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​​​​Illustration by L.J. Davids​​

Battlefield in the Mind

​Following the spike in terrorism activity and related convictions over the past two decades, a new national security challenge is rapidly approaching: the release of dozens of terrorists from prisons around the world. Sentencing those involved in extremist activity is notoriously challenging. It often relies on unrelated criminal convictions or the charge of providing material support to a terrorist organization, which results in sentences of 13 years on average. This means that those convicted in the years following 9/11 are approaching their release date.​

In the United States, about 25 Americans charged with terror crimes are expected to be released by 2021, and that number will jump to 72 in 2025. At least 80 terrorists will be released by the end of the year in the United Kingdom, and the first man to be convicted in connection with 9/11—a Moroccan man living in Germany—was released from prison in 2018. ​

“If you go to jail, it doesn’t mean you’re not a terrorist when you come out,” said Michael McGarrity, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, during a session at GSX 2018. ​

While the soon-to-be-released prisoners may be monitored, there is currently no way to track those convicted of terror-related crimes—legislation establishing a national database has continually stalled. And, according to Jennifer Hesterman, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and vice president of business resiliency and education services at Watermark Risk Management International, LLC, there are no effective deradicalization programs within the prison system.

“​The people arrested in al Qaeda plots after 9/11 are coming out of prison in the next couple years, and they have not been rehabbed. It’s a concern to me,” Hesterman said during another GSX 2018 session. “They are coming back out and we can’t keep track of them; we don’t have the resources. We’re not actively trying to work with them and train them to go the right direction.”

A lot has changed in the terrorism landscape over the past decade, and both Hesterman and McGarrity said counterterrorism efforts are struggling to keep up with the rapid evolution of recruitment, detection, and communication techniques between terror organizations and potential extremists around the world. While McGarrity said extremist recidivism rates tend to be low following a prison stint, it is challenging to detect and act on concerns about further radicalization.

“Never before have we seen so many individuals inspired and willing to take direct actions,” McGarrity said. “We’ve arrested more subjects over the past two years—many times we have to arrest them on nonterrorism charges, whatever it is to take that person off the street before they commit an attack. We’ve consistently arrested 100-plus people a year since 2015. We have seen how the message has evolved. ISIS encourages and empowers them to take action on their own, ​and anyone is a worthy target.”

The top terror threat to the United States continues to be homegrown violent extremists—those who are recruited and radicalized online. 

“Radicalization is online—there are far too many subjects in the U.S. being radicalized online in their basements,” McGarrity noted. “These aren’t tough people who went to training camps. They were radicalized online, socially awkward, and are not meeting mentors or other operatives.”

Hesterman outlined the methods used to radicalize individuals and described the people who tend to fall prey to such efforts. There are two types of lone actors, she said—one that is well-adapted to society and makes the choice to leave society, and another is not well adapted, and society leaves them.

“I’ve seen the call to jihad up close and personal, and it’s powerful,” Hesterman said. “They know how to hook people, target the message to the audience. They’ll use rap music for teenagers or target the message to professors. They have people all day online looking for disgruntled people they can seek out. They isolate them—don’t tell anyone we’re having this discussion—then they encourage them. This is a long process, but the people in the violent ideology business, they are patient.”

It can be exceedingly difficult to identify potential homegrown extremists due to the nature of online-only radicalization and encrypted communications platforms. Additionally, there’s no one demographic that is especially susceptible to radicalization—previous homegrown extremists have tended to be male and 19 to 25 years old, but that number is trending lower. Hesterman showed instances of extremists who target children through English-language workbooks that use jihadist beliefs as examples, and McGarrity pointed out several occasions in which teenagers attempted to plan jihadist-inspired attacks.

McGarrity also noted that teenagers can be especially susceptible to jihadist influence due to the violent aspect of it—and that can make it difficult to know what role the ideology plays in their radicalization.

“Teens are more attracted to violence than propaganda,” McGarrity explained. “Ideology can be a source of inspiration, but they are motivated to act in violence. We had one subject who said the reason why he wanted to kill others was that he was inspired by ISIS, Hezbollah, and the white supremacy movement. Is that someone who’s really a stalwart educated in the ideology that he’s following, or someone looking to commit violence?”

However, violence isn’t the only threat. Both McGarrity and Hesterman emphasized the role that nonviolent extremists can play in the radicalization and terrorism landscapes.

“We’re struggling with this area—radical preaching, writing, or think tanks,” Hesterman noted. “What we do is give them platforms because we think it will let off steam if a group is going to boil over—we think that’s a vent—but they’re still able to get their message out. A group crosses a line when they do not further peace or harmony in society. If that line is crossed, they are recruiting. This is hard, because there are legitimate groups that cross that line.”

McGarrity agreed, noting that the threat of so-called “keyboard warriors” who never set foot on a battlefield cannot be discounted. Samir Khan, a Pakistani American living in North Carolina, was recruited to become the editor and publisher of the English-language Inspire magazine, writing articles such as “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” out of his parents’ basement.

To combat the ever-evolving threat, McGarrity said it is more important than ever for the FBI to work with state and local law enforcement officials, as well as the private sector. 

“The bystander is one of the most important tools in our fight against terror attacks,” McGarrity said. “The human intelligence community is important. We get about 15,000 tips a year and rely on partnerships with state and local law enforcement to sound the alarm.”

Joint terrorism task forces—the approximately 150 groups across the country that combine intelligence officials and counterterrorism specialists to fight radicalization in their communities—are key to community cooperation, McGarrity said. “If we did it alone, we would not be successful,” he said.

When it comes to the private sector, the FBI wants to provide learning in targeted sectors to understand the threats they may be able to identify. “The CSO is not who needs that training,” McGarrity noted. “We need to work with people on front lines. The more we can tell them about threats and what to look for, we get better leads. From the retail and transportation sectors, leads have been incredible—we get thousands.”

Hesterman said that deradicalization—which is especially important now that extremists are leaving prisons and coming back from the front lines in Iraq and Syria—has a long way to go.

“If we tell people their ideology is wrong, we have to tell them what is right, and how to replace that,” she said. “We have to offer an alternative, and that’s hard for us. That’s a huge dilemma. It’s hard for us to argue with them because they have taken the bait. If they think their beliefs or way of life are under attack, they lash out.”

Both McGarrity and Hesterman argued that, despite the shrinking numbers of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the seemingly low profile of al Qaeda groups, the terror threat remains critical. And the impending release of radicalized individuals from prison is a stark reminder of that.

​“The war on terror is not ending any time soon,” Hesterman concluded. “We’ve been able to dislodge ISIS in geographical areas, but the battlefield is the mind, and ideology is the glue holding this together. Terrorism isn’t geographically somewhere—it’s a battle of ideas. We’re part of the environment and problem, and what we do impacts this situation. Humility is a powerful tool in this fight.”​