How Does One Walk the Path to Terrorism?

By Matthew Harwood

This morning the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs is conducting a preliminary hearing into the Fort Hood attack.

While the hearing will no doubt address whether the alleged shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan, is a domestic terrorist or a crazed gunman or both, National Public Radio probes a question researchers have grappled with for a long time: "What Makes a Terrorist?"

The problem is there's no easy answer, reports NPR, because the process of radicalization isn't understood very well.

But even as military and law enforcement officials continue their probe, the incident has sparked a renewed focus on how Islamic extremists and al-Qaida sympathizers become radicalized in the first place.

The U.S. government has focused significant intelligence resources on the question of radicalization in recent years, but they admit the dynamics are still not well understood.

"We haven't completely figured out why some people are susceptible to that and some aren't," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "There are people who argue it's cultural or economic or political or psychological, but it depends."

Complicating matters further, is whether an individual can self-radicalize online by visiting jihadist Web sites and participating in online discussion forums or whether they need additional human assistance. Hasan allegedly posted a comment online equating a U.S. soldier diving on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers to a suicide bomber. Hasan also had frequent e-mail conversations with the radical jihadist cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, whom authorities say is an al Qaeda recruiter, that were intercepted by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI did not investigate Hasan because the agency determined his e-mails were in line with his research.

One senior intelligence agent told NPR that online research can start the radicalization process but generally that individual needs someone to further guide them into that world.

"Generally speaking, there needs to be an intermediary — someone who helps you along the path to radicalization," the official said. "For the actual embrace of the global jihad, you can be launched on that path by your own research on the Internet, but in most cases, you do need some kind of a guide."

The most dangerous cases, law enforcement officials tell NPR, is when a radicalized individual seeks out assistance from al Qaeda or like-minded groups.

In some of these cases, the suspects managed to develop worrying ties to al-Qaida or one of its affiliates.

Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant, was arrested last month and charged with conspiring to blow up targets in the U.S. He has pleaded not guilty, but U.S. officials say that he traveled to Pakistan last year allegedly to train with al-Qaida.

Another recent case involved two men arrested in Chicago last month on allegations of plotting terrorist attacks in Western Europe, including against a Danish newspaper that printed a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. A federal indictment alleges that the two have ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani extremist group tied to al-Qaida.

Training and guidance by a terrorist organization creates a better terrorist. So far, the government has not disclosed any evidence that Hasan had help pulling of his alleged rampage at Fort Hood.

Nevertheless, if Hasan was indeed a lone wolf terrorist, it's a trend law enforcement officials are increasingly worried about. Around the same time the Zazi plot was broken up, the FBI broke up two other homegrown terrorism plots in Springfield, Illinois, and Dallas by disaffected young Muslim men who apparently had no ties to terrorist organizations. Self-radicalized, lone wolf cases, such as these, worry law enforcement because they're harder to discover and disrupt. The silver lining to these cases usually is that the individual carrying them out is inept.

Hasan, however, was not.

 ♦ Photo of "Dark Path" by pusspaw/Flickr


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