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)



Successful Recruitment Processes for Ideological Causes

This past week, I finished Lawrence Wright’s latest book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.  It is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time; a truly amazing story of modern America that is exceptionally researched.  The book provides a contemporary accounting of how a religion is formed and in these descriptions I found many parallels to what is described in the recruitment processes of other ideological groups like al Qaeda and how they recruit new members.  (Note: I do not think Scientology is a terror group nor do I have anything against Scientologists with the exception of those described in the book that senselessly beat subordinate members and imprison them in dark basements. (Read the book, you’ll be amazed!) I don’t care what anyone believes as long as you don’t use it to justify killing other people or restricting others’ freedoms.)

In the book, Wright describes how writer/director Paul Haggis was recruited into Scientology.  On page 4, of Going Clear, I’ve done a short paraphrasing of Wright’s description of the Scientology playbook:

“Although he didn’t realize it, Haggis was being drawn into the church through a classic four-step “dissemination drill” that recruiters are carefully trained to follow.  The first step is to make contact…The second step is to disarm any antagonism the individual may have toward Scientology. Once that’s done, the task it to “find the ruin” — that is, the problem most on the mind of the potential recruit…The fourth step is to convince the Subject that Scientology has the answer.”

This description sounded so familiar to what I’ve seen and studied with regards to groups like al Qaeda.  But in reality, this approach can be seen in most all religions.  Wright does a great comparison of Scientology with other religions in the final chapter of the book, one that is both fair and instructive of Scientology’s parallels with more ancient religious traditions.

As I discussed in a recent post on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s recruitment to extremism, the ability for one to be susceptible to a recruitment strategy is an emotional trigger; or as described in Going Clear as “finding the ruin”. If one is primed by one or more emotional triggers, for example, the loss of a family member (family), a struggle for employment (financial), a mental condition (psychological) or the failure to achieve a goal (professional), the “ruin” can send one seeking an answer and an ideology can easily be a solution to solve all problems.  It’s not a coincidence that those sentenced to prisons (a “ruin”) often quickly find either God, a gang or both.

While Scientology is thankfully not a violent organization, at least not externally anyways, the process by which they “find the ruin” mirrors many extreme groups.  Wright’s description reminds me of on of my favorite articles on radicalization and recruitment – an article by TJ Leydon, a former white supremacist, who wrote a response to the Wade Michael Page massacre last year entitled “What I Might Have Told Wade Michael Page“. Leydon explains how he targeted people for recruitment.

“Treat someone normal like a winner and he’ll fight for you, but treat a loser like a winner and he’ll kill for you” became a phrase that I took to heart in recruiting others. As the years passed, I started to care more about the power of being high in the hierarchy of the white supremacy movement, so I started to go along with the ideology, even ideals I didn’t believe in or care about, such as Holocaust denial.”

Leydon’s conclusion also provides another contrasting perspective as to why people join different ideologies; extreme or otherwise.  The ideology provides the answer to all problems and a way to pursue both group and individual goals whether they be enlightenment, enrichment or power.  It’s striking how this thinking (the ideology is the solution to everything if its applied in such a way that it suits my needs) still provides comfort to those like Omar Hammami who routinely speak in the same narratives of  ideological panacea as the solution to solve their ruin and all problems.

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.

Strange “al Qaeda in Iran” supported plot disrupted in Canada

Yesterday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested two men for plotting to attack the VIA rail line between Canada and the U.S. That two men would be plotting an al Qaeda type attack isn’t surprising. Nor is it surprising that the RCMP would arrest them only a week after the Boston Marathon bombing.  I imagine any agency investigating terrorism right now that has any credible threat does not want to be sitting on their hands waiting to see if their subjects will speed up their terrorist planning in copycat style.  No one wants to be part of the counterterrorism investigative element that has an attack occur immediately following the Boston Bombing.  I’d guess we’ll see lots of rapid disruptions after Boston.  To the public, don’t freak out. When you see these arrests and disruptions, its more CYA (Cover Your Ass) than increased threat – the threat is relatively constant over time.

The curious part of the Canadian arrests was the al Qaeda connections were not with any familiar al Qaeda affiliate.

Assistant RCMP Commissioner James Malizia, the officer in charge of federal policing operations, said the plot was supported by “Al Qaeda elements in Iran.”  He also said that Al Qaeda provided “direction and guidance” to the alleged plot….”Current and former US officials said that the group, known to US investigators as the Al Qaeda “Management Council,” was kept more or less under control by the Iranian government, which viewed it with suspicion.”

Iran? Yes! Occasionally, I’ve discussed here at this blog the uncertain nature of al Qaeda’s position and role in Iran. Last summer, I wondered about an al Qaeda wild card in Iran.

“The Iran wild card: For many years, rumors of Iranian involvement and maybe conflict with al-Qaeda have persisted. Some senior al-Qaeda leaders, most notably Saif al-Adel, have allegedly been in a strange state of house arrest or operational support in Iran. Iran has always been a sly state sponsor of terrorist groups, both Sunni and Shia. If tensions were to arise between Iran and Israel or the U.S., would Iran seek to sustain al-Qaeda as a proxy? Analysts deliberating this issue may provide invaluable insights in the near future. “

But then just last month I had posted about the apprehension of Suleiman abu Ghaith, an old al Qaeda member seemingly expelled from Iran this year.  After this apprehension, I was thinking:

Well it seems my Iran wild card fears of summer 2012 may not be worthy of much attention.  If Suleiman was in fact the last al Qaeda member held by the IRGC, then, atleast on the surface, it would appear that Iran is not intending to use al Qaeda, a Sunni extremist group, as a strategic proxy against the West and Israel in the way that it backs other Sunni groups like Hamas.

Today, I’m not sure what to think.  But I do have lots of questions:

  • What was the Iranian State’s involvement in the AQ direction from Iran?  – Iran denies any involvement and I kind of think they probably had no involvement. But, maybe this is an underhanded proxy that Iran has decided to start leveraging.  I have no idea but will be interested to hear what surfaces.
  • What al Qaeda members are still in Iran? – The open source belief has generally been that Ghaith was one of the last al Qaeda guys hiding out in Iran. There are rumors of Saif al-Adel but as I referenced before, Vahid Brown had noted there may have been a prisoner swap some years back.
  • Why did al Qaeda choose to go through Iran to coordinate the attack planning? – My guess is that al Qaeda’s senior leaders in other locations may be too bogged down and monitored to effectively reach out to potential operatives in the West. So, maybe Iran is one of those places where al Qaeda thought they could slip by Western CT and coordinate a plot?  If that was their thinking, I guess they are wrong.
  • What’s with Canada? – In recent months, Canadians have been popping up all over in terrorism related issues.  Two Canadian attackers at the In Amenas attack in Algeria, recruits to al Shabaab in Somalia, now this.  What is the deal Canada? We here in the U.S. enjoy taking your best performing actors and singers, but not your terrorists.


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….


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.

More Data Debunking the Spike in Homegrown Extremism

Today, the Obama administration released their second strategy installment related to countering violent extremism (CVE).  CVE is quite the rage right now in the homeland security and law enforcement communities. Recently in the midst of some research, I came across another excellent study analyzing recent claims of a “Spike in Homegrown Extremism”.

Dr. Charles Kurzman recently released his book The Missing Martyrs which takes an empirical, data-driven approach to analyze the spike in homegrown extremism.  Kurzman, unlike many counterterrorism researchers, actually provides the data to support his analysis.  Kurzman, David Schanzer and Ebrahim Moosa host this data on their website – halfway down the page you can download a copy of all Muslim American related terrorism incidents and perpetrators from 2001 to 2010.  Like Dr. Risa Brooks article I mentioned last month, Kurzman concludes:

Muslim-American terrorism makes news. Out of the thousands of acts of violence that occur in the United States each year, an efficient system of government prosecution and media coverage brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to national attention, creating the impression — perhaps unintentionally — that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.

Upturns in the pace of Muslim-American terrorism are particularly newsworthy, and have driven much public debate over the past two years. This report documents a downturn in the pace of Muslim-American terrorism — it remains to be seen whether this is accorded a similar level of attention, and whether the level of public concern will ratchet downward along with the number of terrorism suspects.

Excellent data and analysis from Dr. Kurzman and I encourage those interested in CVE to check out his findings.

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.

Martinez’s unnoticed attack

Antonio Martinez, aka Muhammad Hussain, attempted to blow up the Armed Forces Career Center in Catonsville, Maryland on Wednesday (December 8, 2010).  There are several interesting questions with regards to this second, attempted terrorist bombing in the past three weeks.

1-  Why did Martinez continue with the plot after watching M.O.M. get caught in Portland?

According to the criminal complaint, Martinez did become nervous after watching the M.O.M. arrest in Portland.  But, the FBI played it cool.  The undercover  played as if he was nervous about Martinez being law enforcement. Martinez was also given the option (like M.O.M.) to discontinue the plot.  Martinez insisted on carrying it forward.

Like the M.O.M. plot in Portland, some will cry entrapment.  However, we task the FBI to protect us against terrorist attacks.  Again, I believe that is what the FBI has done.  Martinez was committed.  He would have found some way to commit violence. In the criminal complaint, he considered several methods to include using firearms to shoot military recruiters.  The undercover “fake bomb” plot likely prevented Martinez from actually killing military recruiters.

2-Did Martinez choose the target because he was rejected from joining the military?

In the complaint, Martinez said he knew the layout of the target, the Armed Forces Career Center, because he had been in there before.   He mentioned he considered joining the military before converting to Islam and desiring to pursue jihad.  Wanting to fight for the U.S. one day, wanting to fight against the U.S. on another day…ohhh, the troubles of American youth.  I guess he didn’t pass the psychological exam.

3-    Why was there so little coverage of Martinez terrorism plot and so much coverage of the M.O.M. arrest in Oregon?

It hardly showed up in the news.  I heard about it through a Twitter tip (that makes me sound so young and hip) and logged on to find out the initial fuss.  The next day, Maritnez’s plot hardly showed up in the news.  The Baltimore FBI undercover operation did not appear in the top three stories of the New York Times email I receive daily.

-So is the Baltimore plot less significant than the Portland plot?

They look almost identical in the criminal complaints.  In the Baltimore operation, there is no significant foreign contact or attempts to travel overseas.  The Baltimore undercover was much shorter in duration.  Other than that…..I’m not sure why so little coverage of the second plot and so much of the first.

-Is the Baltimore plot less significant because Martinez is a convert to Islam?

Maybe there appeared to be something more serious about the M.O.M. plot.  Maybe M.O.M.’s picture looked more like what the media needs for terrorism coverage.  M.O.M. was born Muslim and likely fits neatly in the American terrorism stereotype. I don’t know, but I saw M.O.M.’s Zoolander mugshot everywhere and Martinez’s picture hardly exists.

-Is the M.O.M. plot more significant because he attacked Christmas?

Maybe the Portland plot just happened on a slow news day.  But, M.O.M. tried to attack a Christmas tree lighting.  There are two things Americans can’t stand.  1) Having office printers go offline and explode and 2) Having ridiculously, enormous Christmas trees blow up.  Martinez was involved in AQ-inspired jihad.  M.O.M. committed jihad in support of the War on Christmas.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

M.O.M. attacks Portland’s Pioneer Square

On 26 Nov., Mohamud Osman Mohamud (known hereafter as M.O.M., a fantastic set of initials, KSM, UBL and now MOM.  I’m looking for a D.A.D. now.) was arrested at the conclusion of a long-run, FBI undercover operation.  Lots of interesting stuff in the criminal complaint and as always some entertaining aspects about the young, al Qaeda (AQ) wannabe.

1-    Counterterrorism continues to improve

M.O.M. was identified through an email contact in August 2009.  Initially, it appears AQ tried to pull him to Pakistan; consistent with other efforts over the past two years.  AQ, unable to operate in the West on a scale larger than one, fishes for new recruits with passports via the Internet. M.O.M. operating alone via the Internet is easy to pick up.  The FBI used the No-Fly List successfully, used international communication intercepts, developed an undercover, etc.  CT efforts in the U.S. have come a long way in ten years.  The FBI is proactive rather than reactive and the interagency process appears to have worked during this investigation.

2-    Virtual recruitment is weak recruitment

Again, we see how weak strictly virtual recruitment is for AQ. ( I know, it only takes one, yayayayaya!)  Potential AQ recruits trolling the Internet are just as likely to be interdicted by Western CT efforts as find their way into AQ.  As the Internet Haganah mentioned months back, if new recruits are hanging themselves out on the Internet, they are much easier to pick off.  My question now is: why didn’t we pick up on Faizal Shazad?  I am guessing its because he had kinship networks rather than solely Internet communication for coordinating his trip to Pakistan.  I’m not sure why Shazad slipped through the cracks.

3-    Critics should calm down

Sure, M.O.M. is not the most dangerous terrorist to surface in the U.S. I’ve read a few articles discrediting this case, but the media and pundits should be careful not to dismiss M.O.M. too quickly.  M.O.M. was determined to join AQ or commit an attack.  He wanted to travel overseas. He first tried to go to Pakistan via the UK and then considered making his way to Yemen.  For quite some time, he was open to carrying out a suicide attack in the United States.  M.O.M. was given at least a half dozen opportunities to opt out of the plot.  He remained committed until the end.  If the FBI hadn’t picked him up through this undercover operation, he would have made it into a terrorist group one way or another.  The nation asks the FBI to prevent terrorism.  I believe that is what the FBI did.

4-    Apparent pathways between Pakistan and Yemen

For M.O.M., a friend tried to bring him to Pakistan.  However, the friend later tried to route him to Yemen.  Once again, the Yemen path remains constant for American recruits.  John Walker Lindh did it a decade ago, Samir Khan did it last year and M.O.M. was instructed to try it recently.  The shift to Yemen occurred late in 2009 and may indicate the success of increased drone operations in Pakistan.  M.O.M.’s contact may have been signaling that Yemen is permissible and Pakistan is not.  Additionally, the shift to Yemen may suggest deeper strategic thinking between AQ Central and AQAP going back to 2009.

5-    Is Mohamud Osman Mohamud a Zoolander Protégé?

Seriously, what is with M.O.M.’s mugshot?   Was he doing an Abercrombie shoot just before the bombing attempt?  I think he calls this one ‘Magnum’ or maybe it’s ‘Blue Steel’.  (Inside joke for those familiar with the movie Zoolander)  I’ll put up a comparison below.  It is true that Zoolander was recruited in the movie to be a terrorist.  Maybe this is the work of Mugatu.  (Again, a bad Zoolander joke).