Skip to content

You Might Be a Terrorist If...

Experts inside and outside of government are furiously working along multiple fronts to find out what drives someone to become a terrorist. The New York Police Department’s report “ Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” represents the latest effort.

The Department of Homeland Security has its own internal unit devoted to this task. Meanwhile, Congress has held a series of hearings on radicalization and has a bill (H.R. 1955) that would create a national commission to look into the issue. A July National Intelligence Estimate that says the radical segment of the West’s Muslim population is expanding has added a sense of urgency to this quest.

This is a necessary endeavor, but the NYPD report shows how easily it can go awry. That report, which examines 11 real-world cases, concludes, “There is no useful profile” that one can use to spot a terrorist, because they come from varied backgrounds. The report then gives this profile in the guise of key indicators: regularly attends a Salafi mosque, grows a beard, and wears traditional Islamic clothing.

Since the NYPD only studied self-proclaimed jihadi-Salafi terrorists, it was a foregone conclusion that Salafism was the first step toward becoming a jihadi-Salafist. A study of “homegrown” terrorists who attacked abortion clinics would have found that they all followed fundamentalist Christian ideology. That tautological argument won’t help us understand what “drives ‘unremarkable’ people to become terrorists,” the report’s objective, nor will it help us formulate policies that can diminish the risk.

The report’s own analysis shows the pitfalls of this profile: In two of the five U.S. cases, the protagonists self-indoctrinated without a mosque. Moreover, the report acknowledges that as persons become radicalized, they withdraw from the mosque, because their “level of extremism surpasses that of the mosque.” Lastly, the Internet is becoming the virtual incubator of self-radicalization, taking the mosque out of the picture. “The true leader of this violent social movement is the collective discourse on half a dozen influential forums,” said noted terrorism expert Marc Sageman, speaking to a congressional committee in June.

Much more useful are indicators that signal when a group has entered the attack planning stage. These include, the report notes, Internet research on and physical reconnaissance of possible targets and acquiring materials for bombs. Security and intelligence personnel can train to be vigilant for signs of this type of activity, which has the merit of not vilifying religious behavior.

While we do need to counter incendiary Salafi rhetoric, religious accouterments cannot help us find nascent terrorists, who comprise but a tiny fraction of their community. 

UPDATE: After the October issue of Security Management featuring this Editor's Note had been sent to the printer, I had the opportunity to speak with Charles Allen, the chief intelligence officer at the Department of Homeland Security, who testified on the homeland radicalization issue before Congress in March. I talked with him about the NYPD report and what DHS is doing in studying signs of radicalization in the United States. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

SM: In March you told Congress that DHS had created a branch focused on understanding the how and why of radicalization and extremism. Can you talk about how that is progressing?

Mr. Allen: We are progressing. We are taking a bottoms up look at extremists in this country. We continue to send our officers, our analysts out to various states and to cities to talk about radicalization and to learn from them what they have learned because the real answers are not here in Washington; the real answers are in, across the United States.

We’ve visited counterparts in fusion centers, intelligence divisions of major police divisions, and other local officials in places like Boston, New York, New Jersey. We’ve been out to the Southwest, Texas, Missouri; we’ve also been to the Midwest, to Ohio and Minnesota; we’ve also visited Pennsylvania and Florida.

We are looking broadly to see what kinds of patterns develop across the country.

SM: In the New York Police Department report, they do seem to indict Salafists. They basically say that you are on the road to radicalization if you attend a Salafi Mosque or wear traditional Islamic clothes or grow a beard. Do you think maybe that was a mistake to not be more refined in who you are pointing the finger at?

Mr. Allen: I think New York Police Department’s identification of those traits could signal transition to radical behavior, but I think it also, and here’s where I’d have some concern, those traits could apply to pious Muslims or very devout Muslims and I’m a little hesitant to single out those traits as radicalization indicators where the individuals would move to extremist violence.

You know, the wearing of traditional Islamic clothing, growth of beards, avoiding things like alcohol, gambling, and tobacco, apply throughout a lot of Muslim communities, so I don’t want to go that far.

I know for example a policeman who is a Salafist fundamentalist who works with radicals and works in a country’s tough neighborhoods. And I’ve met the man and I’ve talked to him and he’s extremely pious and he does not support the use of violence; he does not support suicide, and yet he calls himself a Salafist fundamentalist and he is. So I do not want to draw that conclusion.

But I do agree with the New York Police Department that it could signal this transition to more radical behavior.

SM: When you are going around the country, are you also meeting with Muslim groups?

Mr. Allen: Well I meet with Muslim groups, and I work closely with Dan Sutherland [who is also with DHS] and so does the assistant secretary for intelligence. I am not certain who all my officers have met. They generally meet with police detectives who follow extremism in their communities. They meet with social workers; they meet with Bureau of Prisons officials, and they meet with a variety of academe. I don’t know that they have met with a variety of Muslims, and I think your point is well taken, if that’s your point, that direct talks with Muslim communities of the United States.

I’m one of the intelligence officers that actually has talked to some Muslim leaders—I haven’t talked to a lot.I intend to do more of this, because I’m an insatiably curious all-source analyst who really wants to understand more fully Islam in this country. And those whom I have met, Muslim leaders in this country, including some students, I find them refreshing and excellent. And one of the things that we want to do with the FBI is to build an internship bringing in some young Muslims who speak Arabic or Farsi or even some of the uncommon languages like Balochi, Dari, Urdu, Kurdish, so we can understand these cultures and ethnicities.

We don’t do this. I don’t think we’ve done our homework fully.

SM: From the outside, looking at Muslim terrorists and deciding that the first sign of radicalization is that they’re Salafi or devout, is kind of the driving while black syndrome. If that’s where you’re looking, you are going to make everybody in the community feel like they are viewed with suspicion. And I wondered if talking to the communities themselves, they can give you more refined ideas of what the real signs of a radical within the community are.

Mr. Allen: That’s what we are looking for, and I think your point is well taken…. We have to be very careful about developing stereotypes. That’s my only caution, though I overall admire [the NYPD personnel who worked on the report].