A table on what people mean by “lone wolves” and other terms

The recent terror attacks in Boston and London have re-ignited a lot of discussion over “self-radicalisation” and “lone wolves”. Unfortunately, these terms are used in lots of different ways, just as “terrorism”, “radicalisation”, “jihadism” and “homegrown terrorism” are, leading to lots of confused discussion.

This is not just in the media. Among scholars there are loads of different terms used to describe the size and structure of terrorist cells and their relationships with wider extremist movements.

To help make sense of this, I’ve made this table that breaks down the defining characteristics of the terms used by scholars in this field.

The left hand column describes five different variations that terror plots may have in their relationship with other extremist organisations or individuals.  The middle column presents the terms used to describe these variations in attacks carried out by two or more people (a cell). The right hand column presents the terms used to describe these variations in attacks that are carried out by a single person.

Cell: two or more individuals Individual

Attack directly controlled by an established group such as al-Qaeda.

Directed cell.

“Chain of command” (Neumann and Rogers)

“Command and control” (Silber)

“Core” or “affiliated” (Sageman, depending on whether the organisation was al-Qaeda central)

Example: 9/11 cell.

Directed individual.

“Top-down solo terrorist” (Nesser)

“Lone attacker” (Pantucci)

Example: Richard Reid.


Attacks which are directly supported but not controlled or instigated by an established group.

Guided cell.

“Guided”  (Neumann and Rogers)

“Suggested/endorsed” (Silber)

“Core” or “affiliated” (Sageman, depending on whether the organisation was al-Qaeda central)

Example: Millennium plot cell.

Guided individual.

“Top-down solo terrorist” (Nesser)

“Lone attacker” (Pantucci)


Attacks which may involve people connected to other violent extremist groups and individuals (one person may have trained overseas, another may have had a friend in an earlier cell) but the initiative and planning only involves the individual or cell, with no direct external support.

Self-starting cell.

“Self-starter” (Neumann and Rogers)

“Inspired” (Silber)

“Autonomous” (Sageman)

“Lone wolf pack” (Pantucci)

Example: Pendennis cells.

Self-starting individual.

“Bottom-up solo terrorist” (Nesser)

“Lone wolf” (Pantucci)

Self-starting cleanskin:

Attacks from a group or individual that had no previous significant interaction with other violent extremists, but may have had ties to likeminded-but-not-actually-violent extremists.

Self-starting cleanskin cell.

“Self-starter” (Neumann and Rogers)

“Inspired” (Silber)

“Autonomous” (Sageman)

“Lone wolf pack” (Pantucci)

Example: Boston bombers (for now).

Self-starting cleanskin individual.

“Lone wolf” (Nesser)

“Lone wolf” or “loner” (not sure which of Pantucci’s categories apply here)

“Lone wolf” (Spaaij)

Example: Breivik.

Self-starting self-radicalised:

The individual or cell has no interaction with likeminded extremists of any sort, though they might read, watch and listen to extremist propaganda.

Self-starting self-radicalised cell.

“Self-starter” (Neumann and Rogers)

“Inspired” (Silber)

“Autonomous” (Sageman)

“Lone wolf pack” (Pantucci)

Self-starting self-radicalised individual.

“Lone wolf” (Nesser)

“Loner” (Pantucci)

“Lone wolf” (Spaaij)

Example: Roshonara Choudhry.

Note that the terms used by Sageman, Silber and Neumann and Rogers can apply to both cells and individuals, but I’ve chosen not to put them in the “individual” column to avoid clutter.

Feel free to make suggestions. Also let me know if you have any idea why WordPress is not displaying the vertical lines.

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