Hate Crime Extremists: The Contemporary Threat of Lone Wolf Terrorism

By Jon Garland

April 2014 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the London nailbombings: three separate attacks that occurred over two weeks in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho in the spring of 1999. In total, three people were killed and over 120 were injured in blasts that targeted the capital’s black, Asian and gay communities. In the confusion after the first bombing, a number of extreme right-wing groups tried to claim responsibility, but by the time of the third explosion the police knew they were after just one suspect – 22 year-old loner David Copeland. When caught, Copeland admitted to police that he was racist, homophobic and a committed national socialist. ‘My main intent was to spread fear, resentment and hatred throughout this country, it was to cause a racial war,’ he told detectives when interviewed. ‘There’d be a backlash from the ethnic minorities, I’d just be the spark that would set fire to this country’ (McLagan and Lowles, 2000).

Copeland had acted completely on his own: a so-called ‘lone wolf’ driven by a deadly mixture of low self-esteem, chronic insecurities, intense anger at multicultural society and a hatred of minorities. Yet, while he may have acted by himself, his bombing spree was one in a long series of such hate-fuelled campaigns perpetrated solely by individuals. Jeffrey Simon (2013) identifies five broad categories of these ‘lone wolf’ terrorists: those who are inspired to act by political convictions, or by religion, or by single-issues (such as animal liberation), or the desire for financial gain, or as a result of severe personality or psychological problems. Copeland arguably fitted into the first (and perhaps last) of these categories, being heavily influenced by The Turner Diaries, a fictional work by American neo-Nazi William Pierce that depicts a ‘race war’ triggered by the activities of white supremacists. Four years prior to Copeland’s campaign, in April 1995 an American lone wolf political extremist, also inspired by The Turner Diaries, detonated a bomb outside a government building in Oklahoma City, US, killing 168 people. This was the murderous work of 26 year-old Timothy McVeigh, a war veteran furious at the actions and policies of the US government.

In fact, in the recent past most of the high-profile lone wolves in the United States and Europe could also be grouped into the first of Simon’s categories: ‘political’. Indeed, the most notorious post-war incident of lone wolf terrorism in Europe was perpetrated by someone driven by extremist politics and virulent Islamophobia: Anders Behring Breivik. On 22 July 2011 Breivik committed the worst terrorist atrocity in Norway’s history. In mid-afternoon on that day, eight people died and over 200 were injured when a car bomb exploded without warning outside government buildings in the nation’s capital, Oslo. Later that day, a further 69 people were killed and over a hundred injured in a mass shooting on the island of Utoya, just off Norway’s mainland, which had been hosting the Norwegian Labour Party’s annual youth camp. While there was initial confusion as to which group or organisation was behind the acts, it quickly emerged that there was just one person responsible for both: 32 year-old Breivik, who openly confessed to the murders. He had picked his targets deliberately as he felt he had to act to save the country from its Labour government and supporters, who were, in his eyes, promoting ‘an Islamic colonisation of Norway’ (Fekete, 2012: 5).

In the period before his trial it became apparent that Breivik was a far-right extremist who had released his own ‘manifesto’ on the day of the massacres. His 1,500-page 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, sent via email to over a thousand email addresses, was awash with ultra-nationalism, neo-conservatism, anti-Islamic extremism and paganism. It called for a new monocultural Europe based on a form of Christian cultural conservatism, and was laced with Islamophobic sentiment (IRR, 2011).

Yet, worryingly, Breivik’s acts of lone-wolf terrorism were not as isolated as some would like to think. The last two decades have seen a rise in the number of far-right extremists, acting on their own or with minimal help from others, who have plotted and/or engaged in violent acts designed to maim or kill their targets (Gable and Jackson, 2011). In 2011, for instance, the BBC estimated that there were 14 right-wing extremists in prison for terrorism offences, with the security services monitoring a further 70 (BBC, 2011). In addition, there has been a series of recent ‘near misses’ where police have caught a number of individuals before they had the chance to execute their plans. In 2009, for example, National Front member Neil Lewington was in the process of assembling a homemade arsenal of devices when his home was raided by police. He had been caught only by chance when police arrested him for causing a disturbance on a train in Suffolk, only to find the components for two firebombs in his holdall. A year later a former member of the BNP Terence Gavan was sentenced to 11 years for terrorism offences after police found a large number of guns and explosive devices at his house, while Ian Davison became the first person to be convicted for producing a prohibited substance under the 1996 Chemical Weapons Act. However, in 2013 Pavlo Lapshyn initially avoided the attentions of the police as he undertook a short hate-fuelled campaign in the West Midlands. During this period Lapshyn murdered an elderly Muslim male and targeted three mosques with explosive devices, which detonated but failed to cause any casualties. In a chilling contemporary echo of David Copeland’s sentiments expressed 14 years earlier, Lapshyn informed police that he had ‘a racial motivation and racial hatred’, and that this violent racism had inspired his actions, just as it had Copeland’s in the spring of 1999.


This blog is a summary of two case studies taken from the forthcoming second edition of Hate Crime: Impact, Causes and Responses, by Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland, to be published by Sage in the spring of 2015.



BBC (2011) Newsnight, BBC2, 14 July.

Gable, G. and Jackson, P. (2011) Lone Wolves: Myth or Reality?, London; Searchlight.

Fekete, L. (2012) Pedlars of Hate: the Violent Impact of the European Far Right, London: Institute of Race Relations.

Institute of Race Relations (IRR) (2011) Breivik, the Conspiracy Theory and the Oslo Massacre, Briefing Paper No. 5, London: Institute of Race Relations.

McLagan, G. and Lowles, N. (2000) Mr. Bad: The Secret Life of Racist Bomber and Killer David Copeland, London: John Blake Publishing.

Simon, J.D. (2013) Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, New York: Prometheus Books.


Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies