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How to Look at Homegrown Terrorism

6 minute read
Amanda Ripley

The most sophisticated government analysis of the homegrown terrorism threat to be made public in the United States came out this week, and it didn’t come from Washington — not from the FBI, the Director of National Intelligence or the Department of Homeland Security. It came from the New York City Police Department, and with any luck, its release will spur the federal government ostensibly leading the war on terror to show more faith in the general public’s ability to digest serious intelligence.

The report, entitled “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” makes several important and underappreciated points.

— There is no useful profile to predict who will become radicalized. Most would-be terrorists are “unremarkable men” living “unremarkable lives.” They don’t have criminal histories, and they don’t always gather at mosques.

— They do, however, follow remarkably similar behavior patterns. Participants in 11 anti-Western terrorism plots analyzed in the report all went through four stages on the path from unremarkable to violent: Pre-radicalization, Self-identification, Indoctrination and Jihadization.

The report isn’t perfect. The phrase “Jihadization” is problematic, and has already alienated some of the Muslim-American leaders who should be included in this conversation. Nor is it all new. Some of these points have been made before by respected counterterrorism scholars. But the fact that it came from a government organization, not a think tank, and that it struggles mightily not to dumb down its content, makes it exceptional.

“It’s remarkable to me that one of the first public reports on radicalization to get it right came from a police department,” says Chris Heffelfinger, a counterterrorism expert with the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. “Our preconception is that it should come from the top, from the White House, [but] I don’t think the CIA or any other analytic agency has better stuff than this.”

The authors, Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, of the NYPD’s intelligence division, spent months traveling the world and systematically analyzing the facts: who has participated in foiled and realized plots against the West? Where did they meet? What motivated them? And how did they go from being regular people, often citizens of Western nations, to radical violent extremists?

“This was a triumph of sensible men working very, very hard to get a good understanding of how this process works and determined, despite the risks, to get it out into the public,” says Brian Jenkins, a veteran counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corporation who was also a consultant on the report.

The NYPD has, since 9/11, built up one of the most impressive intelligence organizations in the world. The Department has officers based in the U.K., Israel and Europe, among other places. It also has hundreds of linguists who speak Farsi, Arabic and Urdu. Its intelligence division is led by David Cohen, who spent 35 years at the CIA.

In the past, the NYPD has been criticized for not sharing its intelligence widely, and it could have easily kept this report private and still reached its primary audience of law-enforcement officials. But it chose not to. “The NYPD knew it was going to draw some flak, as anything pertaining to domestic intelligence does and should. But we’d rather have the public debate, as noisy and rude as it may be, than have frightened acquiescence,” Jenkins says. “Too much of the message to the American people has been a message of fear, without explanation. In order to really get this, we have to educate, engage and enlist the citizens.”

Of course, doing that has its own dangers, and once the Department made its findings public — after a road show in Washington to the powers that be — it quickly became clear why this kind of thing doesn’t happen as often as it should. First, the broadcast media mischaracterized the report. Certain TV news shows defaulted to their usual “be afraid, be very afraid” script and claimed the report described two dozen active sleeper cells in the U.S. In fact, it did no such thing. If you read the 90-page report, you will see that it is a retrospective analysis of past plots, conducted with meticulous attention to detail. It is not the vague warnings of imminent doom we have heard from the federal government in the past. But the local CBS affiliate in New York City described it as “chilling,” perhaps out of habit.

At the press conference announcing the findings, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and his counterterrorism team started out visibly proud of their report. But questions from the media forced Kelly to keep stressing the basics. Reporters wanted to know how many cells Kelly was watching in the New York area, and how frightened we should be. “That’s not what this is about,” he said.

By afternoon, American-Muslim organizations had issued press releases criticizing the report. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it cast suspicion on all U.S. Muslims, even though the report repeatedly stresses that there is no obvious way to profile would-be terrorists. The Muslim Public Affairs council says the report contradicts the findings of the federal National Intelligence Estimate declassified last month. But that’s an oversimplification. The National Intelligence Estimate did put more emphasis on the threat of al-Qaeda, but both reports stressed the danger of radical, self-generating cells. The federal Estimate is put together by people whose focus is overseas, says Frank Cilluffo at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. The feds will never be as well-positioned as NYPD to understand the homegrown threat. “Ultimately, state and local authorities know their communities best.”

Perhaps one of the best things the report will do is create competitive pressure, Cilluffo suggests, spurring the feds and other police departments to greater feats of transparency and nuance. Historically, at the FBI and the Department of Justice in particular, intelligence is meant to be kept close, and the public is not to be trusted. Hopefully, the public and the NYPD will, eventually, prove them wrong.

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