THE MAGAZINE

The Evolving Terrorist Threat

By Joseph Straw

Detection and Intervention

Along with its list of warning signs of radicalization, the NYPD’s report noted that “with the higher risks associated with heading down this pathway, individuals will seek to conceal their actions earlier, making intelligence and law enforcement’s job even more difficult.”
 
That, according to Silber and Bhatt, coupled with a shrinking “gap between thought and action” observed by Brachman, means that the process of radicalization must be detected as early as possible. But that goal is difficult to achieve and is fraught with legal perils.
 
One challenge to early detection is trying to track down the origins of online posts in radical chat rooms, given the breadth of cyberspace. Then there is the fact that speech is constitutionally protected. Thus, agents face huge obstacles, says J. Patrick Rowan, former Assistant Attorney General for National Security and now a partner with the consulting firm McGuireWoods.
 
Assuming they do find those chat rooms and listen in and are able to identify the participants, what then? How soon should the authorities take action? Acting too soon may mean that important intelligence opportunities are lost. And acting before anything illegal has transpired can also raise civil liberty concerns.
 
“I think we’re getting to the point where the agencies have a great deal of experience in judging when to let something play out and whether to disrupt something,” Rowan says.
 
The volume of information that has to be sifted through is also part of the problem. As the government gets better at collecting more and more data, it just adds to that challenge, notes Rowan.
 
Community outreach. Experts agree that the best hope for catching homegrown radicals rests not in cyberspace or in criminal intelligence bureaus but in communities and perhaps even more so with families.
 
Terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins of RAND Corp., and David Cid, executive director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), urge broader implementation of community-based policing through which individual law enforcement officers can foster trusted relationships with the residents, community organizations, and businesses within their area of responsibility. The job is particularly critical for officers serving in Muslim-American communities.
 
The key to catching the radicals is to recognize that the Muslim community at large is not the enemy. To drive home that point, Jenkins contrasts the roughly 3 million Muslim-Americans with the number of U.S. arrests since 9-11 that relate directly to homegrown terrorists who were Muslim, which RAND places at 117 persons involved in 44 cases. “That is not a big number. I suggest, as I have before, that the Muslim-American community really has repudiated al Qaeda’s message and its exhortations.”
 
At MIPT, which recently shifted its mission from one of research and analysis to one of training, Cid’s staff trains law enforcement professionals in both recognition of terrorist precursor behaviors and community engagement.
 
Community outreach is all the more important with regard to lone actors, because in those cases, it is often only a close friend or family member who will have seen signs of trouble, as noted by the Washington Institute’s Jacobson in his recent paper Terrorist Dropouts: Learning from Those Who Have Left. And as several well-known cases have illustrated, it’s often family members who approach authorities with concerns and suspicions that break terrorism cases open.
 
An early example predates 9-11 and the radical jihadi threat, but it is pertinent as it relates to lone actors and how authorities catch them. It is the case of David Kaczynski, who approached the FBI in 1996 with suspicion that his brother, Theodore Kaczynski, was the Unabomber, responsible for 16 bombings from 1978 to 1995.
 
Similarly, it is now well known that it was the father of the Christmas day bomber Abdulmutallab who tried to alert authorities to the threat posed by his son. And late last year after five Virginia men suddenly left the country, allegedly after contact with a Taliban recruiter, a parent contacted the FBI, leading to the men being arrested in Pakistan.
 
Community engagement and education—in particular about the early stages of radicalization—could increase the chances that family members or friends would provide authorities with this same type of early warning of a threat.
 
Behavioral assessments. The nexus between terrorism and religion poses a challenge for security professionals, who must walk a fine line between keeping society safe and respecting individual rights. The key, observers agree, is to keep the focus on behavioral threat assessments.
 
In the broader context of a workplace violence prevention program, those assessments are aimed at detecting early signs of psychological problems that could lead to violence. In the additional context of the terrorist threat, security managers must focus with clinical precision on behaviors that are recognized indicators of the threat of violence and radicalization, excluding factors of race, religion, and national origin.
 
“If we act on our biases, that’s when you get into trouble,” says attorney James F. Pastor, president of SecureLaw, Ltd. “You have to act on the objective indicators.”
 
John Bagyi, an employment attorney with Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC, notes that since 9-11, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which fields civil complaints of workplace discrimination, has been “very focused” on cases involving religion and national origin.
 
“You need to have a good reason for singling out an employee for attention, but security folks are really well positioned to do this; they know they need objective information they can rely on to detect a threat,” Bagyi says. “And if you want to talk about liability, frankly you’d be negligent if you failed to see something because you were focused on the Muslim employee and overlooked the Christian two cubicles over who was plotting something.”
 
For security professionals, the phenomenon of Islamic radicalization—in terms of detecting behaviorial red flags in the workplace—is no different from that posed historically by other political and religious extremists or even employees suffering from mental illness says Jim Cawood, CPP, PCI, PSP, a 28-year veteran of workforce violence prevention and president of Factor One, a consultancy in San Leando, California.
 
“The fact is that all behavioral threat assessments involve private things. So this is nothing new. This is all part of the process, and none of this is different from the things we’ve always been telling people to look for,” Cawood tells Security Management.
 
John Lane, Control Risks’ vice president of crisis and security consulting and a specialist in workplace violence prevention, explains that “non-normative” behavior, including discussion of what “should” happen to people, and the notion of violence as an acceptable remedy, should stand out to coworkers regardless of religious or political context.
 
“And we would be foolish to ignore this with the mind-set that it is just free speech or constitutionally protected speech. It really gets back to common sense. That should sound alarm bells, and it’s something you’d want to discuss with your local police or police criminal intelligence unit,” Lane says.
 
Practical guides. Getting from the theoretical to the real-world identification of red flags is never easy—and the process of trying to assess what the best indicators are is ongoing. Specific guidance on indicators of radicalization is expected from the Department of Defense (DoD). In their independent report on lessons from the Fort Hood shooting, former Army Secretary Togo West and former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark recommended development of programs “to educate DoD personnel about indicators that signal when individuals may commit violent acts or become radicalized.”  
As for how great a threat lone actors pose going forward, noted terrorism expert Paul Pillar of Georgetown University put it this way at a congressional hearing late in 2009: “Incidents to date cannot be described as yet adding up to a significant home-grown Islamist terrorist problem in the United States. But episodes like the shooting at Fort Hood suggest the possibility of more, and the sort of reasons and motivations that could make for more.”
 
Pillar also noted that al Qaeda’s role is not operational but rather “ideological and inspirational.” They provide lone disaffected individuals with the rationale for channeling personal anger into violence.
 
Cid of MIPT notes the importance of ideology as well, but he takes an optimistic view looking at the long term. Cid cites the resolution of “the Troubles” in Ireland, where the Provisional IRA and its allies finally realized that violence was counterproductive. “This will happen eventually,” Cid says. “It’s the only logical conclusion that one can come to, that they can’t win. It’s only a question of how many people they kill before they come to it.” 
 

♦ Joseph Straw is an assistant editor with Security Management.
 
@ Read more about radicalization, including the NYPD and Washington Institute reports, via “Beyond Print."

 

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