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The Evolving Terrorist Threat

THE THREAT OF HOMEGROWN TERRORISM in the United States is not new. It dates back at least 145 years to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the Civil War. The years since 9-11, however, have raised the threat to a new level, given the extent of harm posed by modern weapons. While domestic terrorism can take many forms, today the greatest risk is related to that of Islamic radicalism.

In the years following 9-11, it was first thought that radical jihad was unlikely to find fertile ground in the United States, where the Muslim population is among the most integrated and assimilated in the world. But more recent events are driving home the message that it only takes a few homegrown jihadis to create a serious threat.

The incident in which Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly killed 13 people and wounded 30 more in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, after apparently self-radicalizing, illustrates the point. And his case is not as unique as experts once thought. Testifying at a congressional hearing on the issue, Mitchell Silber, director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department (NYPD), listed nine other arrests or suspected plots from the prior 12 months that involved individuals radicalized in the United States. The cases ranged from one involving four men who placed what they thought were explosives outside a synagogue in Riverdale, New York, in April 2009, to that of at least 15 Americans of Somali descent who are believed to have self-radicalized and left the country to wage jihad in Somalia.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has since publicly acknowledged that “Home-based terrorism is here. And, like violent extremism abroad, it will be part of the threat picture that we must now confront.”

Jarret Brachman of the University of North Dakota and former director of research for the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, is among the experts who harbor concern that the new threat is highly dynamic.

“The biggest issue today is the narrowing gap between thought and action,” Brachman tells Security Management. “You’ve got these dudes who have been on the Internet for years, but now they’re being told—or are telling one another—that this is not the last stop. And I worry that these people are going to start coming out of the woodwork over the next couple years.”

That prediction increases pressure on intelligence, law enforcement, and security professionals to spot threats in a world of noise. Veteran security practitioners, however, argue that for themselves and their peers, little has changed. Today’s environment, they say, only reinforces the case for strong fundamentals—specifically threat assessment. For security managers in corporate environments, the key is to have a heightened awareness of the need to look out for behaviorial red flags that signal suspicious activity or radicalization while avoiding stereotyping or profiling.

Global Context

Many terrorism experts say that the operational terrorist threat posed by core al Qaeda, or “al Qaeda Prime,” which carried out the attacks of 9-11, has diminished. The group is effectively under siege by U.S.-led forces in the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of its senior leaders have been picked off in CIA drone attacks, and it has also been starved of funding. To the latter point, researchers Michael Jacobson and Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently suggested, writing for Jane’s Strategic Advisory Services, that where core al Qaeda once funded its cells and allied operations around the world, those groups are now more likely to contribute funds they raise back to core al Qaeda.

It is those “franchise” operations in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa that have demonstrated they now present the more immediate operational threat. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan, for example, is believed to have executed the Thanksgiving 2008 attack in Mumbai. The so-called Christmas day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to kill 289 people on a Detroit-bound airliner by detonating explosives concealed in his underwear, was reportedly trained and equipped in Yemen by another franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The extent of the threat posed by multi-member, transnational terror cells may be on the wane, a result of improved electronic surveillance, intelligence, and border security efforts by the United States and its allies. But these cells haven’t given up trying to outsmart the opposition. For example, they seek “cleanskin” recruits like Abdulmutallab: individuals with little if any criminal or terrorist history who hold legitimate travel documents like Abdulmutallab’s U.S. visa. Acting alone—at least in the operational phase—they leave a far smaller forensic footprint than a cell.

One positive note is that these newer jihadis appear to lack the level of training of the original 9-11 terrorists, which may explain why Abdulmutallab failed in his attempt to ignite a bomb. They also appear younger. Iain Donald, vice president and national director of global risk analysis for security firm Control Risks, says his firm found that between the two periods of 2001-2005 and 2006-2009, the average ages of terrorist actors dropped: from 32 to 30 for leaders, from about 27 to 23 for followers, and from 30 to roughly 23 for lone plotters. The result is diminished “tradecraft,” or professionalism, with regard to the skills needed to pull off a terrorist plots, he says.

At the same time, recruitment and planning have not abated, says Donald, and the Internet grows as a “force multiplier” in recruitment. The result, he notes, will likely be an increased number of plots like Abdulmutallab’s. The absence of multiple actors will diminish opportunities to detect the plot, but the youth and poor training of the terrorist will reduce the plan’s sophistication and, therefore, its chance of success.

The Path to Jihad

In their influential 2007 report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, Silber and NYPD colleague Arvin Bhatt laid out four stages of Islamic radicalization common to various terrorist plots they analyzed: preradicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization.  The preradicalization stage is the subject’s initial “ordinary” life—within or without the Muslim faith—that precedes the actual radicalization process. It is in the self-identification phase that the subject begins to explore and gravitate toward a branch of Islam known as Salafi Islam, the radical form of Islam that violent jihadis embrace. While all Salafis do not fall into this category, it is one of the signs that a person may be going down a path toward violence.

The self-identification stage is often triggered by personal crisis, whether social, economic, or political, Silber and Bhatt wrote.

During indoctrination, subjects adopt the Salafi ideology, and with the help of an individual the NYPD refers to as a “spiritual sanctioner,” conclude that action—jihad—is required to further its cause. During the jihadization stage, the subjects “accept their individual duty to participate in jihad,” and potentially plan and carry out attacks.

Who is at risk? Silber and Bhatt cite male Muslims under the age of 35, from middle-class backgrounds. Ethnic background is not necessarily a factor, but most of those radicalized were second- or third-generation Americans.

The consensus view among analysts is that converts to Islam—regardless of other demographic factors—bear an elevated risk of radicalization for two key reasons: their desire to prove their conviction and the fact that those converted into radical sects have never been taught the intended peaceful message of the Koran.

Both the NYPD report and an article titled “External Signs of Radicalization and Jihadist Militancy,” written the same year by Javier Jordán and Fernando M. Mañas of the University of Grenada, Spain, cite several similar outward signs of the path toward radicalization, although Jordán and Mañas note that these early indicators are common to observant Muslims and don’t necessarily presage future violent behavior. In the self-identification phase, for example, subjects will withdraw from prior relationships, begin wearing traditional Islamic dress, grow beards, and quit activities like smoking, drinking, and gambling.

Later, subjects will begin politicizing their beliefs, and according to Jordán and Mañas, passionately discuss perceived injustices committed by the West and Israel against Muslims. Of more concern is if they defend jihadist violence, such as suicide bombings.

Where radical jihadis differ from typical observant Muslims is that in the indoctrination phase, according to Silber and Bhatt, subjects are likely to stop attending mosques, which in more recent years have emerged as moderating environments averse to radicalization.

The radicalization phase is also marked by travel overseas, often for training, and in some cases by outdoor team-building activities. For example, those involved in the 2005 Virginia Jihad Network and the 2008 Fort Dix plot played paintball probably to enhance team spirit and train for attacks.

In his recent congressional testimony, Silber noted one phenomenon new to recent cases of homegrown radicalization: the spiritual advisor who crafts the radicalized subject’s new, distorted worldview, may be only a “virtual” presence.

Silber expressed reluctance to analyze the Hasan case as a matter of ongoing investigation and further noted that the NYPD’s radicalization framework applies primarily to groups. But he cited Hasan’s communication with American radical Islamic cleric Anwar al Awlaqi “as an examplar” of the virtual spiritual advisor concept. Awlaqi, who now lives in Yemen, had a relationship with three of the 9-11 hijackers while he still lived in the United States before the World Trade Center attack. He later also had contact with Abdulmutallab. His critical role persists because he speaks English as a native tongue.

Detection and Intervention

Along with its list of warning signs of radicalization, the NYPD’s report noted that “with the higher risks associated with heading down this pathway, individuals will seek to conceal their actions earlier, making intelligence and law enforcement’s job even more difficult.”

That, according to Silber and Bhatt, coupled with a shrinking “gap between thought and action” observed by Brachman, means that the process of radicalization must be detected as early as possible. But that goal is difficult to achieve and is fraught with legal perils.

One challenge to early detection is trying to track down the origins of online posts in radical chat rooms, given the breadth of cyberspace. Then there is the fact that speech is constitutionally protected. Thus, agents face huge obstacles, says J. Patrick Rowan, former Assistant Attorney General for National Security and now a partner with the consulting firm McGuireWoods.

Assuming they do find those chat rooms and listen in and are able to identify the participants, what then? How soon should the authorities take action? Acting too soon may mean that important intelligence opportunities are lost. And acting before anything illegal has transpired can also raise civil liberty concerns.

“I think we’re getting to the point where the agencies have a great deal of experience in judging when to let something play out and whether to disrupt something,” Rowan says.

The volume of information that has to be sifted through is also part of the problem. As the government gets better at collecting more and more data, it just adds to that challenge, notes Rowan.

Community outreach. Experts agree that the best hope for catching homegrown radicals rests not in cyberspace or in criminal intelligence bureaus but in communities and perhaps even more so with families.

Terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins of RAND Corp., and David Cid, executive director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), urge broader implementation of community-based policing through which individual law enforcement officers can foster trusted relationships with the residents, community organizations, and businesses within their area of responsibility. The job is particularly critical for officers serving in Muslim-American communities.

The key to catching the radicals is to recognize that the Muslim community at large is not the enemy. To drive home that point, Jenkins contrasts the roughly 3 million Muslim-Americans with the number of U.S. arrests since 9-11 that relate directly to homegrown terrorists who were Muslim, which RAND places at 117 persons involved in 44 cases. “That is not a big number. I suggest, as I have before, that the Muslim-American community really has repudiated al Qaeda’s message and its exhortations.”

At MIPT, which recently shifted its mission from one of research and analysis to one of training, Cid’s staff trains law enforcement professionals in both recognition of terrorist precursor behaviors and community engagement.

Community outreach is all the more important with regard to lone actors, because in those cases, it is often only a close friend or family member who will have seen signs of trouble, as noted by the Washington Institute’s Jacobson in his recent paper Terrorist Dropouts: Learning from Those Who Have Left. And as several well-known cases have illustrated, it’s often family members who approach authorities with concerns and suspicions that break terrorism cases open.

An early example predates 9-11 and the radical jihadi threat, but it is pertinent as it relates to lone actors and how authorities catch them. It is the case of David Kaczynski, who approached the FBI in 1996 with suspicion that his brother, Theodore Kaczynski, was the Unabomber, responsible for 16 bombings from 1978 to 1995.

Similarly, it is now well known that it was the father of the Christmas day bomber Abdulmutallab who tried to alert authorities to the threat posed by his son. And late last year after five Virginia men suddenly left the country, allegedly after contact with a Taliban recruiter, a parent contacted the FBI, leading to the men being arrested in Pakistan.

Community engagement and education—in particular about the early stages of radicalization—could increase the chances that family members or friends would provide authorities with this same type of early warning of a threat.

Behavioral assessments. The nexus between terrorism and religion poses a challenge for security professionals, who must walk a fine line between keeping society safe and respecting individual rights. The key, observers agree, is to keep the focus on behavioral threat assessments.

In the broader context of a workplace violence prevention program, those assessments are aimed at detecting early signs of psychological problems that could lead to violence. In the additional context of the terrorist threat, security managers must focus with clinical precision on behaviors that are recognized indicators of the threat of violence and radicalization, excluding factors of race, religion, and national origin.

“If we act on our biases, that’s when you get into trouble,” says attorney James F. Pastor, president of SecureLaw, Ltd. “You have to act on the objective indicators.”

John Bagyi, an employment attorney with Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC, notes that since 9-11, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which fields civil complaints of workplace discrimination, has been “very focused” on cases involving religion and national origin.

“You need to have a good reason for singling out an employee for attention, but security folks are really well positioned to do this; they know they need objective information they can rely on to detect a threat,” Bagyi says. “And if you want to talk about liability, frankly you’d be negligent if you failed to see something because you were focused on the Muslim employee and overlooked the Christian two cubicles over who was plotting something.”

For security professionals, the phenomenon of Islamic radicalization—in terms of detecting behaviorial red flags in the workplace—is no different from that posed historically by other political and religious extremists or even employees suffering from mental illness says Jim Cawood, CPP, PCI, PSP, a 28-year veteran of workforce violence prevention and president of Factor One, a consultancy in San Leando, California.

“The fact is that all behavioral threat assessments involve private things. So this is nothing new. This is all part of the process, and none of this is different from the things we’ve always been telling people to look for,” Cawood tells Security Management.

John Lane, Control Risks’ vice president of crisis and security consulting and a specialist in workplace violence prevention, explains that “non-normative” behavior, including discussion of what “should” happen to people, and the notion of violence as an acceptable remedy, should stand out to coworkers regardless of religious or political context.

“And we would be foolish to ignore this with the mind-set that it is just free speech or constitutionally protected speech. It really gets back to common sense. That should sound alarm bells, and it’s something you’d want to discuss with your local police or police criminal intelligence unit,” Lane says.

Practical guides. Getting from the theoretical to the real-world identification of red flags is never easy—and the process of trying to assess what the best indicators are is ongoing. Specific guidance on indicators of radicalization is expected from the Department of Defense (DoD). In their independent report on lessons from the Fort Hood shooting, former Army Secretary Togo West and former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark recommended development of programs “to educate DoD personnel about indicators that signal when individuals may commit violent acts or become radicalized.”

As for how great a threat lone actors pose going forward, noted terrorism expert Paul Pillar of Georgetown University put it this way at a congressional hearing late in 2009: “Incidents to date cannot be described as yet adding up to a significant home-grown Islamist terrorist problem in the United States. But episodes like the shooting at Fort Hood suggest the possibility of more, and the sort of reasons and motivations that could make for more.”

Pillar also noted that al Qaeda’s role is not operational but rather “ideological and inspirational.” They provide lone disaffected individuals with the rationale for channeling personal anger into violence.

Cid of MIPT notes the importance of ideology as well, but he takes an optimistic view looking at the long term. Cid cites the resolution of “the Troubles” in Ireland, where the Provisional IRA and its allies finally realized that violence was counterproductive. “This will happen eventually,” Cid says. “It’s the only logical conclusion that one can come to, that they can’t win. It’s only a question of how many people they kill before they come to it.”  Joseph Straw is an assistant editor with Security Management.