FPI Conference Call Wrap-Up: Extremist Ideologies and Threats to the Homeland

June 20, 2016

On Thursday, June 16, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) hosted a conference call to discuss extremist ideologies and the threat they present to U.S. homeland security. The call featured the commentary of two leading experts on the subject, Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

An audio file containing the full contents of the call is available from the FPI website. FPI believes that lawmakers and their staff will find particular value in the following observations made by Dr. Vidino and Dr. Gartenstein-Ross.

The Difficulty of Preventing Attacks

“The FBI cannot get everybody. The reality is that you have a lot of people who operate in what I would call a ‘pre-criminal’ space. There are indeed a thousand investigations open, there’s arguably a larger number of people that the FBI knows are radical but do not have enough evidence to open an investigation on. And I think that’s sort of the story we heard on every single attack over the last few months. Chattanooga last summer, San Bernardino in December, and Orlando now.” – Lorenzo Vidino

“There are not enough resources to monitor everybody that is simply radicalized. Which at the end of the day is a non-criminal behavior. Being a radical is a constitutionally protected, First Amendment protected behavior.” – Lorenzo Vidino

“You have these individuals who at some point are on the radar screen of the FBI but for one reason or the other, the FBI could not really follow all the time who at some point decide to mobilize.” – Lorenzo Vidino

The FBI “Stretched Thin”

“What you hear when talking to any field agent is that they’re stretched very thin.” – David Gartenstein-Ross

“It’s something you clearly pick up in conservations with both the case officers and management, that they are stretched very thin, that they are dealing with an unparalleled number of cases and they do not have the manpower.” – Lorenzo Vidino

“If we have 1,000 investigations, that’s an unprecedented number, for each investigation you can argue with 2 or 3 other people who are not investigated, and potentially should be. There’s no way the FBI can keep up with that, so it’s a matter of manpower.” – Lorenzo Vidino

Near-Term Challenges

“One thing that deeply concerns me right now is what I see as a renewed lack of information sharing between agencies, specifically between intelligence agencies and law enforcement, when there’s information that’s relevant to law enforcement.” – Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

“Lives could quite literally be riding on the question of whether the right information is getting in front of the right people.” – Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

“The thing I’m most concerned about by far is an aviation attack. If there were to be a major terrorist attack that killed U.S. citizens, what I am concerned about is a transatlantic flight. It might be from Europe, it might be from West Africa, but it’s very clear that al-Qaeda in particular, but also ISIS, has increased its ability to attack aviation.” – Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

“I think we need to take a good hard look at aviation security, bearing in mind that it seems that these groups have improved their ability to get around current measures that we have in place to try to find the bomb.” – Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

The ISIS Threat in America

“There have been around a hundred individuals arrested over the last two years for ISIS-related activities and another hundred for other jihadist-related activities, non-ISIS, al-Qaeda, Shabaab, other groups. These are smaller numbers than countries like France, for example. But these are comparable numbers to other large European countries with similar Muslim populations to the U.S., like Spain or Italy.” – Lorenzo Vidino

“If you live in Europe [and] you espouse jihadist ideology, it’s very easy for you to get in touch with a facilitator, a gatekeeper, somebody that can let you go to where you want to join ISIS to fight. To open through the gates of jihad for you. If you live in the States, for a variety of reasons, it’s much more difficult. It’s partially because of geography, it’s partially because the FBI does a wonderful job arresting facilitators, it’s partially because the scene of facilitators is much smaller here than it is in Europe.” – Lorenzo Vidino

Lone Wolves

“My concern about lone wolf terrorism, about the labelling of lone wolf terrorism, is we tend to over-label. Basically, calling something lone wolf terrorism is the equivalent of political correctness within the counterterrorism sphere, and I am not saying that with any exaggeration. And it has cost lives in my view. Look at how quickly Orlando is described as an act of lone wolf terrorism. It wasn’t less than 24 hours, when we had no idea of what kind of connections [Orlando shooter Omar] Mateen may have had, it was less than 24 hours before people started calling it lone wolf terrorism.” – Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

“You go back to the Brussels Jewish Museum shooting, you go back to the would-be train attack in the Amsterdam-Paris train, and you go back to a little known attack, the Villejuif church attack, which was so incompetently executed that the attacker shot himself in the leg and had to call authorities. But all of those were described as lone wolf attacks and none of them were. In every case there were significant connections to ISIS’s European attack network and had people looked harder and looked at their connections there would have been a much better chance of authorities being able to unravel that network which would carry out two major attacks [in Paris and Brussels] on European soil.” – Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

“Let’s not begin with the hypothesis that an attack where we don’t see connections is ‘lone wolf’, instead let’s begin with the idea that we don’t know and let’s look for connections and let’s keep looking because sometimes those connections can be extremely important to stopping future attacks.” – Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Programs

“The U.S. is very much in its infancy when it comes to CVE. There has been a strategy put out in 2011, a lot of talk about it, but very little resources. Really, when it comes to money very, very little resources. More Americans have died fighting with jihadist groups in Syria than people that work in government, work on CVE.” – Lorenzo Vidino

“Radicalization happens at the local level, and therefore, deradicalization or radicalization prevention also needs to happen at the local level. You need a national strategy to coordinate, to allocate resources, to provide general guidelines, but at the end of the day, the entities that are better placed to carry out deradicalization or radicalization prevention are at the local level.” – Lorenzo Vidino

“[One-on-one interventions] would really, really help diminish the caseload for the FBI, if you can to some degree weed out the people who are just toying with the idea, who are at the very beginning of the radicalization trajectory you can convince, even just 40% of them, not to move forward, you reduce the caseload significantly for the FBI.” – Lorenzo Vidino

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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.
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