • Identify possible early warning techniques.
  • Identify plausible means for identifying potentially threatening individuals.
  • Assess humane and socially acceptable means for dealing with such individuals.
  • Collect further ideas and concerns related to these threats.

The questionnaire had 17 questions; the first 13 invited the participants to assess potential developments, variables, and strategies as to their likelihood and time frames of potential events, sources, weapons, and locations, as well as the level of confidence of the respondents in their own answers and the reasons behind their responses. The last four questions were open-ended, inviting the respondents to elaborate on certain issues or suggest other concerns that might be added to the set that appeared in the questionnaire.

Time Frames and Intensity

Two-thirds of the respondents thought that at least 20% of the terrorist attacks carried out in 2015 would be by lone wolves. The average probability was 25.6%, but the answers ranged from 3% to 65%, with a relative direct correlation between the percentage level and the respondent’s confidence.

The average year for when a lone wolf might use a WMD was 2033, with about half of the participants choosing the interval between 2020 and 2040, with generally “middle” and above confidence.

The number of people killed in SIMAD attacks was judged to rise over time, as shown in Figure 1. This reflects the growing availability to individuals of increasingly destructive technology. Although there was disagreement, the average group opinion was that a SIMAD attack kill­ing 100,000 people or more could occur before 2050, while half of the respondents felt that such a catastrophe might occur beyond 2075 or never. There were no estimates between 2050 and 2075. The respondents’ level of confidence was mostly “middle.”

Figure 1. Number of People Killed in SIMAD Attack

One reason given for the early date of violence was the development of techniques, tools, and knowledge, such as on “do it yourself” biotechnology or synthetic biology, and the decrease in personal restraint of violent behavior globally due to the reactions of poor and oppressed people or the lack of spiritual growth in Y-generation and millennials, who would have less self-restraint and hence might gravitate to violence using the Internet availability of training in the means of violence. More details are available on-line in GFIS.

Causes, Targets, and Location of Violence

With a fairly high level of confidence, over 50% of the respondents thought that the most likely location for a SIMAD attack will be North America. The Middle East and Europe were the second- and third-rated regions but with a much lower number of votes.

The most likely motivations were considered to be religious incentives and the redress of perceived wrongs. Less likely were installing new forms of government, seeking a place in history, insanity, and procuring money and recruits.

There was also a high level of agreement that the most likely targets would be both the population at large and specific population segments. Very few voted for infrastructure and government officials as targets.


The questionnaire asked the participants to indicate the field from which a potential lone wolf would choose the massively destructive or disruptive weapons. The categories listed were: nanotechnology, biotech and synthetic biology, nuclear physics, computers/communications, power generation and transmission, agriculture and food, and other. Biotech and synthetic biology received 57.5% of responses, while computers/ communications received 12.8%.

Other suggestions included invasive species as a bioweapon (“VERY easy to make, distribute, and have severe impact on nations, public health, ecosystems, global food production, and commodity markets.”); very simple weapons that have mass killing implications, such as very effective poisons, but that are distributed in novel ways; and nanotech agents “that are penetrative, saturational, invisible, destructive, and dispersible” and could be even more cost-effective than biological agents, “though nano can be combined with bio.”


The strategies suggested for prevention can be grouped into “soft approaches” that include public awareness campaigns and educational reform and “hard approaches” that include profiling, genetic screening, fMRI brain scanning, and other such techniques. Three-quarters of the respondents agreed, with a generally high level of confidence, that serious attempts to search for lone wolf terrorists who are capable of carrying out an attack using a weapon of mass destruction will be made before such an attack occurs.

The two most effective ways to detect potential lone wolves or SIMADs as rated by 71% of the participants were monitoring purchases of critical materials and monitoring communications and social media. Less effective were third-party reports of unusual behavior, mass psychological screening, and genetic screening.

The preventive activities seen as most effective were profiling (fascination with mass killings, playing violent videogames, difficulty in social communications, possibility of being bullied as a child, proficiency with firearms, seizures, lack of emotional connections, and obsession with battles, war, and destruction), eavesdropping, and social media monitoring. One respondent also suggested searching for a genetic component that would predispose certain people toward this kind of violent behavior, thus raising the possibility of genetic screening.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (62%) thought that “soft” approaches such as education reform or public awareness campaigns are likely to be effective in dealing with the lone wolf threat in the long term. Some respondents pointed out some limits however: “While soft approaches might work fairly well in most cases, inevitably they will not be 100% effective and therefore the threat will exist still.” Another respondent warned that “unless the global system undergoes dramatic change, there will always be those aggrieved or twisted enough to pursue violence, even if only for its own sake.”

Yet 59% felt, with fairly high confidence, that scientific and technological papers should not be withheld even if they contained information of potential use to the terrorists. Why? As one respondent said: “Because the very nature of scientific research is in its publication.”

The panel was split over the question of whether or not intrusion into privacy was justified in an effort to limit lone wolf terrorism, while one respondent asked the poignant question: “who will control the controllers?”

The respondents were also divided over the percent of SIMAD attacks that might be prevented by implementing the strategies just described. The average response was 53.5%, ranging from 2% to 100%, as shown in Figure 2. However, the crucial point is the lack of any trace of consensus. Yet the confidence of the respondents in their answers was fairly high.

Figure 2. Percent of SIMAD Attacks Averted by Using the Given Set of Strategies

Many suggestions were made in response to an open-ended question about steps that should be taken to minimize lone wolf threats. Most respondents supported monitoring, control, education, and intelligence gathering. In addition, there were some new suggestions for mitigating lone wolf threats:

  • When new-technology weapons are developed, also develop the antidote for them or, if not possible, have a moratorium on the use of the respective technology
  • Ban on weaponizable bio/nano technologies; ban possession of such weapons by citizens
  • Sensors at key transit points and supply sources; focused monitoring of movement of potentially destructive materials—much more effective than data sweeps and tracking every blip in cyber-space
  • Long term: education and reduction of poverty; higher-level public discourse
  • No magic formula to stop this phenomenon
  • Dealing with Potential Lone Wolves

Suppose for a moment that methods were invented to identify people who might become violent lone wolves at some point in the future. How should society deal with them? Some of the respondents warned that the potential fear of large-scale violence could lead society down the path to intrusive, ultra-authoritarian, lawless government. Others suggested that due process within the current legal system would be adequate and should be followed. Some two-thirds of respondents suggested incarceration, removal from society, monitoring, observation or
placing on a watch list. The others suggested rehabilitation, counseling, psychotherapy, and medical treatment.
However, one respondent argued: “We cannot lock people up for what they might be thinking absent proof of intent to commit. Monitoring is a balanced approach.… If they have not broken any laws, observation is okay. If they have or are about to commit an attack, interception is okay within due legal process.”

The participants were also asked what if those identified have been engaged in building weapons capable of mass destruction or disruption. How should society treat these potential terrorists? Most of the suggestions fell into the same categories—incarceration, monitoring, and therapy. A new suggestion was for “special courts/tribunals in which the judges include psychiatrists to examine and prescribe for the suspect.” A responded commented: “Not enough or not soon enough will always haunt us. Totalitarian societies seldom have this dilemma.”
A final question asked the participants what steps should be taken to minimize threats of lone wolf and SIMAD respectively, and when. As expected, most of the suggestions overlap. Media, education, and social conditions were mentioned the most often, both as enhancing factors as well as potential remedial tools. “The media should not ‘heroize’ those that commit mass destruction or aggression of any kind.” And “media should be full time involved in sending subliminal messages, so people can reflect about their own behaviors.”
One interesting idea was that maybe there is a genetic component that induces extreme aberrant behavior. Therefore, genetic manipulation might also be considered, notwithstanding important civil rights questions that this could imply. Another suggested, “set up a system where marginally crazy people, under close control and observation, are asked to generate ideas for weapons that a SIMAD might use.”

Some participants made additional comments, including the following:

  • Do you think that this threat links to social integration of minorities? What are the early signs of this threat? How can we monitor possible threats? Do you think this threat needs different and new regulations?
  • Study radicalization phenomenon in general. Societal injustices, perceived threats, deprivations, hurt, actual loss, alienation, sense of loss, sense of pain. Perceptions matter and reality is perceived differently by various people. Group identification of loss of dignity, pride, status, or destiny is important. The emphasis is on group study to get to individual behavior. After all, no lone wolf acts in this blue air. More research effort and dialogue is needed to comprehend and then tackle the issues.
  • I think more emphasis should be put on lone wolf cyber-terrorists. More questions on cyber crime. We will find the wolves there….
  • Who is monitoring all the “caretakers” at present and after they retire… Who has access to nuclear, medical research, nanomaterials? The H5N1 controversy is a good example… and I am concerned about “private” science as a whole… Who monitors Craig Venter?

At this point, the study only provides some good indications of the areas that deserve more profound research and analysis. It does not pretend nor should it be seen as a report on the future of global terrorism or a scenario of future lone wolf and SIMAD terrorism. Also, from a methodological standpoint, the meaning of the self-evaluation of confidence is unclear and the high confidence generally evidenced in this study is certainly not equivalent to high probability.

Nevertheless, the central conclusion emerging from the study is that minimizing the lone wolf and SIMAD threats is a long-time continuous effort for national and international authorities and for the public that implies economic, social, moral, political, educational, psychiatric, and other factors. Further research and analysis, as well as building new innovative scenarios, would greatly help advance the understanding of the phenomenon and its containment. We have an early warning and we should use it!


This study was designed and conducted by Theodore J. Gordon, co-founder of The Millennium Project; Elizabeth Florescu, Director of Research, The Millennium Project; and Yair Sharan, Co-Chair of the Israel Node of The Millennium Project and director of the FIRST research group. It was produced in cooperation with the Israeli Node of The Millennium Project, FIRST Research Group, and the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response.