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Illustration by Michael Austin

Terrorism Trends

On June 9, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) newly-created Countering Violent Extremism Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Advisory Council quietly released a report detailing the spread of violent extremist ideology in the United States and urging DHS to take significant action. Two days later, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen, walked into a nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people, committing the nation’s worst terrorist attack since 9/11. During the hours-long attack on the nightclub, Mateen called police and pledged allegiance to ISIS, and subsequent investigations revealed he was self-radicalized. The horrific massacre on the night of June 11 reminded government leaders around the world that the real threat often comes from within the country’s borders. Within two days of its publication, the 38-page subcommittee report became exponentially more relevant.

The spread of violent extremism has been more palpable in Europe and the Middle East, where dozens of recent headline-grabbing attacks have occurred from Britain to Turkey. Shiite Muslims were targeted across the world by ISIS during the holy month of Ramadan: 45 people were killed in a suicide bombing at Istanbul’s main airport, a hostage situation in Dhaka resulted in the deaths of 23, and a truck bomb killed at least 250 people in Baghdad. France and Belgium are still reeling from separate coordinated soft target attacks that killed hundreds over the past year. 

Not all extremist attacks are ISIS-inspired, either. A domestic terrorist who supported a far-right political party stabbed and killed Britain’s Labour MP Jo Cox in June.

An inquiry was released in July by a French parliamentary committee calling for more coordinated counterterrorism efforts, much like the DHS subcommittee report. The inquiry, which examined terrorist attacks in France last year, made 40 proposals to strengthen national security agencies. The nonpartisan committee encouraged the government to create a new national agency similar to the National Counterterrorism Center in the United States. Both European and American national security leaders are focusing on information sharing and addressing radicalization at its source.

“We are very concerned about violent extremists, lone offenders, and copycats, given how we understand that [ISIS] uses its propaganda, how it recruits, how it trains,” says Scott Breor, director of DHS’s Protective Security Coordination Division. “At the end of the day, while we may not have operatives per se here in the United States, we do know that [ISIS] is using the Internet and social media to recruit and train people who may have grievances against Western interests. They help them understand how to make devices that could be used in these attacks, and have been clear that they don’t need to travel overseas to be part of the [ISIS] machine, that the battlefield can be here in the United States.”

The subcommittee report does not shy away from detailing the significant, immediate threat violent extremism has on the United States, nor from calling on government officials, the technology and philanthropic sectors, and individual Americans to “conquer the challenge of violent extremism.” The subcommittee makes it clear that violent extremism is not just a problem for DHS.

“DHS itself is not equipped to counter violent extremism,” the report notes. DHS is significantly under-resourced to address online and offline radicalization and recruitment, and beyond recommending a budget increase of up to $100 million, the subcommittee emphasizes leveraging private sector support—and finances. The current budget “is insufficient to effectively counter the spread of violent extremist ideology in the United States, and does not in itself offer the chance to level—much less gain advantage against—increasingly aggressive efforts to recruit and radicalize our youth by violent extremist organizations,” according to the report.

The subcommittee is looking to the private sector for more than just money. Private sector talent and expertise should be used to create targeted online content to combat “a constant feed of reinforcing ideologies that are spread both on and offline.” The U.S. government must also work to extend counterterrorism efforts to the state and local levels, which have more direct impact on at-risk communities, the report notes. DHS leaders agree.

“Building bridges to the Muslim communities in this country and encouraging and helping American Muslim leaders to amplify the counter message to the Islamic state’s message and support these communities” is key to outreach at the local level, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson tells Security Management. “I see it as a three-step mission: building bridges, counter message, and supporting these communities directly. I’ve been to a lot of them across the country. Everyone is different, but they are receptive to the message, and they’re almost always extraordinarily patriotic, too.”

Both Breor and DHS Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection Caitlin Durkovich point to DHS’s Office for Bombing Prevention (OBP) as a way to empower local communities in preparing for a potential attack. The OBP enhances the nation’s ability to prepare for and respond to the use of explosives against critical infrastructure and local communities alike. The program’s resources and training are constantly evolving to stay a step ahead of terror trends, Durkovich tells Security Management. 

“I think our adversaries are growing increasingly sophisticated and getting increasingly smarter in regards to how we do security,” Durkovich says. “I do think they have realized it’s a lot harder to attack a military installation or government building, and even some of these large public gatherings, because security is pretty robust. I think they have made a calculation that it is easier to target the smaller public gathering places and whether that is a crowded street of restaurants, a concert hall, or where people are gathering to get through security, you don’t have as much security in place. I think it is safe to say that these smaller and medium sized venues that don’t have in-depth security are becoming the targets because, candidly, it’s just easier to carry out an attack.”

One of the most important roles of the OBP is to bring together multiple jurisdictions in a community to raise awareness about the latest threats, Durkovich explains. “We talk about how they can plan both around special events and large gatherings to reduce the vulnerabilities of improvised explosive devices (IED), but equally important, if there is some sort of explosion or detonation, what the capabilities of each jurisdiction are, how they would respond, and who has the lead.” OBP training programs conducted around the country have already paid dividends, she says.

Breor notes that one of the most difficult—and important—aspects of the OBP is staying abreast of the latest bombing trends. “If you’ve ever picked up one of those books on how to do home improvements, how detailed they are with respect to pictures and the language they use, that’s the type of documentation that we see in these magazines that are out there in social media,” he says. “It is a great concern.” 

Also of concern is the age of those most targeted by violent extremist efforts. The subcommittee report notes that millennials are by far the most susceptible to recruitment. “Our nation’s youth are at risk of online radicalization and recruitment like never before. They are by far the largest demographic being targeted by extremists, especially online. It is therefore our duty to protect them.”

ISIS supporters use approximately 46,000 Twitter accounts worldwide, and last year the Internet contributed to the radicalization of 83 percent of aspirants who attempted to travel to Iraq or Syria. On top of that, approximately half of successful travelers maintained an active presence on social media to encourage others to travel, document experiences, and share tips for evading law enforcement detection, the report notes.

Reaching millennials through constructive, positive, and identity-building approaches will encourage belonging with their American community, the subcommittee found. An emphasis on alternative narratives, from both the government and community influencers, is needed to reach millennials. “The private, non-governmental sector—including the full range of civil society across all communities, working hand-in-hand with leaders in science, faith, and technology—and with the full endorse-ment of our elected leaders at all levels offers the best chance to counter the threat of violent extremism for future generations,” the report states.

Another group targeted by ISIS and other extremist organizations is women of all ages. Professor and author Mia Bloom tells Security Management that ISIS targets Western and Arab women in two different ways: they give Western women the idea that they will have a very active, front-line role in ISIS, and tell Arab women that they will still be subservient, but will have more rights.

“Both of the underlying themes are about empowerment, but highly constrained empowerment, versus this false notion that they’re going to be some sort of superfighter,” Bloom says. ISIS also targets women based on their age and status—young women and students are recruited with positive messages of altruism, while older women with questionable pasts are offered a chance at reinvention. 

ISIS is also using women to recruit other women because recruiters need to be able to relate to potential fighters, Bloom explains. “If you’re a 14-year-old girl, you’ve probably been warned to be careful of some dude on the Internet, but you may not have been warned about the cool 19-year-old Scottish girl.”

Women are rarely used on the front lines or as suicide bombers, Bloom notes: “If there’s a woman suicide bomber, it’s a one-off. It’s an exception to the rule,” she says. The primary contribution of women tends to be giving birth to fighters and raising them in a revolutionary environment. “Women in many ways are just like a commodity for ISIS, and although they are selling this message of empowerment, it’s actually the opposite,” Bloom explains.

Despite this, there has been a rise in non-Syrian or Iraqi women joining ISIS: the percentage of female extremists has risen from 10 percent a few years ago to 15 or even 20 percent today. And Bloom says that based on historical patterns, that number will continue to rise.

“They’re losing territory, they’re losing recruits, the men aren’t joining nearly as much, and they’re executing their own people who are leaving. That’s not a sign of strength,” Bloom explains. “When women join, it allows ISIS to goad men, it’s basically saying, ‘You aren’t especially manly because you’re letting women do your job.’”

It is possible that the role of women in ISIS would shift towards a more active one due to evolving tactics. “Women tend to be used in particular circumstances when groups shift from hard targets to soft targets and civilians,” Bloom explains. “When instead of trying to attack a tank, you’re going after a mosque of Shia parishioners, that’s where a woman comes into play. There are so many assumptions about the inherent peacefulness of a woman, and it’s popular to put an IED around a woman’s midsection and it looks like a late-term pregnancy.”

The subcommittee findings have been submitted to the DHS Homeland Security Advisory Council, and, if approved, will be sent to DHS Secretary Johnson for acceptance. In the meantime, agencies like the OBP are working to empower communities to prepare for and respond to attacks, and DHS leaders continue to encourage the public to embrace the See Something, Say Something mantra. “It’s not just a slogan, it’s really a shared responsibility in today’s environment,” Breor says.