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.

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