THE MAGAZINE

The Evolving Terrorist Threat

By Joseph Straw

Global Context

Many terrorism experts say that the operational terrorist threat posed by core al Qaeda, or “al Qaeda Prime,” which carried out the attacks of 9-11, has diminished. The group is effectively under siege by U.S.-led forces in the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of its senior leaders have been picked off in CIA drone attacks, and it has also been starved of funding. To the latter point, researchers Michael Jacobson and Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently suggested, writing for Jane’s Strategic Advisory Services, that where core al Qaeda once funded its cells and allied operations around the world, those groups are now more likely to contribute funds they raise back to core al Qaeda.
 
It is those “franchise” operations in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa that have demonstrated they now present the more immediate operational threat. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan, for example, is believed to have executed the Thanksgiving 2008 attack in Mumbai. The so-called Christmas day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to kill 289 people on a Detroit-bound airliner by detonating explosives concealed in his underwear, was reportedly trained and equipped in Yemen by another franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
 
The extent of the threat posed by multi-member, transnational terror cells may be on the wane, a result of improved electronic surveillance, intelligence, and border security efforts by the United States and its allies. But these cells haven’t given up trying to outsmart the opposition. For example, they seek “cleanskin” recruits like Abdulmutallab: individuals with little if any criminal or terrorist history who hold legitimate travel documents like Abdulmutallab’s U.S. visa. Acting alone—at least in the operational phase—they leave a far smaller forensic footprint than a cell.
 
One positive note is that these newer jihadis appear to lack the level of training of the original 9-11 terrorists, which may explain why Abdulmutallab failed in his attempt to ignite a bomb. They also appear younger. Iain Donald, vice president and national director of global risk analysis for security firm Control Risks, says his firm found that between the two periods of 2001-2005 and 2006-2009, the average ages of terrorist actors dropped: from 32 to 30 for leaders, from about 27 to 23 for followers, and from 30 to roughly 23 for lone plotters. The result is diminished “tradecraft,” or professionalism, with regard to the skills needed to pull off a terrorist plots, he says.
 
At the same time, recruitment and planning have not abated, says Donald, and the Internet grows as a “force multiplier” in recruitment. The result, he notes, will likely be an increased number of plots like Abdulmutallab’s. The absence of multiple actors will diminish opportunities to detect the plot, but the youth and poor training of the terrorist will reduce the plan’s sophistication and, therefore, its chance of success.
 
The Path to Jihad
 
In their influential 2007 report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, Silber and NYPD colleague Arvin Bhatt laid out four stages of Islamic radicalization common to various terrorist plots they analyzed: preradicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization.
 
The preradicalization stage is the subject’s initial “ordinary” life—within or without the Muslim faith—that precedes the actual radicalization process. It is in the self-identification phase that the subject begins to explore and gravitate toward a branch of Islam known as Salafi Islam, the radical form of Islam that violent jihadis embrace. While all Salafis do not fall into this category, it is one of the signs that a person may be going down a path toward violence.
 
The self-identification stage is often triggered by personal crisis, whether social, economic, or political, Silber and Bhatt wrote.
 
During indoctrination, subjects adopt the Salafi ideology, and with the help of an individual the NYPD refers to as a “spiritual sanctioner,” conclude that action—jihad—is required to further its cause. During the jihadization stage, the subjects “accept their individual duty to participate in jihad,” and potentially plan and carry out attacks.
 
Who is at risk? Silber and Bhatt cite male Muslims under the age of 35, from middle-class backgrounds. Ethnic background is not necessarily a factor, but most of those radicalized were second- or third-generation Americans.
The consensus view among analysts is that converts to Islam—regardless of other demographic factors—bear an elevated risk of radicalization for two key reasons: their desire to prove their conviction and the fact that those converted into radical sects have never been taught the intended peaceful message of the Koran.
 
Both the NYPD report and an article titled “External Signs of Radicalization and Jihadist Militancy,”written the same year by Javier Jordán and Fernando M. Mañas of the University of Grenada, Spain, cite several similar outward signs of the path toward radicalization, although Jordán and Mañas note that these early indicators are common to observant Muslims and don’t necessarily presage future violent behavior. In the self-identification phase, for example, subjects will withdraw from prior relationships, begin wearing traditional Islamic dress, grow beards, and quit activities like smoking, drinking, and gambling.
 
Later, subjects will begin politicizing their beliefs, and according to Jordán and Mañas, passionately discuss perceived injustices committed by the West and Israel against Muslims. Of more concern is if they defend jihadist violence, such as suicide bombings.
 
Where radical jihadis differ from typical observant Muslims is that in the indoctrination phase, according to Silber and Bhatt, subjects are likely to stop attending mosques, which in more recent years have emerged as moderating environments averse to radicalization.
 
The radicalization phase is also marked by travel overseas, often for training, and in some cases by outdoor team-building activities. For example, those involved in the 2005 Virginia Jihad Network and the 2008 Fort Dix plot played paintball probably to enhance team spirit and train for attacks.
 
In his recent congressional testimony, Silber noted one phenomenon new to recent cases of homegrown radicalization: the spiritual advisor who crafts the radicalized subject’s new, distorted worldview, may be only a “virtual” presence.
 
Silber expressed reluctance to analyze the Hasan case as a matter of ongoing investigation and further noted that the NYPD’s radicalization framework applies primarily to groups. But he cited Hasan’s communication with American radical Islamic cleric Anwar al Awlaqi “as an examplar” of the virtual spiritual advisor concept. Awlaqi, who now lives in Yemen, had a relationship with three of the 9-11 hijackers while he still lived in the United States before the World Trade Center attack. He later also had contact with Abdulmutallab. His critical role persists because he speaks English as a native tongue.
 

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