Options Limited for Fighting Online Radicalization and Recruitment, Experts Say

By Matthew Harwood

Jihadists' efforts to radicalize and recruit Americans online have been largely unsuccessful, but incidents are growing in number and the campaign is tough to stop, terrorism experts told lawmakers today.

"On-line exhortations to Americans have produced a very meager return—an army of online jihadists, but only a tiny cohort of terrorists in the real world," RAND Corporation's Brian Michael Jenkins told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

In marketing terms, he said, jihadist recruitment messages have failed miserably, noting there are thousands of English-language jihadist sites and yet only 125 U.S.-based individuals have turned jihadi. Jenkins, however, did note the number of cases have risen sharply since 2009 and that the threat of homegrown jihadist attacks are real.

(For more on the threat of homegrown terrorism, see Joseph Straw's cover story for June, "The Evolving Terrorist Threat.")

Georgetown University Professor Bruce Hoffman was the most concerned member of the panel, calling naturalized U.S. citizen and Pakstan native Faisal Shahzad's failed attack in Times Square "a wake-up call."  Since last year, Hoffman identified 15 plots—11 in 2009 and four in 2010—to attack the U.S. homeland, the majority from citizens, naturalized immigrants, and legal immigrants.

"The one thing that the majority of them had in common was the role that the Internet played in their respective plots and often their radicalization," Hoffman said.

There's also the estimated 30 Somali-Americans who left their communities in California, Minnesota, and Ohio to fight with an Islamist militia in Somalia with ties to al Qaeda. "We failed to comprehend that this was not an isolated phenomenon... but that it indicated the possibility that an albeit embryonic terrorist radicalization and recruitment infrastructure had been established in the U.S.," Hoffman said.

The Obama administration is expected to weigh in on the issue this week in its new national security strategy, which includes homegrown terrorism among the major threats to the United States. The document is scheduled for release later this week, according to a press report.

"Obama's revision would be the first time that homegrown terror threats was a pillar of the document," the Associated Press reports, noting President Clinton did not include homegrown terrorism in the document after Oklahoma City and President Bush only made passing reference to it in his 2006 strategy.


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