The Lone Terrorist in the Workplace

J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D.

Winter 2014 Newsletter

Should employers and their threat assessment teams be concerned about the “lone wolf” terrorist?
Reid Meloy has done extensive work on this subject for counter-terrorism professionals and offers a description of their motives.

On September 25, 2014, Alton Nolen, a 30 year old employee, beheaded a fellow worker, 54 year old Colleen Hufford, with a knife in the Vaughan Foods processing plant in an Oklahoma City suburb.  He then attacked another worker, apparently attempting to also behead her; she had initiated a complaint against him for racial slurs against whites that resulted in his suspension earlier that day.  He was shot and wounded by a reserve deputy who was also the CEO of the company.  What do we know about Nolen?  He had a criminal record, was a recent convert to Islam, had provocative postings on his Facebook page, including images of a beheading and Osama bin Laden, and did his act following several beheadings of Americans by ISIS in Syria, and the beheading of a French mountaineering guide the day before.

Immediately a debate ensued among the pundits: do we call this terrorism or workplace violence?  This is mixing apples and oranges.  It was both.  The setting in which these acts occurred was the workplace; the motivations appear—although the complexity of this act would need to be sorted out by a careful study of the case—to be “revenge and obliteration” (the words of our colleague James Knoll, MD), racial prejudice, Islamic radicalization, and perhaps a desire to imitate this particular method of killing which is deeply historical in many cultures: the Indochinese, Saudis, Romans, Celts, British, French, Scots, and yes, the Americans.   We list “Motivations for Violence” as the first item on our workplace assessment guide, the WAVR-21, to encourage threat assessors to think carefully about the many reasons a subject could view violence as a legitimate means to achieve a particular goal.  Ideology is one of them, and the lone terrorist (sometimes labeled lone wolf), often has a conscious belief system that justifies such violence in his mind with an eye toward a much larger, media- inspired audience.  The workplace is not immune from such threateners in both corporate and university settings.

My British colleague, Jessica Yakeley, MD, and I have recently published a science study of lone terrorists[1] which focuses upon their relationships and their evolving psychology.  It is one of several empirical papers that have appeared over the past six months on lone wolves which enhance our understanding.  In this brief perspective for WTS readers, I want to focus on the construction of motivation in these individuals.

  1. Personal grievance–Similar to all acts of targeted violence, the pathway typically begins with a personal grievance: an event or series of events that involve loss and often humiliation of the subject, his or her continual rumination about the loss, and the blaming of others.  Most people with grievances eventually grieve their loss, but for those unwilling or unable to do so, often the most narcissistically sensitive individuals, it is much easier to convert their shame into rage toward the object which they believe is the cause of all their suffering.  Such intense grievances require that individuals take no personal responsibility for  their failures in life.  As my colleague Mary Ellen O’Toole has noted, they are “injustice collectors.”
  2. Moral outrage–the lone terrorist, however, begins to distinguish himself from others on a pathway to violence because he embeds his personal grievance in an historical, religious, or political cause or event.  The suffering of others, which may be misperceived or actual, provides emotional fuel for his personal grievance.   He closely identifies with the “victimized” group, whether they be aborted fetuses, an endangered animal species, rain forests, gun owners, Muslims, those who fear the US government, or those whose prejudice is equal opportunity, and labels all those who are different as the oppressors, often on the basis of skin color or belief.  He then knows whom to hate. What is ironic is that the lone terrorist often has never actually suffered oppression or victimization as a member of the group with whom he identifies.  This is a vicarious identification.  Malik Hasan, the 2009 Ft. Hood mass murderer, is a striking example.  He closely identified with the Taliban and attempted to mount a legal “defense of others” at his trial, believing that he was, like them, oppressed by the US which was at war with Islam in his mind.  However, Hasan had never been personally attacked by the US, had no military comrades who were Taliban; and, in fact, had substantially benefited from his commission in the US Army, completing medical school, his residency, and his fellowship at US taxpayers’ expense, and attaining the rank of Major.
  3. Framed by an ideology–the motivation is completed when the personal grievance and moral outrage is framed by an ideology.  Current analysis indicates that lone terrorist ideologies will include right wing extremism (there are currently 1018 active hate groups in the US, including the National Alliance and Christian Identity), Islam (ISIS or Al Qaeda, both derivatives of ultraconservative  Wahhabism, a sect of Sunni Islam), anti-abortion beliefs, and nationalism/separatism (Sovereign Citizens in US, Freeman on the Land in Canada).  Upon closer examination, these conscious belief systems are quite superficial; subjects will cherry pick phrases from the relevant authoritative text to justify their desire to kill others, and perhaps themselves.  This framing is absolutist and simplistic, providing a clarity that both rationalizes their behavior and masks other, more personal grievances.  They become “violent true believers,” intent on killing others to advance their cause, and their pathway toward an act of targeted violence has begun.


Copyright 2014 J. Reid Meloy


[1] Please send me an email at if you would like a pdf of our study.