Interview on radicalization and recruitment at Loopcast

Today, I had the opportunity to do an interview on extremist radicalization and recruitment with @cldaymon at the Loopcast.  The interview was fun and I talked way too long.  I also discussed a mix of different things I’ve researched with regards to radicalization and recruitment as well as social media.  So in follow up, if anyone is interested in where my mumblings come from, here are links to the different publications.

Lastly, I discussed the differences in incentives for recruits to join al Qaeda based on their role in the organization or based on their geographical location. I noted that I thought Westerners tended to join for more ideological reasons than recruits from Africa for example.  Here are two posts I wrote here at this blog related to that theoretical framework and below each post link I’ll paste the two graphs of how I thought the incentives might vary (theoretically) depending on the individual recruit.

Countering Violent Extremism of Terror Cell Recruits (And graph below)

LEcon Job opening


Countering Violent Extremism Around The Globe (And Graph Below)



Whose violent extremism are we countering? Revisiting CVE in the U.S. 2013

The threat of improvised explosive devices (IED) coming to the U.S. has been a nearly constant worry since about 2005.  As IED’s proliferated in Iraq, counterterrorism analysts and their agencies quickly realized that these easy to construct homemade devices could be the weapon of choice for al Qaeda popping up around the globe and even in the U.S. homeland.  So dangerous the threat of IED’s, entire organizations were constructed to disrupt and defeat their construction (JIEDDO). Around the U.S., law enforcement and homeland security folks were told to look for al Qaeda to begin using IED’s in the U.S.

On January 17, 2011, the fears of IED’s coming to the U.S. came to fruition.  A sophisticated IED was found on a park bench in Spokane, Washington set to be remotely detonated during a Martin Luther King day parade. A deliberate terrorist plot on a U.S. target using an IED.  Surely this would prompt the entire U.S. counterterrorism community to spring into action, right?  A whole-of-government approach to work with the population to root out support for extremism, right? While the FBI did quickly investigate the case and arrest the perpetrator, there was hardly any media coverage following up on how a terrorist attack could emerge from the community.  The attack, foiled by local law enforcement, quickly faded from the headlines.  Why you might ask? Because it wasn’t “al Qaeda” that perpetrated the attack, it was a white supremacist named Kevin Harpham from Kettle Falls, Washington. In Kettle Falls, some were “shocked” but others were less surprised (see the video below, watch to the 1:30 mark). Why would one be surprised? Kettle Falls sits in a region known for white supremacist and anti-government folks and is only a short drive from a place called Ruby Ridge, Idaho – the scene of a past U.S. government standoff.

Based on the location and severity of the Harpham plot, surely the U.S. government would see the need to engage in a whole-of-government approach to counter the persistent violent extremism emerging from this locale, right? Wouldn’t the U.S. want to employ its strategy to counter violent extremism as outlined in its new memorandum for state and local law enforcement? Couldn’t the federal government arrange an online and ground CVE program to win over the “hearts and minds” of locals and prevent this pervasive threat from emerging again in the Pacific Northwest?  The Harpham incident disappeared from the headlines quickly and on the Internet there’s actually very little reporting on Harpham or the plot.  I guess doing CVE in rural Washington amongst armed and often times well trained extremists was less than appealing for the CVE crowd.

For those that read this blog, you’ve probably read my rants and reservations about CVE in the U.S. (See #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10). After sitting for more than a year deliberating at this blog about CVE in the U.S., I teamed up with Dr. Will McCants to coherently organize my reservations about the amorphous definition of CVE, when CVE strategies are applied and how CVE strategies are executed in the United States.  Recently, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) published this co-authored article entitled “U.S. Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism: An Assessment.”  Will and I have focused on different aspects of CVE for years and in this article we combined some thoughts as to how the U.S. might move forward should it deem it necessary to conduct a CVE campaign in the U.S.  Below is the introduction to the paper and here is the link to the full post. For those that do read Dr. McCants and I’s article, I look forward to any thoughts you have for or against our analysis.

The United States and its allies devote considerable financial and human resources to countering violent extremism (CVE). CVE is a central pillar of the United States’ domestic and international counterterrorism effort, following the lead of the United Kingdom’s Prevent initiative begun several years earlier. Like the United Kingdom, the United States launched its CVE enterprise in response to a perceived increase in radicalization among its Muslim citizens. The U.S. enterprise, however, lacks a clear definition, is based on flawed assumptions about what works, and its proponents have yet to question whether CVE is worth doing in the first place. The United Kingdom’s approach suffered from similar shortcomings when it was first introduced, many of which were corrected in a later program update. It is time for the United States to do the same.

And for those interested in the Harpham video, here’s a short YouTube clip.  Make sure to watch to the 1:30 mark….


Results: Domestic vs. International Terrorism Survey

Last week, I posted a quick 1 question survey after receiving some feedback from my “Radicalization in the U.S.” article.  The question asked:

Question: Assuming a future terrorist attack in the U.S. is inevitable, which of the following two hypothetical terrorist attacks is more likely to occur first?

  • An al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda affiliated or al Qaeda inspired attack in the U.S. killing 50 or more U.S. citizens (Smaller than 9/11 attacks but still a significant attack)
  • A domestic terrorist group or domestic terrorist group affiliated lone perpetrator attack in the U.S. killing 50 or more U.S. citizens (Relatively equal in scale to Oklahoma City Bombing)

The results were decidedly of the belief that domestic terrorism is more likely than al Qaeda-style international terrorism to be the producer of the next big terrorist attack in the U.S.  Here is a chart showing the results of the 52 respondents:


Interestingly, domestic came out on top, but I wonder if this is as a result of recent incidents in the news. Here are the comments from those that participated:

–It won’t be “real” al-Qaida. It will be IRGC masquerading as al-Qaida. Likely w/AQs blessing and perhaps even w/ some assistance (e.g. media support)

–What makes this question so hard to answer is the proclivity (particularly in the mainstream media) of Americans to ascribe individualist motivations to “domestic” terror attacks, while ascribing AQ or other “Islamist” motivation for attacks committed by Muslims. Example: Major Nidal Hassan’s attack. The evidence does not show that Hassan was under orders of AQAP, or had been facilitated by AQAP, yet the attack is linked to that group. The criteria for “AQ inspired” are far too vague and low.

–In light of recent events I have to go with the lone psycho. I also don’t think al-qaeda is as relevant it was

–Terrorism; so easy a caveman can do it!

–Statistically, neither is a significant threat. The danger comes from hype and ‘state of fear’ that governments are trying to induce for political gains, not necessarily our safety. I am quite certain that pollution kills more Americans than any terrorists!

–my belief is an al-Qaeda INSPIRED (radicalized, or home-grown violent extremist) is more likely

–While AQ is generally more committed to action, DOMTERR as a whole has tends of thousands of adherents in the country and thousands of organizationally affiliated individuals. The numbers game is forbidding.

Terrorism: Domestic vs. International – Which is more dangerous?

On Monday, FPRI released an article I wrote in December 2011 comparing the radicalization of al Qaeda members with that of other extremist groups.  Some took my discussion to indicate that I believed domestic terrorism is more threatening than international terrorism.

While this was not the intent of the article, it still brings up an interesting question for debate: Which terrorist threat is currently the greatest threat in the U.S.?  International terrorist groups like al Qaeda? or domestic groups and their loose affiliates such as the Sikh Temple shooter a couple weeks back?  In the 1990’s, it was Timothy McVeigh, a domestic anti-government terrorist, executing the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history until the 9/11 attacks.

Similar to the “Who should we call al Qaeda?” question I ran a couple weeks back, I again have developed a one question survey addressing this week’s debate: international terrorism or domestic terrorism – which is more likely?

Below are two hypothetical terrorist attacks that might occur in the U.S.  In the survey block below, cast your vote as to which is a more likely threat and after voting you should see the results of all votes.  No experience required for voting.  Just take a guess based on your gut feeling.  For international readers, feel free to vote as well, the more votes the more interesting it becomes.  Also, if you’d like to leave a comment, I put a comment box in below where you can leave some additional notes, which I’ll post later similar to the results of the last question.

Question: Assuming a future terrorist attack in the U.S. is inevitable, which of the following two hypothetical terrorist attacks is more likely to occur first?

  • An al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda affiliated or al Qaeda inspired attack in the U.S. killing 50 or more U.S. citizens (Smaller than 9/11 attacks but still a significant attack)
  • A domestic terrorist group or domestic terrorist group affiliated lone perpetrator attack in the U.S. killing 50 or more U.S. citizens (Relatively equal in scale to Oklahoma City Bombing)

Vote here:

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.



Radicalization in the U.S. Beyond al Qaeda

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) released a report I wrote last December entitled “Radicalization in the U.S. Beyond al Qaeda: Treating the Disease of the Disconnection“.  A big thanks from me to FPRI for sticking with the publication review and release process and for getting the article out. While the article was written last winter, I hope those analyzing current events in the domestic radicalization scene will find interest in the article’s conclusion.

Here’s a quick summary of today’s release:

Recent weeks have seen an unfortunate number of violent shootings perpetrated by armed men. The shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Oak Creek, Wisconsin shine light on ideologies and other factors inspiring violence in the U.S. In response, the Foreign Policy Research Institute is now releasing a report Radicalization in the U.S. beyond al Qaeda: Treating the Disease of the Disconnection, by FPRI Senior Fellow Clint Watts. Completed in December 2011, the report explores the efficacy and future threat of al Qaeda’s ideology in radicalizing Americans but concludes with a broader call for examining the variety of domestic ideologies inspiring violence in the United States. Watts discusses potential trends in future U.S. radicalization and outlines several recommendations for preparing the U.S. to detect and interdict violence from a host of extremist ideologies, of which al Qaeda represents only one.

For those that read this blog, you will be familiar with parts of this article as I wrote parallel blog posts (#1, #2, #3, #4) in December 2011 as I was doing background research on the alleged spike in ‘Homegrown Extremism’.  I took some criticism when I wrote that militant Islam wasn’t the greatest ideological threat internal to the U.S. military and I believe the past 6 months’ events demonstrate the variety of extremist threats that might emerge from former military members.

In this article, I discuss several facets of al Qaeda radicalization, which I continue to explore (here and here), but I hope those interested in current events on the domestic scene will maybe take up the research challenge I tried to articulate at the end the piece.  Here is a clip from my concluding remarks.  I apologize in advance for the formatting as I took it from the pdf.

“Future Radicalization: What Can We Do?
Ten years of counterterrorism lessons learned provide the basis for reshaping a broader U.S. approach to countering violent extremism. The approach should remove some of the least productive elements of the past decade’s efforts and build resources and processes more effective and efficient for identifying and interdicting homegrown extremism.
• Cease large scale training for law enforcement officers on militant Islam
U.S. efforts to counter violent extremism since 9/11/2001 have included teaching the principles of militant Islam to law enforcement officers. In retrospect, this training appears expensive, often incorrect in its content, highly inconsistent in its delivery and quite possibly counterproductive for countering violent extremism.28 The complete lack of a standardized curriculum and certified instructors results in wildly variable militant Islam instruction enabling counterproductive stereotypes that undermine law enforcement community engagement programs and alienate vulnerable communities. Teaching of militant Islamic extremism should end and in its place should be a broader set of training on radicalization and extremism encompassing those indicators potentially precipitating violence for any and all ideologies.

Increase information sharing from federal to local levels regarding electronic surveillance
The emergence of lone wolf extremism provides few indicators. Electronic communications and social media posts often provide some of the only clues permitting law enforcement to begin preempting homegrown extremism. U.S. federal agencies hosting advanced electronic surveillance resources able to detect these signals of radical emergence must perfect the authorized exchange of information across all law enforcement agencies.
• Continue the expansion of community engagement with and beyond Muslim communities

Community engagement programs provide additional detection capability and more importantly increased interdiction capability with homegrown radicals. U.S. law enforcement has dramatically increased its community-oriented policing strategies with the Muslim community leading to increased detection and preemption of extremism. However, as noted by Kurzman and Jenkins, the past decade’s incidents of Muslim-American extremism provide no particular profile and provide no basis to conclude that extremists will reside in Muslim communities. In addition, if an extremist does reside in a Muslim community, there is no reason to assume that the Muslim community will be aware of potential extremists in their midst. Emerging radicalization threatening the U.S. may very well emerge from vulnerable, non-Muslim communities. Law enforcement should now begin placing more emphasis on expanding their community engagement in all communities where extremist ideology may emerge.

• Sustain the use of informants and intelligence-led law enforcement approaches
Successfully countering violent extremism and its resulting attacks requires a preemptive approach. No single preemption technique works better than the expanded use of informants – a proven practice honed by law enforcement for many decades. Some recent articles argue against law enforcement’s expanded use of informants citing 1) entrapment of innocent suspects or 2) alienation of vulnerable communities.30 Both of these arguments are misguided. For the former, Brooks’ article appropriately noted that U.S. prosecutor declination rates of terrorism-related offenses has increased substantially in recent years suggesting the necessary checks to prevent the unlawful pursuit of innocent subjects are in place.31 For the latter, community engagement with vulnerable communities alone will not provide the necessary safe guards to preempt terrorist radicalization. As witnessed by the more than twenty Somali-Americans recruited to al Shabaab from Minneapolis, communities and parents know some but not all of what their young men are doing. Law enforcement’s use of informants should not be a single-point solution but complimentary to the community engagement approaches being implemented by law enforcement. Additionally, community engagement and informant operations should be planned and designed within the larger context of intelligence-led policing operations – a data driven approach focused on preventing rather than reacting to crime and terrorism.

• Detect extremists electronically and engage with them physically
The Internet provides the method for both accessing extremist content and detecting those being radicalized by extremist content. Despite this early warning mechanism, the expansion of e-investigation by both law enforcement and counterterrorism analysts has led to excessive focus on the part of many to detect, de-radicalize or disrupt terrorists through a flurry of mouse clicks in the comfort of one’s home or
office. This rearward investigative approach is costly, time-consuming, and prone to error. While Google’s calls for positive engagement may be noble, their Internet enabled countering violent extremism concepts misunderstand the process of radicalization and provide a costly indirect and less effective radicalization interdiction method to physical engagement.32 Google and others advocating Internet extremist interdiction might better use their resources and interrupt radicalization by proactively removing the vast quantities of extremist content residing on their servers and violating their own terms of service.33 (YouTube, owned by Google, being one such platform – see the endnote for additional discussion on this point.)
Electronic detection followed by physical engagement provides a more effective method for disrupting homegrown extremism. A more appropriate blend of effort and resources for countering homegrown extremism might follow a spectrum of key tasks:

1- Identify and remove extremist content from U.S. and partner nation servers through established legal processes and cooperation with the private sector.
2- Detect online extremist radicalization through electronic surveillance and rapidly share this information with law enforcement and homeland security officials to initiate physical engagement with advocates of extremism.
3- Expand community engagement across all communities for additional detection capability and further means of extremist interdiction.
4- Directly and physically engage those being radicalized. Law enforcement and their local community partners should physically preempt those
demonstrating extremist sympathies. This engagement could use a combination of intermediaries to include family, community leaders, law
enforcement, social workers, and reformed extremists who are particularly effective in deescalating extremists moving down the path of radicalization.
5- Monitor and interdict those committed to extremism through informants, surveillance and preemptive law enforcement. For some radicalized in the U.S., there is no de-escalating their intent to commit violence. Law enforcement at all levels should continue their proactive policing when direct intervention with extremists is infeasible or insufficient to deter.
• Develop countering violent extremism resources and expertise at the national level as on-call resources for state and local jurisdictions.

The U.S. is the most diverse society in the world providing freedoms that permit the pursuit of an unlimited number of ideologies and causes; the vast majority of which are peaceful. However, a certain percentage of the U.S. population at any given time will pursue an international or domestic extremist agenda against the U.S. government and its citizens. Training more than 700,000 state and local law enforcement to know, understand and detect each and every form of extremist ideology that might emerge in a local jurisdiction is impractical, expensive and ineffective. A more sensible approach may be for the federal government to provide a national package of resources and support for state and local officials to detect homegrown radicalization.

These resources might include:
a. In person and online training providing general principles for detecting radicalization processes (regardless of the ideology) with a specific focus on spotting the criminal acts and violent rhetoric correlating with extremism.
b. A resource database accessible by state and local law officials outlining the propaganda, websites, principles, and case studies of all extremist ideologies present in the U.S.
c. A national outreach capability for state and local law enforcement officers to contact experts in any given extremist ideology to obtain assistance in detecting, engaging or disrupting extremists in local communities.
d. An on-call/as needed contact team of experts and experienced practitioners capable of deploying to local jurisdictions and assisting communities facing an unfamiliar homegrown extremist threat. “

Countering Violent Extremism: Where do we focus?

Yesterday, @will_mccants provided a needed perspective as to where the focus should be for countering violent extremism (CVE) in the domestic U.S. setting.  Will’s post, “Countering Violent Extremism, Part 2 – Scope” outlines a spectrum of people either vulnerable to, supporting of, or actively participating in violent extremism. As I’ve noted on this forum in the past, there is little evidence to warrant the overarching, highly bureaucratic response outlined in the White House Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism.  As Will reiterates here and I have pointed to in past posts, there are insufficient numbers of violent extremists to warrant large-scale national programs to win Muslim “Hearts and Minds”. Here’s Will’s opinion on where to focus:

Based on the incredibly low numbers of AQ supporters in the United States (see Charlie Kurzman’s recent study), the United States should treat the problem of AQ support like it treats supporters of white hate groups. It should focus on turning around law-abiding and incarcerated supporters rather than reaching out to the broader communities of which they are a part. This approach may not suit law enforcement (which prefers to build cases), the administration (which wants to increase the resilience of US Muslims against al-Qaeda propaganda), civil libertarians (who worry about infringing on personal freedoms), or large swathes of the public (who are terrified of fifth columns). But it is commensurate with the threat; its success can be measured; it carries less risk of alienating communities from which terrorists arise; it undermines the narrative that these communities are potential threats; and it is far less threatening to civil liberties than the current approach.

Will’s focus is on target, and that of the White House Strategy is not.  I’ve yet to see them explain where these lost communities requiring extremist de-programming reside.  Of course, they’ll quickly jump to the Minneapolis Somali recruits to al Shabaab which represents one case of mass recruitment of young vulnerable boys.  But, the reasons these young boys joined al Shabaab may have more to do with identity than ideology.  Likewise, the community didn’t seem to be very informed on what their young boys were doing.  So in the context of Minneapolis-Shabaab recruitment, what would have been accomplished or prevented in the White House CVE approach to engage vulnerable communities?

Of equal importance are the questions of “why now?” and “why this approach?”.  The administration seems convinced a “Spike in Homegrown Extremism” exists – or maybe three years ago there might have been.  Thus, the federal government committed years ago to execute a plan.  This plan emerges many years later looking like something that may have been worthwhile doing in 2002 more than 2012.  It’s taken so long to put this CVE plan together that the threat has evolved into something entirely different.  The current plan appears likely to exasperate current tensions playing out with regards to the NYPD’s surveillance of ‘vulnerable communities’.

Lastly, if I’ve learned anything, broad, top-down federal strategies to deal with local issues routinely fail.  The individuals, ideologies and threats of extremism arising from local communities vary wildly from place to place.  I doubt this strategy, its approach and its associated costs will have any significant impact on extremism – the ends will never justify the means.

My take: if the federal government needs to expend such energy and resources to protect Americans, they should apply their efforts on real, large scale problems which threaten the security of everyday citizens.  Disrupting the violence emanating from Mexican drug cartels immediately comes to mind.

Classifying Violent Extremists: A Problem of CVE

I wanted to draw attention to a new post at Jihadica by @will_mccants entitled, “Countering Violent Extremism, Part 1: Definition.”  Will does an excellent job of explaining a large flaw of the U.S. CVE approach – how do we define an extremist?

The White House strategies talk vaguely about winning hearts and minds of vulnerable populations in the U.S.  But, there is an entire spectrum of extremism from tacit support to outright mobilization for violence.  So, who is an extremist? So where do we focus?  I’ve been highly skeptical of the proposed CVE strategy as it is too focused on the Internet, designed for a threat that may be present in Europe rather than the U.S., and smells of COIN dogma.  See my skepticism in these five sections of “CVE Online in the U.S.” Parts #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5.

Will provides an excellent working definition:

In the interest of clarifying the activities covered by CVE and encouraging debate on their relative merits, I propose the following definition: Reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means. (I might also propose a new label and acronym for this activity but “CVE” is so bland and prevalent that it’s not worth jettisoning.)

I encourage everyone interested in CVE and the debates surrounding it to see Will’s discussion and his upcoming dialogue on where we might focus our CVE efforts.

Countering Violent Extremism of Terror Cell Recruits

Back in 2005 and 2006, I spent a large chunk of time applying labor economics theory for modeling the recruitment of terror cell members into al Qaeda.  I piled the research into a working paper entitled, “Jihadist Seeking Challenging Martyrdom Opportunity; Will Travel.”  I circulated the working paper around at presentations. But, as anyone that has ever read a labor economics paper can tell you, the topic is dry reading.  The most useful parts of the paper were used by Jacob Shapiro and I when we wrote Chapter 2 of al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa entitled “Theoretical Framework: The Challenges of Weak and Failed States”.

Recent pushes to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) in the U.S. brought me to revisit this paper.  I focused on three general concepts to examine the terrorist labor market and will discuss one these in the following paragraph.  Rather than treating extremists as religious zealots motivated solely by ideology, I instead treated each terrorist as a rational actor (from their perspective) that chooses to work as a terrorist rather than seek other employment opportunities.  In this context, each recruit makes a decision to work based on a perceived wage generated from both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits from employment as a terrorist.  Pecuniary benefits represent tangible items received in return for employment: pay, vacation, insurance, etc. – those things most commonly discussed in Western employment models.  For a good example of al Qaeda’s pecuniary benefits, see al Qaeda’s employment contract found in the report Harmony and Disharmony.  Non-pecuniary benefits represent intangible items received in return for employment: religious achievement, adventure seeking, group camaraderie, etc. The combination of these benefits presents the wage needed to recruit someone into a terror cell.  For those math nerds out there, I write as such:

Price of Recruitment = SUM(Pecuniary Benefits) + SUM(Non-Pecuniary Benefits)

Knowing the combination of benefits bringing about terrorist recruitment is essential in crafting an effective program for countering violent extremism.  Much like real employment markets, the price of recruitment varies depending on the skills needed by the terror group (job opening) and the location of the terror group (geography).  A terror cell’s operational leader requires more incentives than a new wannabe.  A terror cell operating in Africa likely requires less resources for recruitment than a group in Europe.

In this first post, I’ll focus on the price of recruitment for job openings in terror groups.  Terror cells usually consist of some combination of personnel including the following roles:

  • Ideologue – Inspirational figure preaching extremist ideology
  • Operations Leader – Skilled terrorist that can plan, execute and lead terrorist attacks
  • Seekers – Young foot soldiers to the terror group
  • Dr. Jekyl – A ‘Revert’ or new adherent to an extremist ideology that moves rapidly into a group in order to commit violence
  • Elite Members – Usually financiers that may or may not be direct/apparent members of the terror group but provide some package of finance and guidance to the cell

The above provides only a brief outline of terror cell member typologies.  I delve further into them in the paper but recognize that FFI’s Petter Nesser does a much better job describing these constructs in his paper “Jihadist Cell Structures in UK and Europe“.  For each of these roles, I tried to plot a conceptual chart showing the total price to recruit for each job opening and the combination of benefits required to achieve this price.  Note, this is conceptual and only a guess on my part.  I don’t have actual data to go behind this chart.


In the graph, I tried to show that the cost to recruit young seekers is likely to be lower in total and more about tangible benefits.  Meanwhile, a highly ideological or more senior recruit is joining for different reasons related more to group membership and ideological fulfillment.  In all cases though, joining requires a combination of tangible and intangible benefits; not simply one or the other.

So why is this important?  Who cares?  Many CVE approaches seek silver bullet programs to defeat terror group recruitment.  Some focus narrowly on community engagement, others focus solely on jihadi Internet portals.  The bottom line is that it will take a combination of CVE options to dismantle terror cells because each extremist joins a group for a different combination of incentives.  Before choosing a CVE approach, a community/government/nation must first determine which type of extremist they want to counter.  If this assessment isn’t done, one will find a CVE approach, for example, where a government seeks to counter the the extremist narrative in an attempt to deter young people from joining al Qaeda, only later to find out that recruits weren’t particularly knowledgeable of AQ’s ideology, joined for the adventure, and enjoy group membership more than radical sermons.

More to follow on ‘Location’ in the next post.

Al Qa’ida Influenced Radicalization – Yet Another Perspective

The past few weeks and months have shown a persistent “Surge” or “Spike” (pick your favorite term) in discussions related to ‘homegrown extremism’ and al Qa’ida radicalization.  Via Twitter, I stumbled on a new report from the UK Home Office authored by Dr. Noemie Bouhana and Professor Per-Olof H. Wikstrom.

Their report, entitled “al Qa’ida-influenced radicalisation: A rapid evidence assessment guided by Situational Action Theory, evaluates all of the available research in a professional and rigorous manner providing evidence to support their conclusions – a concept largely lost on the counterterrorism community.  Their framework evaluates the al Qa’ida Influenced Radicalization (AQIR) process by examining the vulnerability of recruits, the exposure of recruits to radicalizing agents and settings, and the settings in which radicalizing settings emerge.

I enjoyed Bouhana and Wikstrom’s analysis and found two quotes particularly interesting.  The first quote is their summary on radicalization research to date where they state:

“If this REA (study) has one overarching conclusion, it is that the evidence-base on the causes of AQIR is scientifically weak. Empirical research is still exploratory rather than explanatory. The problem is compounded by the absence of frameworks linking the levels of explanation (individual, ecological, systemic) by way of explicit mechanisms.  Without knowledge of mechanisms, there is no basis from which to design interventions. (p.viii)”

I could not agree more.  Even more interesting is this insight from their study where they discuss how recruits are exposed to al Qa’ida messaging.

“Membership of a social network containing one or more radicalized member, or containing a member connected in some way to one or more radicalizing settings, is one of the main factors linked to exposure to radicalizing influence. That the Internet does not appear to play a significant role in AQIR might be surprising, given that it is the social networking medium par excellence.  However, the fact that the technology presents obstacles to the formation of intimate bonds could explain the counter-intuitive finding.  Personal attachments to radicalizing agents, be they peers, recruiters, or moral authority figures, play a prominent role in AQIR. (p.x)”

Again, I concur with these findings and have argued at some length in the past that the best recruiter of a foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter – not the Internet.  In conclusion, another good resource for those studying al Qa’ida recruitment and radicalization.

Debunking the Spike in Homegrown Extremism

This week I read Dr. Risa Brooks new article “Muslim Homegrown Extremism in the U.S.: How Serious is the Threat?“.  Thank you Dr. Brooks for writing an excellent article and clear rebuttal to the incessant hand wringing over “Homegrown” extremism.  Terrorism researchers should take note of the construct of this article as much as the content.  She creates an excellent research design thoroughly discussing the hypotheses being examined.  I rarely see this in terrorism publications.  My only disappointment comes strictly from jealousy.  Dr. Brooks beat me to this topic and did a much better job researching this issue than I could have.  I highly recommend Dr. Brooks article and agree with her conclusion:

Muslim homegrown terrorism does not at present appear to constitute a serious threat to their (Americans) welfare. Nor is there a significant analytical or evidentiary basis for anticipating that it will become one in the near future.  It does not appear that Muslim Americans are increasingly motivated or capable of engaging in terrorist attacks against their fellow citizens and residents.

Will there be American-Muslim extremists in the future? Sure.

Will one of these extremists try to commit an attack? Yes.

But, on average, the threat of “homegrown extremism” is not the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland. Here are some of the reasons I agree with Dr. Brooks:

  1. The U.S. is better at counterterrorism – Brooks describes quantitatively the increase in counterterrorism resources over this past decade.  The FBI and state/local law enforcement have dramatically improved their ability to detect and interdict homegrown terrorism resulting in more arrests.  Prior to 9/11, most of today’s cases would have gone undetected.  Today, improved counterterrorism capability results in what appears to be more plots when in fact the U.S. is just successfully interdicting what was previously overlooked.  See her page 15 for a good breakdown.
  2. Counterterrorism folks find what they seek: terrorism –  If your entire purpose is to look for terrorism, then you will find terrorism.  Brooks accurately captures this phenomenon discussing the declining quality and increased volume of terrorism related matters referred by law enforcement for criminal prosecution (p.17). Brooks notes the CT “declination rate rose to 73 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2008 from 61 percent in FY 2005 and from 31 percent in 2002.”
  3. Misinterpreting data generated from infrequent, rare events –  The entire debate surrounding homegrown extremism suffers from the complications of counting rare events.  Brooks notes that the highest year for arrests occurred in 2003 with another peak in 2009 only to be followed by a mild slow down in 2010.  Additionally, many cases, such as Shabaab recruitment in Minneapolis and the Boyd network in North Carolina, result in a group of arrests resulting in what appears to be a spike. However, on average the numbers are fairly steady – and small.
  4. Lag time between extremism and action/arrest –  Some have advocated for increased Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts in response to the perceived spike in “homegrown terrorism”.  Most extremist recruitment occurs over a period of time numbering in many months and often years.  A CVE program in Minneapolis to prevent the Shabaab recruitment spike of 2007 would likely have to begin in 2005 to be effective.  Going to Minneapolis today (2011) to deal with an extremism problem from 2007-2008 is pointless.  The Shabaab recruiting pool has likely been drained by now and the effort overall is about 5 years too late.
  5. Counterterrorism research incentives to find/exploit spikes – CT pundit focus on “homegrown extremism” correlates closely with their need to find a new topic.  Brook’s doesn’t address this point, but her data and discussion shows homegrown extremism to be in a relatively steady state.  CT pundit and media hype surrounding  homegrown extremism arose as discussions of Iraq dissipated.  Discussion of a Zachary Chesser type homegrown extremism case during the height of AQ in Iraq (2005-2006) wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple minutes in the news.  Bottom line: there is less to talk about in counterterrorism and thus every small-time jihadi wannabe gets ever more attention by an ever growing pool of CT pundits.

Overall, Dr. Brooks article is outstanding in every way.  Academics and researchers should be talking about it, but I imagine that won’t happen as it thoroughly undermines an industry in decline: counterterrorism.