THE MAGAZINE

The Evolving Terrorist Threat

By Joseph Straw

The threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States is not new. It dates back at least 145 years to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the Civil War. The years since 9-11, however, have raised the threat to a new level, given the extent of harm posed by modern weapons. While domestic terrorism can take many forms, today the greatest risk is related to that of Islamic radicalism.

In the years following 9-11, it was first thought that radical jihad was unlikely to find fertile ground in the United States, where the Muslim population is among the most integrated and assimilated in the world. But more recent events are driving home the message that it only takes a few homegrown jihadis to create a serious threat.
 
The incident in which Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly killed 13 people and wounded 30 more in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, after apparently self-radicalizing, illustrates the point. And his case is not as unique as experts once thought. Testifying at a congressional hearing on the issue, Mitchell Silber, director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department (NYPD), listed nine other arrests or suspected plots from the prior 12 months that involved individuals radicalized in the United States. The cases ranged from one involving four men who placed what they thought were explosives outside a synagogue in Riverdale, New York, in April 2009, to that of at least 15 Americans of Somali descent who are believed to have self-radicalized and left the country to wage jihad in Somalia.
 
 Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has since publicly acknowledged that “Home-based terrorism is here. And, like violent extremism abroad, it will be part of the threat picture that we must now confront.”
 
Jarret Brachman of the University of North Dakota and former director of research for the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, is among the experts who harbor concern that the new threat is highly dynamic.
 
“The biggest issue today is the narrowing gap between thought and action,” Brachman tells Security Management. “You’ve got these dudes who have been on the Internet for years, but now they’re being told—or are telling one another—that this is not the last stop. And I worry that these people are going to start coming out of the woodwork over the next couple years.”
 
That prediction increases pressure on intelligence, law enforcement, and security professionals to spot threats in a world of noise. Veteran security practitioners, however, argue that for themselves and their peers, little has changed. Today’s environment, they say, only reinforces the case for strong fundamentals—specifically threat assessment. For security managers in corporate environments, the key is to have a heightened awareness of the need to look out for behaviorial red flags that signal suspicious activity or radicalization while avoiding stereotyping or profiling.
 

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