Video Broadcast of the FPRI Foreign Fighters in Syria Panel

Last week, the Foreign Policy Research Institute hosted a panel entitled “Foreign Fighters in Syria and Beyond”.  I had the honor of sitting on the panel with @will_mccants and @barakmendelsohn.  The discussion was quite good and I felt the questions and commentary spanned many of the key contentious points we currently face in counterterrorism.  You will also note that I get quite feisty about the lack of U.S. detention policy; something I’ve droned on about at this blog on several occasions.

You can listen to the full broadcast at this link.  And if you are wondering about the Antelope vs. Lion vs. Crocodile YouTube video I reference in my talk, I’ve posted it down below.  This is what I think Syria is like right now for foreign fighters – confusing, violent and chaotic.

Foreign Fighters in Syria panel

Foreign Fighters in Syria panel

Guest Post at FPRI “Detecting the radicalization and recruitment of the Boston Bombers”

Today, FPRI in Philadelphia provided me the opportunity to do a guest blog post on the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers of Cambridge, MA.  I’ll post the introduction here below and the post summarizes some of my previous articles on radicalization I’ve done with FPRI and how they relate to the recent bombings.  These three articles are:

Major Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood Tragedy: Implications for the U.S. Armed Forces“, 2011

Radicalization in the U.S. Beyond al Qaeda: Treating the Disease of the Disconnection“, 2011

U.S. Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism: An Assessment” with Will McCants, 2012

Here’s the introduction to the post and you can read the entire thing on FPRI at this link (Update 0800: Sorry, post at FPRI won’t be live until later this morning):

“The investigation into the radicalization of the Boston Marathon bombing’s Tsarnaev brothers has only just begun. While the picture of the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers remains incomplete, many have already pointed to what appear to be obvious warning signs of violence.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers, seemingly became a recruit of his older sibling Tamerlan.  However, the older brother Tamerlan showed many classic signs of radicalization and a turn to violence.  When placed in context, the question shifts from “How was Tamerlan radicalized?” to “Why was Tamerlan’s radicalization not detected?”

Two years ago in the summer of 2011, I used a radicalization model designed by Chris Heffelfinger, author of Radical Islam in America, to outline a potential framework for researching and eventually creating indicators and warnings for law enforcement and the military trying to assess the move of vulnerable individuals down the pathway of violent extremism.  In the article, “Major Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood Tragedy: Implications for the U.S. Armed Forces,” I tried to use Heffelfinger’s framework to note what indicators might emerge as individuals move through the process of radicalization and recruitment to violence.  The four stages of Heffelfinger’s construct are:

  1. Introduction – Initial contact with the extremist ideology
  2. Immersion – Immersion in the thinking and mindset of the extremist ideology
  3. Frustration – Frustration over inaction of other members of the ideology
  4. Resolve – Resolve to commit violence on behalf of the extremist ideology

Movement along the four phases of this framework varies for every extremist.  Some take years to move through the entire process, others only weeks or months.  And yet others travel through some of the initial phases and never commit to violent action.  The pace and intensity through which those being radicalized move through the process often hinges on one or more emotional triggers – significant life events accelerating the individual’s dive into extremism and increasing the susceptibility of an extremist ideology’s resonance.  Four broad categories of emotional triggers are:

  • Family- Death of a family member or divorce may leave the service member searching for a coping ideology.
  • Professional- Failure to achieve professional goals or adapt to military lifestyle may result in the individual being particularly vulnerable to extremist recruitment.
  • Financial- Extremist ideologies often provide comfort to those suffering financial struggles.
  • Psychological- Witnessing or participating in a traumatic event may trigger distress leading to the pursuit of extremist ideologies.

Not discussed in the paper but of equal importance to the framework and emotional triggers is the presence of catalysts – people and places that help vulnerable individuals move along the phases of radicalization.  Today, these catalysts guiding radicalization are often extremist Internet content, key influencers (often times former foreign fighters, ideologues or family members) and social circles. ”

See the rest of the post here.

Americans: If you join Shabaab/AQ in Somalia, you’ll probably go to jail…Shabaab jail that is!

Young American aficionados of al Shabaab and al Qaeda (Europeans too): Listen up! You probably thought that if you joined Shabaab/al Qaeda you might eventually get thrown in jail.  That’s a good bet.  However, you probably also thought when you got thrown in jail it would be a U.S. jail or even worse a foreign jail of a U.S. counterterrorism partner.  But, you would be wrong.  The two most likely results of joining al Shabaab are:

  1. Shabaab will eventually betray you and kill you.
  2. Shabaab will throw you in Shabaab jail…(Even worse than being in a U.S. or foreign partner prison.)

Shabaab thought Omar Hammami was being a showboat narcissist refuting them on Twitter and YouTube.  But, it increasingly seems like Omar is not the only foreign fighter to be disavowed and imprisoned by Shabaab.  Omar’s talk of a rift between local Shabaab members and the foreign fighter (“Muj”) seems more and more genuine each day.  And, Omar is not the only foreign fighter or even American being imprisoned by Shabaab.  Today, Omar revealed that the other American foreign fighter imprisoned by Shabaab may be Said Fidhin – an American from Seattle, Washington who was an essential conduit for the recruitment of Americans to Shabaab and from the Isaaq clan. Here’s a note on Fidhin from the Star Tribune:

Those who worked on the receiving end of the pipeline in Somalia, according to witnesses, are: Abshir’s uncle, Said Fidhin, a former resident of the Seattle area known as “Samatar” or “Adair,” and a taxi driver in Somalia known as “Uncle Barre.”

Here’s Omar’s update on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 12.20.17 PM

 

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 11.50.37 AM

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 12.25.04 PMScreen Shot 2013-03-22 at 12.25.52 PM

 

So there you go foreign fighters!  Head off to Somalia, join the call for Shabaab’s jihad.  If the environment, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Somali government, or the West don’t kill you, Shabaab may, and if they don’t kill you they’ll at least throw you in jail.  Wow, jihad sounds so appealing.  You might go to a meeting in Barowe, find out its a set up and get thrown in Shabaab jail.  As I mentioned in a previous post on Omar and the movie The Godfatherif Shabaab calls you to a private meeting, don’t show up!

Also note above that Shabaab now says that, “anyone who writes on twitter is a spy.”  Too funny, Shabaab, once heralded for being groundbreaking in their use of new media, now just as scared as Western governments about leaks and trying to do information control.  Shabaab claims to be boasting a pure form of Islam right?  What is there to hide Shabaab – your tweets make it seem like everything is wonderful?

Should we knock terrorists off the Internet? Maybe!

J.M. Berger published a fantastic challenge to conventional wisdom this week providing some insightful and unique analysis of recent ‘Found experiments’ occurring with terrorists’ use of the Internet and social media. In his Foreign Policy article “#Unfollow”, @intelwire describes the latest revelations of al Shabaab being booted from and then reconstituted on Twitter. Thus far, the outcome of this recent event has countered conventional wisdom about terrorists being denied access to the Internet.

Just a few weeks back, Twitter closed the account of al Shabaab, @HSMPress, for violating Twitter’s terms of service. Shockingly, a terrorist group (al Shabaab) used Twitter to issue “a direct threat of violence”. No way! Who saw this coming?

@intelwire points out that there have been two arguments about why the U.S. should not push terrorists groups offline.

“Stopping terrorists from spreading their propaganda online (using U.S.-based Internet companies to boot) seems like a no-brainer to many. But within the terrorism studies community, there are two common and sincere objections to disruptive approaches for countering violent extremism online.”

As expected, al Shabaab quickly returned to Twitter under a new account name similar to its past one. However, Berger has noted through some excellent charts that so far, Shabaab’s audience has not been sufficiently resurrected. As of today, they have about 10-20% of the audience they had before being knocked off line. At this rate, Shabaab will end up spending a large amount of time regenerating its audience on Twitter suggesting the disruption approach would limit terrorist groups’ reach while also wasting their time. Cool!

As for the loss of intelligence, @intelwire’s piece notes that disrupting Shabaab’s Twitter account may actually result in an intelligence gain. While many followers were lost, the most hardcore supporters of Shabaab returned very quickly effectively outlining where Shabaab’s greatest support resides.

“The former followers who quickly signed up for al-Shabaab’s new Twitter account — just 882 users — have a serious interest in the al Qaeda affiliate’s activities….. We know these users are more likely to be very interested in al-Shabab, and the number is manageable enough that a single analyst can look at each account individually to make a more sophisticated evaluation.”

Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 7.14.47 PM

 

I’ve been dismissive of focusing too much energy on disrupting terrorist websites and their more recent migrations to social media like Twitter and Facebook. However, the case of Shabaab on Twitter is quite instructive. I still have a few questions.

  • Is Shabaab an anomaly or a trend? – @intelwire compares Shabaab with the fall of al Qaeda forums in recent months. However, Jubhat al Nusra has maintained a consistent and growing presence online. So, are the challenges found by al Shabaab attempting to reclaim its online audience the result of effective disruption or a side effect of the group’s general decline and loss of audience?
  • On social media like Twitter and Facebook, are terrorist groups inadvertently censoring themselves? – Recent takedowns of terrorist websites have resulted in online extremists encouraging their followers to migrate to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook where they can establish individual accounts that are more difficult to disrupt. However, in doing so, extremists are actually censoring themselves as social media sites are governed by terms of service that restrict the violent images and language so cherished by extremists and critical for recruitment. So, when extremists move to social media, are they actually censoring themselves and over the long run taming their messages and reducing their effectiveness?
  • Is the greatest counter to extremists online actually the public? – Government struggles at disruption of online extremists as it requires considerable resources and creates a tension with civil libertarians that worry about government violations of citizen privacy and restricting freedom of speech. However, the public has no such limitations can identify terms of service violations and report them without much restriction. So, Americans, if you don’t like extremists on line, help Twitter and Facebook police them by reporting violations.

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. “

Anti-Social Aspects of Social Media

This week, I watched an interesting video of Sherry Turkle and her TED Talk “Connected, but alone?“. She discusses the negative aspects emerging from society’s addiction to social media and mobile messaging.  Turkle was once a strong advocate for how technology could empower identity.  However, Turkle now identifies many of the downsides of our new digital life noting some of the effects she personally experiences in her relationship with a daughter:

“We’re letting [technology] take us places that we don’t want to go.”

Turkle makes several excellent points that I’ve considered at times when assessing both the new digital society and myself.  Social media can feel connecting and disconnecting at the same time.  Turkle continues on:

“We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

I recently wrote a paper entitled “The Future of Terrorism: Treating the Disease of the Disconnected.”  One of my central points with regards to recent notions of a spike in homegrown extremism is that violence across the United States, in aggregate, is going down.  However, a good portion of the violence that remains comes in the form of homegrown violent extremism (HVE) and lone gunmen shooting up schools and workplaces.  Many of these perpetrators express their frustrations online. While trying to connect themselves to larger causes and ideologies (Brevik, Hasan, etc.), we later find that these individuals were in fact extremely alone, isolated and vulnerable.  Their violence stems as much or more from frustration over their social isolation rather than their commitment to the objectives of an extreme ideology they recently encountered online.

Turkle, I think, rightly points out that;

“If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.”

My assertion is that our attachment to social media might very well lead to more depression in American youth and subsequently more violence from previously calm segments of America. This depression will manifest itself in violent ways we have not witnessed in past generations. This new era of violence will be:

  • The result of attention seeking behavior more than ideological commitment,
  • In the form of individuals (lone wolf) more than groups,
  • Found in middle and upper socio-economic strata with access and addiction to social media (rather than poor and/or urban communities),
  • Correlated with non-traditional indicators of violence. For example, criminal history, in the past, has been a strong indicator of future criminal perpetrators.  In the isolated, social media generation, perpetrators of lone wolf violence will be less likely to have a criminal record and more likely to have a history of depression.

For law enforcement and security enthusiasts, Turkles discussion should spark conversations about what to look for in emerging violence.  Some have advocated that we should look for individuals supporting “al-Qaeda’s ideology”.  But will that really be a useful method for anticipating the social media generation’s strain of violence?

An alternative approach might instead look for 1) those places with high incidence of cyber-bullying, youth depression, high levels of prescriptions in anti-depressant drugs and 2) those reports by school security officers and private security noting behavior changes and isolation on the part of students and co-workers.

I think these alternative indicators related to the disconnect of the social media generation deserve more research.  I also believe these indicators will be more helpful (and less narrow minded) than current U.S. CVE indicator lists that are dominated by al-Qaeda jargon.  I believe there is little that separates the next 18-year old active shooter in a local high school and the wannabe 18-year old homegrown, al-Qaeda lone wolf recruited via the Internet.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Turkle’s talk and applaud her for noting caution that undermines the technology community she helped pioneer.  It would have been easier for Turkle to continue boosting technology for her own benefit rather than pointing out its weaknesses in order to help others.

Will al Qaeda continue to pursue WMD? The results of successful CVE

Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, many worried about al Qaeda’s pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) for use in an attack against the West.  The panic surrounding this topic has dimmed as of late.

However, in 2006, I was continuing to slog away on my labor economics application to terrorist group recruitment and began working on the tradeoffs between capital and labor for groups like al Qaeda.  In my final of three posts from the working paper, “Jihadists Seeking Challenging Martyrdom Opportunity; Will Travel”, I’ll post a somewhat counter-intuitive theory as to when al Qaeda might accelerate their pursuit of WMD.

In two past posts, I discussed the price for recruiting a person to extremism as the sum of tangible and intangible benefits dictated by the 1) recruit’s role within the terror group and 2) the region from which the terror recruit is recruited. The rationale suggested that successful CVE strategies would raise the price for each recruit resulting in a net loss of recruits for the extremist group.  But, what if the West is successful in countering violent extremism (CVE) and deterring recruitment?

Currently, the price for recruitment into al Qaeda (AQ) appears quite high from the terror group’s perspective.  Recent news reporting suggests that for most potential recruits the perceived benefits of joining AQ are less than the benefits earned by participating in a new Arab Spring government or joining a local jihadi group that may or may not have strong connections with AQ.  If recruitment is down for AQ, does that mean AQ is done – maybe, but probably not.

Using basic economic theory, I constructed a factors of production diagram below which shows the combination of labor (people) and capital (technology) used by AQ to execute their terrorist attacks assuming resources remain constant (important point I’ll discuss below).  In Line A, we see a labor heavy AQ where they use lots of men to execute low technology attacks (Example: Conventional attacks and suicide bombings, think AQ in Iraq 2006-07).  The red curve (cost curve for econ geeks) shows the production point of attacks for the terror group   In Line B, we see the effects of decreased recruitment on AQ terror attack production.  With fewer recruits, AQ has less labor to execute their attacks and their production decreases to where the red curve hits Line B.  Line B might represent current day where AQ still executes attacks but not at a pace considerable to their peak.  So what does AQ do?

Economic theory says, assuming financing remains constant, that AQ will take it’s resources not being invested in new recruits (labor) and will shift it to capital acquisitions – more advanced technology.  In Line C, AQ acquires more capital technologies (Example: WMD) and uses this new tech and fewer men to execute an equal or higher level  of terror attack production. (note: terror attack level = combination of frequency and intensity) So would a decrease in AQ recruitment mean AQ might increase their efforts to acquire WMD?


Is AQ aggressively going after WMD?

Probably not.  While I’m certain AQ would take any opportunity to acquire WMD, the underlying assumption of this model is that resources remain constant. Not only is AQ’s senior leadership weakened and suppressed in Pakistan, but they are also likely lacking sufficient funding to aggressively pursue WMD.  Likewise, this model does not address the issue of acquisition and implementation of more advanced capital.  As research has borne out in recent years, acquiring WMD still remains quite difficult for AQ and moving and initiating the device remains a complicated task.  Looking at the WMD options for AQ, only radiological attacks (“dirty bomb”) seem feasible operationally for AQ as a widespread WMD event and even then, developing and implementing one of these attacks would prove quite costly in terms of labor, capital and time – all things AQ globally seems to be lacking at the moment. In this same line of thinking, AQ could choose to pursue other damaging tech capabilities such as cyber threats.  But, cyber terrorism, even if executed well by AQ, seems to lack the flare and punch AQ needs in a time of their decline with respect to other jihadist groups.

Why talk about this now?

While AQ recruitment may be down and I believe the U.S. should feel better about its current place in the terrorism fight, this economic theory shows that any terror group or lone terrorist intent on killing Americans and sufficiently resourced can still execute a spectacular attack regardless of their size.  Thus, our successes in CVE or global circumstances mitigating recruitment (Arab Spring) should not convince us that AQ is done.  Instead, we might think about what AQ would do when recruitment is down.  Maybe, AQ will look for a more advanced technological method to achieve their goals.