Homegrown Violent Extremism
Homegrown Violent Extremism
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This book comes on the heels of several years of focused research and study, as well as a counterterrorism and law enforcement career that spans more than three decades. As such, I have a lifetime of people to thank.
First, I must thank Elsevier for their support and readiness to pub- lish on this important topic and Ehsan Zeffar for the introduction. I also owe a great deal of thanks and appreciation to Dr. Eric Heikkila, my doctoral committee chair. His tireless support, guidance and encouragement helped make this book come to fruition. Thanks also to the members of my doctoral committee—Boaz Ganor, Michael Orosz, Peter Robertson and Milind Tambe—all experts in their respec- tive disciplines who provided invaluable expertise and insight.
This work would not have been possible without the support of the University of Southern California and my Trojan Family; the Sol Price School of Public Policy, Viterbi School of Engineering, and the National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis for Terrorism Events (CREATE). I also offer a special thanks to President Max Nikias, Deans Jack Knott and Yannis Yortsos, Vice Dean Elizabeth Graddy, Associate Dean Regina Nordahl, Catie Burke, Director Stephen Hora, Deborah Natoli, Isaac Maya, Martin Krieger, Dan Haverty, Kelly Buccola, Erin Callichio, Carmen Gomez, Stan Henderson, Sabrina Feeley, and Heather Rosoff.
I also owe a great deal to my very dear mentors and incredible friends: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rep. Jane Harman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, Secretary Janet Napolitano, Bonnie Reiss, Peter Bergen, Frank Quiambao, Brian Keith, Matthew Bettenhausen, Connie Rice, Claire Vasios, Randy Parsons, Don Leighton, Jim Butts, Jim Featherstone, Arif Alikhan, Brian Banning, Rich Callahan, Jim Davis, Amy Zegart, Ron Iden, Bill Leider, Ivan Newman, Maria Ressa, Fran Townsend, Richard Clarke, Hon. Michael Chertoff, Joanne St. Lewis, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Alexandra Lieben, Fred Roberts, Johnathan Tal, Edan Gottlib, Doron Pely, Larry Dietz, Peter Franklin, Julie
Cruzal, Elliot Brandt, my colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel and my attorneys, Marc Cohen and Sheri Jeffrey. The editorial guidance of my writing partner, Justin Hienz, is extraordinary. His knowledge and organization helped get this work completed ahead of schedule. Perhaps most important among these, my dear friend Desmond Saunders-Newton, who passed before this work was com- pleted. I know he would be proud that I heeded his advice.
This work represents another important step in the collective national effort to protect the United States. I thank the academics, practitioners and other experts who have developed our counterterror- ism capabilities to what they are today, and I respectfully stand on their shoulders to continue this important effort.
None of this would have been possible without the unconditional support and extraordinary patience of my mom and dad, my children, my brother David, an incredible writer in his own right, and my wife Caryn. I owe more to her than any book acknowledgement can express. She will finally be able to make a meal without my interrup- tions to read or listen to countless drafts.
And thank you, reader, for taking the time and interest to read this humble contribution to the ongoing international discussion about security and methods for preventing violent extremism. People fear what they don’t understand.
Since September 11, 2001, security experts, law enforcement profes- sionals and government leaders have been expecting another terrorist attack. Even as the United States and other countries have vastly improved their security posture through billions of dollars in technol- ogy and operational investments, training, and policy improvements, there has been a solemn recognition that no matter how advanced and coordinated a country’s security efforts, eventually, a terrorist would find vulnerability in the system and exploit it.
On April 15, 2013, in Boston, the inevitable occurred. Two men— Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—placed pressure cooker bombs amid the crowd gathered at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Spectator cameras were recording when these bombs exploded, sending fireballs into the air and hurling shrapnel into the hundreds of people nearby. The blasts killed three people and injured 264 others. It was the first successful attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, and it was the first attack on a sporting event since the 1996 Olympic Games.
While an attack of some form had been expected for years, the big questions for security professionals were always where, when and from whom would an attack come? Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda domi- nated the public gaze for nearly a decade. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as joint operations in Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries, focused the military response to transnational ter- rorism squarely on the al Qaeda threat. This severely disrupted the pri- mary organization and its satellites (such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). Funding was cut off, leaders were killed and communica- tions were intercepted. While there remains some vestige of the terror- ist organization, it is a shell of what it was on 9/11. The United States, with the help of its allies, put an end to core al Qaeda. But we did not end terrorism. That is, tragically, impossible.
There is limited capacity and opportunity for international terrorists to plot and launch attacks against the United States from abroad. Aviation and immigration security, far-reaching intelligence gathering,
and an increasingly aware and alert public make another 9/11-style attack a remote possibility. While violent extremists operating in law- less, poverty-stricken, failing states have little chance of planning and executing a major terrorist attack, the United States and other coun- tries have always feared another kind of threat—one that is vastly more difficult to anticipate and interrupt. As seen in Boston, when ter- rorism arises from within a domestic population, there is often little warning. Once homegrown adversaries are in motion, it is incredibly difficult to detect and stop them.
Within the context of America, this homegrown violent extremism (HVE) is terrorist activity or plots targeting the United States and U.S. assets by American citizens or residents who have embraced their extremist ideology largely within this country. This threat is diverse and growing.
As a basis for any thoughtful analysis of HVE, it must be accepted that total security—that is, the permanent absence of a terrorist threat— is unobtainable. No matter how effective the security technology or refined the processes, we as a society can never be fully free of the threat from violent extremism. There are, however, ways to reduce risk and improve our counterterrorism efforts. This necessitates a robust under- standing of HVE and radicalization, which is the purpose of this book.
I.1 OVERCOMING THE “OTHER” MINDSET
Any terrorist attack causes a predictable level of chaos and uncer- tainty. Immediately after the Boston bombing, law enforcement, the FBI and other intelligence organizations shifted into high gear. The Boston police department communications center dispatched a con- stant stream of reports about suspicious packages and unknown indivi- duals. Every potential unattended bag or unidentified person became suspect, and for hours after the attack, police rushed from one location to another, assuming out of necessity that there were more bombs waiting to explode. Thankfully, there were not.
Within hours of the attack, law enforcement identified a “Saudi national” who had been at the marathon as a person of interest. This man had been wounded by shrapnel, and he was kept under armed guard at the hospital. Ultimately, we learned that he was just one of the hundreds of bombing victims. Yet, that he became a person of
interest to begin with shows where suspicion fell before all the facts were available. We were looking for foreigners.
This reveals a critical flaw in our collective understanding of terror- ism, a misplaced belief that evildoers necessarily only come from other countries. They must look different, practice a different faith, and hold a different nationality. They are “other” than us. Yet, the attack in Boston showed this to be a miscalculation. The origin of the ideology is irrelevant in determining homegrown versus international terrorism; what matters is where it is embraced.
After several days, the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as the attackers, and the ensuing manhunt ended with a dramatic shootout and standoff. While the brothers were born in another country, they had been living in the United States for more than a decade. Both men grew up in the United States, without any overt indications that they would someday choose a life of terrorism. The older brother, Tamerlan, was a legal U.S. resident who had found some difficulty attaining citizenship. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, however, was an American, having taken the oath of citizenship, ironically, on September 11, 2012.
It is believed these men traversed a process of self-radicalization in the United States, perhaps enhanced by skills gained during Tamerlan’s overseas trip just months before the attack. Regardless, the brothers were locals, educated, living and working in the area. The Tsarnaevs walked into infamy alone and within U.S. borders, making them, by definition, homegrown violent extremists.
The terrorist threat to the United States is not as neat and clearly defined as we would like. If the terrorists of the world all looked the same, followed the same ideology and used the same tactics, America might be able to achieve total security. An infallible security system and a uniform terrorist threat, however, do not exist. There is no sin- gle group on which we can focus our counterterrorism efforts. There is no easy way to know in advance who among us will lead a peace- ful existence and who will endeavor to cause mass death, destruction, and fear. Terrorism messaging has benefited significantly from global- ization. Ideas that might seem distant and foreign are also right here, at home. Likewise, the ideologies that grow in the United States also reach around the world. Whenever we attempt to fit the terrorist
threat into clear-cut borders and definitions, we fail to anticipate the whole threat, which has no common nationality, motivation, or profile.
To address the broader challenge of preventing terrorist attacks that originate with citizens and residents (rather than foreign adversaries), we must take on a more nuanced, thoughtful and intelligent perspec- tive of HVE, its origins, and the methods for interrupting those on a pathway to violence. Part of this strategy includes focused efforts to counter the extremist ideologies and messages that propel individuals through the radicalization process.
I.2 UNDERSTANDING THE RADICALIZATION PATHWAY
As the world learned, the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by an extremist Muslim Identity ideology. For many, this seemed to be an indication that irrespective of nationality, the terrorist threat is pre- dominantly driven by an extremist interpretation of Islamic beliefs. To be sure, there are myriad examples of terrorists who fall within this camp, but maintaining a limited focus on Muslim Identity creates a profound blind spot in our national security efforts.
Since the start of the Obama Administration, there has been an unprecedented increase in domestic extremist groups. The election of an African-American president with an Arabic sounding name and a Muslim father, as well as public debate over his place of birth, fueled anti-government sentiment and extremist ideologies. This has swelled the ranks of groups that view the federal government as the enemy, feeding ideologies that see the government as an illegitimate corpora- tion of elites planning to implement a “one-world government.” While the terrorist threat these groups pose has not received broad coverage in mainstream media reporting, their thwarted plots include the intended bombing of federal buildings, assassination of public officials, attacks on uniformed law enforcement and the use of biological agents against the public.
For many, violent extremism has become synonymous with Islamic radicalism, but this is a woefully myopic view. Religious belief is only one example of legitimizing ideology that can contribute to violent activity. Ultimately, it is not the ideology itself that propels HVE; it is a combination of many factors that together create conditions under
which someone might cross the line from extremist rhetoric to violent action. This is the radicalization pathway.
HVE radicalization is not a conveyor belt that starts with a set of grievances and ends with violence, with easily discernible signposts along the way. It is a path through a complex and changing social and psychological landscape that is unique to every individual. What causes one person to embrace violent extremism may not have the same effect on another. There is no HVE checklist that can be used to identify someone in the midst of the radicalization process and deter- mine whether they will turn violent.
In the investigation into the Boston bombing, authorities have focused on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s 6-month trip to Chechnya, which pre- ceded the attack. Whatever he did there and whomever he met with likely contributed to Tsarnaev’s plans, but we can be reasonably assured that his path to HVE began long before his trip to his family’s motherland. Like other violent extremists, Tsarnaev’s radicalization was a long progression of experiences and grievances, nearly all of which occurred within the United States.
The radicalization process often begins with a “cognitive opening,” an event or experience that yields a personal grievance, which in turn makes someone more susceptible to accepting an extremist ideology. Grievances take many forms, such as conflicted identities, injustice, oppression or socioeconomic exclusion. Critically, there is no way of knowing what an individual will internalize as a life-changing griev- ance. What is devastating to one person may be irrelevant to another.
Even as grievance may lead to a broader openness to an ideology, it is not simply the belief in extremist ideologies that leads to HVE. There are many people who hold extremist views but do not engage in violent activity. While understanding how grievances can feed into an ideology is one avenue for addressing the potential for violent extrem- ism, the radicalization pathway is not limited to any one racial, reli- gious or issue-oriented group. It is a crosscutting phenomenon with an ever-uncertain end. It is often impossible to know who will exit the radicalization pathway as a violent extremist until they do so.
It is important to note the role online media can play in fostering violent extremism. Arguably, the Internet’s capacity for propelling
extremists through the radicalization process is the single most impor- tant and dangerous innovation to the terrorist threat since the 9/11 attacks. Future attacks against the United States and its interests will likely involve adversaries who have traversed the radicalization pro- cess, at least in part, online.
In searching for a comprehensive understanding of violent extrem- ism and those engaged in the radicalization process, history teaches valuable lessons, if we are willing to learn. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States declared martial law and interned 110,000 Japanese Americans. More than two-thirds of those interned were American citizens, and half of them were children. In some cases, fam- ily members were separated and sent to different camps. None had ever shown disloyalty to the nation, and throughout the war, none of the people convicted of spying for Japan were of Japanese or Asian ancestry. The internment was a monumental policy failure on a num- ber of levels. The lesson with regard to HVE is that attempts to iden- tify and disrupt threats must be evidence-based. Often, targeting potential adversaries according to one broad category (such as ethnic- ity or religion) leads to unjust scrutiny of innocent individuals.
Terrorism requires a combination of three things: an alienated indi- vidual, a legitimizing ideology (engaged through radicalization) and an enabling environment. Of the three, it is the environment that is most susceptible to positive influences. While it is tempting to focus counter- terrorism efforts on alienated, extremist individuals, recognizing that the goal is to contain terrorism and not simply stop terrorists, we must support and collaborate with communities to identify people on the path to violent extremism. Indeed, working with communities, we have the potential to disrupt the radicalization pathway altogether.
I.3 FOSTERING COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
Our best chance for preventing terrorist incidents is to embrace a more holistic, community-based effort. Counterterrorism and law enforce- ment professionals have limited resources. Given the plethora of threats to a safe society, as well as the foggy, often-unseen radicalization pro- cess that can take place anywhere, anytime, those with the greatest capacity to identify and help disrupt the path to violent extremism are the very communities from which potential terrorists arise.
Every terrorist has a family, a network of friends and acquain- tances, and a local environment where they live and work. Knowing that the path to violent extremism is long and complex, it is essential that those charged with preventing terrorism work with communities to implement programs and foster transparency and information shar- ing. This can help identify individuals who are susceptible to turning violent—but critically, before they do so.
This community-based effort should help policy makers and commu- nity members identify challenges and develop collaborative strategies to improve the community’s general wellbeing. The community-based effort is not focused solely on reducing the risk of HVE, nor is it driven by law enforcement. Unlike traditional community-based policing, which has shown some positive results, this strategy enhances relation- ship building and information sharing, emphasizing an overall improve- ment in the community’s quality of life.
Public awareness and engagement is an effective supplement to the dedicated work of America’s security, intelligence and law enforcement professionals. No one knows an area better than the local community, and no one is more attuned to troubling changes in an individual’s beliefs and behavior than those who know them on a personal level. Extremist beliefs are as individual and varied as the people who embrace them. As such, we must build the public vigilance and capac- ity to identify potentially threatening individuals, creating a mosaic of engagement that supports and amplifies our national security.
Community inaction—either through tacit approval of extremist ideas or a hesitancy to speak up when encountering an individual exploring a legitimizing ideology—provides an enabling environment that allows extremism to fester and sometimes mature into violence. Conversely, engaged and alert community members who are willing to report suspicious activities provide an invaluable resource in the broad- er national security effort. They can help disrupt the radicalization process, thereby undermining terrorism. This means addressing grie- vances, as well as recognizing and encouraging stakeholder engage- ment. We should seek out opportunities to empower communities to this end.
Doing so requires strong bonds between law enforcement, security professionals and the communities they strive to protect. Singling out a
person or entire community as suspect based on limited criteria (such as religion alone) undermines the public cohesion that is essential to collective efforts and information sharing. When individuals or com- munities feel marginalized by profiling, they become increasingly unwilling to share knowledge of potentially violent extremist activity. Additionally, this may create opportunities for extremist groups to recruit individuals who feel victimized by oppressive public policies. Thus, not only is a focus on one legitimizing ideology over another inadequate in terms of assessing and preparing for a range of potential threats, it can also hinder the community collaboration that might dis- rupt the radicalization process and prevent terrorist activity.
I.4 TOWARD AN ACADEMIC STUDY OF HVE
The information and analysis presented here is intended to build a comprehensive understanding of HVE. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to a discipline-wide discussion of HVE is a definition of the phenomenon itself. To that end, Chapter 1 introduces the complexities of defining terrorism generally and HVE specifically. Violent extrem- ism as a phenomenon is explored through its multifaceted characteris- tics, the role of a legitimizing ideology and the factors that contribute to violent action.
With a clearer understanding of precisely what is meant by the term HVE, Chapter 2 investigates the numerous groups that embrace a range of extremist doctrines. Race, religion and issue-oriented ideolo- gies come in many forms, as do the groups that espouse beliefs in line with these ideologies. Looking closely at HVE ideological motivations, missions and long-term objectives helps reveal the central factors that become associated with terrorist acts. As shown, it is clear that ideo- logical adherents can come to embrace a hybrid of beliefs, and some of the most troubling extremist ideologies are followed and spread by non-Muslim Identity groups. These groups employ sophisticated strate- gies for furthering their extremist beliefs and objectives under the guise of constitutionally-protected activities.
With knowledge of the diverse ideologies followed by different groups throughout the United States, and indeed, the world, Chapter 3 examines the complex components in the radicalization process. As a part of this, the chapter also looks closely at the role of community in
the trajectory toward violent extremism. As the community is the one element that may reduce the potential for recruitment and radicaliza- tion, contributing factors and challenges are examined with a view toward the development of a community-based, risk-reduction model. Essential elements facilitating the model, such as leadership styles, group behavior research, and associated theoretical structures, illus- trate areas where research and policy challenges need to be addressed.
Chapter 4 discusses how counterterrorism should evolve in profes- sional practice. The development of security and counterterrorism tac- tics has not necessarily yielded a true academic discipline focused on understanding and countering violent extremism. To encourage a more robust field, the chapter examines core questions and research method- ologies in the humanities, sciences and social sciences. This helps reveal each discipline’s value proposition and how these diverse areas of study may be leveraged into HVE research. The scientific method and criti- cal theory, when applied to the study of extremists and extremist group relationships, provide the capacity to identify appropriate research questions critical to strategies for countering extremist ideologies.
Finally, Chapter 5 introduces the Mosaic of Engagement model, a “whole of community” concept designed to improve community qual- ity of life by enhancing public safety generally, while challenging and containing violent extremism specifically. The model examines the achievements and shortcomings of the United Kingdom’s Preventing Violent Extremism Strategy, which was considered one of the most innovative counterterrorism programs in the world when it was first implemented. As well as drawing from the best-practice outcomes of the “community indicators” model in City Heights, San Diego, Mosaic incorporates lessons learned from both programs to develop a commu- nity and school-based model for limiting circumstances and factors that can facilitate HVE recruitment and radicalization.
As shown throughout this book, HVE is hardly a fully defined and exhaustively researched phenomenon. Indeed, academia and the secu- rity professions are just beginning to understand this evolving challenge to public safety. The threat requires a risk-based response; there is no comprehensive strategy that yields 100% security. Rather, we are chal- lenged to approach the terrorist threat in a new way, with a more nuanced understanding of how violent extremism originates and erupts.
Notwithstanding the serious threats to national security posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates, we focus only on this specific group (and Muslim Identity ideologies) at our great peril. HVE is defining the twenty-first century terrorist threat. The United States and many other countries face creative, adaptive adversaries. Some we have identified; others continue to operate in the shadows.
If the Boston marathon bombing taught us anything about HVE, it is that we cannot hope to thwart terrorist attacks by using only our current models of terrorism. We have an obligation to update our understanding of terrorism and violent extremism such that it accu- rately reflects the nature of the evolving threat. This book is intended to be a catalyst that will keep our collective efforts moving forward, toward a more effective response to the ever-present threat from HVE.
CHAPTER 11 Defining Homegrown Violent Extremism
Homegrown violent extremism (HVE) represents the next challenge for counterterrorism, but addressing the threat with effective risk-reduction and intelligence-driven security demands a clear understanding of what constitutes HVE. What is “homegrown?” Is HVE synonymous with domestic terrorism?
Much like the word “terrorism,” there is no comprehensive definition for HVE. For homegrown and foreign actors alike, there is no consis- tency with regard to race, religious belief, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or indeed, any other characteristic (aside from the desire to attack structures or people to achieve an ideologically driven societal, governmental, or economic goal).
Recognizing that one size does not fit all in the counterterrorism lexicon, this book uses the following definition as a baseline for com- parative analysis of the homegrown phenomenon:
HVE describes a terrorist act within the context of ideologically motivated vio- lence or plots, perpetrated within the United States or abroad by American citizens, residents or visitors, who have embraced their legitimizing ideology largely within the United States.
Within this definition are three primary terms requiring further description. These are a definition of a “terrorist act;”; an examination of what constitutes extremism and violent extremism; and the charac- teristics of a “homegrown” adversary.
1.1 WHAT IS TERRORISM?
There are few words more emotionally or politically …