FPI Conference Call Wrap-up: The Expansion of Homegrown Terrorism

September 23, 2016

The Foreign Policy Initiative hosted a conference call yesterday on the implications of the recent terror attacks in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota for America’s national security. FPI Executive Director Chris Griffin moderated a discussion between Dr. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute and Dr. Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

A recording of this call is available on our website and key quotations follow below.

The Terrorist Threat Today

“What we have seen throughout the West is three kinds of attacks over the last few months. We’ve seen on one end, the structured, organized attacks carried out by individuals, by networks that have a clear connection to ISIS—the Paris dynamic, the Brussels dynamic. So kind of like old school al-Qaeda—the cell that is trained and dispatched to the West to carry out attacks. That’s obviously the most lethal [type], but to some degree the most preventable because you can intercept communications when you can.  The second dynamic is individuals who have some degree of connection to ISIS, but carry out the attacks completely independently. And then we have individuals who are purely inspired by ISIS, or more in general by jihadist ideology.” – Dr. Vidino

“Somebody put it in a very direct way, but if you live in Paris, Brussels, or Copenhagen, you really have to be stupid not to be able to find somebody who can hook you up with ISIS and have you go to Syria because the pipelines, the networks, are so easy to find in those countries.” – Dr. Vidino

“Because it’s more difficult in the United States than in Europe to mobilize, to go to Syria, to find that facilitation, you do have that ability to carry out attacks in the States. So while it’s true that we don’t see the same number of foreign fighters in the States, we have seen a disproportionately large number of attacks. We talked about San Bernardino, Orlando, and New York, but there’s also been Chattanooga, there’s also been Garland, there’s been a few.” – Dr. Vidino

America’s Counterterrorism Challenge

“I think that hampering our counterterrorism efforts is still the fact that across the United States government we don’t have a unified definition of terrorism—which means that different departments are oftentimes talking apples and oranges.  On a worldwide basis in 1988, Western security agencies had over 100 different definitions of terrorism. By 2006, there were more than 250 definitions in play.  And so many different countries and partners take an ala carte approach: they oppose terrorism, so long as happens to be for a cause with which they disagree.  It’s time to impose a unified definition, perhaps as a pre-condition for accepting U.S. counterterrorism aid internationally. And then internally, it’s time—and this is what the National Security Council is all about—to get all U.S. departments on the same page, working from the same playbook.” – Dr. Rubin

“We have an obsession with grievance. And it’s understandable to want to look at terrorism—homegrown or otherwise—through the lens of grievance because, if you’re the Secretary of State or if you’re the Secretary of Homeland Security, if terrorism is motivated by grievance, then you can address the grievance and it goes away.  We’ve got to recognize that’s ideology at play; and just because we have a separation of church and mosque and state doesn’t mean the rest of the world does.” – Dr. Rubin

“There is a bit of a reluctance on the part of the FBI and the government in general to get into the ideological side of things. And, indeed, you do see that some of these individuals come from certain milieus, which are not necessarily directly engaging in criminal activities, but are undeniably extremist. But there is a bit of a reluctance on a part of the FBI to take a broader look into certain milieus that produce these individuals.” – Dr. Vidino

“At the end of the day, the U.S. does not have a domestic intelligence agency. The FBI is not a domestic intelligence agency at the end of the day. It is probably the best agency on the planet when it comes to opening a criminal case against somebody. But when it comes to understanding the general environment in which some criminal or terrorist behaviors take place, it’s not really in their court. It’s not really part of their mandate. That’s to some degree problematic because if there’s not an awareness of the larger ideological movement that feeds, that helps the tip of the iceberg, which is the jihadists, then I think we’re not getting the full picture.” – Dr. Vidino

“The Joint Terrorism Task Force Model does seem to be working in integrating police, prisons, the FBI, and so forth. And that’s actually a model which partners overseas have sought partners to implement, seeking the assistance of the FBI to do that.” – Dr. Rubin

“Back in 2004, the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General had been an audit of the FBI, which found that many of the hundreds, the thousands of hours of communications intercepts that the FBI had made in various, had acquired simply had never been translated and, indeed, had never been listened to. There was a follow-up audit, I believe, in 2009 for fiscal year 2008, which, while it found that while the FBI had reviewed 100% of the 4.8 million foreign language text pages, which it had collected for counter-terrorism between fiscal years 2006 and 2008, it found that the FBI did not review 14.2 million of the 46 million electronic files that it collected during the same period and oftentimes this lack of review, and of course this could mean evidence seating around for a year that no one looks at, is because of a lack of translators.” – Dr. Rubin

Narratives of Radicalization

“At the grassroots level, people in the West who are attracted to [jihadist] ideology are not attracted per se by al-Qaeda or by ISIS, it’s about a general ideology.  Whoever they can make the connection with, they will make the connection with.  Or in many cases, they’re not even interested in making the connection.  Whoever espouses that ideology has a mindset and is against the West, that they will to some degree cheer for.” – Dr. Vidino

“If we look then at the attacks, and the attacks are the tip of the iceberg, what we see is that it’s not a matter of poverty and integration.  I look at both the dynamics in both Europe and the States, and there’s always been this mantra that ‘Europe sees more terrorism because they’re not good at integrating their Muslim population. America’s Muslim population is quite well-integrated, therefore it doesn’t radicalize,’ and it’s a simplistic analysis. It is undeniably true that America does a much better job than Europe of integrating—from a socioeconomic and from a cultural point of view—its minorities, including its Muslim minority. But to reduce the analysis of why certain dynamics happen, why people radicalize, to simply a matter of integration, of poverty, of discrimination—it’s almost too simplistic. It’s a factor that needs to be taken into consideration, but it’s hardly the only factor.” – Dr. Vidino

“If you look at the perpetrators of attacks, all of them were quite well-integrated according to the standards we would normally use to judge integration. Think of the San Bernardino shooters, think of Orlando, think of New York.  All of them would be success stories of integration: went to college, got a degree, had a job, middle class life.  So it’s not a matter of that.  So as much as America is correct in patting itself on the shoulder and saying ‘We’re good at integrating our minorities,’ that’s not the silver bullet to defeat radicalization.” – Dr. Vidino

“For the most part, radicalization is a group dynamic. It’s individuals who come together in small study groups, occasionally some mosques, small groups of friends. There’s obviously an online component which is very important. Though I would say the offline component is in many cases as important if not more important than the online one. The online one is the more visible one.” – Dr. Vidino

Confronting Online Radicalization

“It may have been useful to talk about ‘lone wolf terrorism’ a quarter-century ago, but today there really is no such thing.  The fact of the matter is, with the growth of the Internet, with the growth of international jihadism, there’s a template from which these loners can build—so they’re really not operating alone.” – Dr. Rubin

“We saw with the Tsarnaev brothers—the Chechen Boston Marathon bombers—that they had referred to Inspire magazine, al-Qaeda’s slick publication that Anwar al-Awlaki helped put out.  More recently, we have the Islamic State working with Dabiq magazine.  The fact of the matter is, one can go online and get access to all of this, and we’re really not doing enough to shut down some of these internet nodes and servers.” – Dr. Rubin

“The Defense Department has come out against bombing targets with relation to communications and the internet in Raqqa.  It put out a statement that everyone has the right to use the internet. Well, I’m sorry, in a war against terrorism, that’s just false.” – Dr. Rubin

Engaging the American Muslim Community

“There’s plenty of poorly organized and very sort of improvised efforts by individuals and organizations at the local level in trying to work within communities and work with the government in trying to prevent radicalization. So it’s really in a very complicated dynamic within the Muslim community as to who speaks for the Muslim community when the bottom line is nobody does. We are talking about very diverse communities. The engagement therefore, needs to reflect that diversity.” – Dr. Vidino

“The message that has been sent is if you care about the well-being of your children, your children are the targets of recruitment and radicalization effort on behalf of external actors. If you want to prevent that you have to be the frontline in that and obviously you have to do it internally but you need government support. It’s getting the message across and finding the right balance as to how much the community can do it alone and how much it needs the government’s support.” – Dr. Vidino

See also:

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More