What are we doing to prevent the radicalization of Americans?

Homegrown Jihadist Terrorists: The Problem

“Homegrown” is the term that describes terrorist activity or plots perpetrated within the United States or abroad by American citizens, legal permanent residents, or visitors radicalized largely within the United States. The term “jihadist” describes radicalized individuals using Islam as an ideological and/or religious justification for their belief in the establishment of a global caliphate, or jurisdiction governed by a Muslim civil and religious leader known as a caliph. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that there have been 63 homegrown violent jihadist plots or attacks in the United States since September 11, 2001.  As part of a much discussed apparent expansion of terrorist activity in the United States, from May 2009 through December 2012, arrests were made for 42 “homegrown,” jihadist-inspired terrorist plots by American citizens or legal permanent residents of the United States. Two of these resulted in attacks. Most of the 2009-2012 homegrown plots likely reflect a trend in jihadist terrorist activity away from schemes directed by core members of significant terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.

However, it may be too early to tell how sustained this uptick is. While in 2010 and 2011, there were 12 and 10 plots, respectively, in 2012, eight came to light. Regardless, the apparent spike in such activity after April 2009 suggests that ideologies supporting violent jihad continue to influence some Americans—even if a tiny minority.

What is Radicalization?

According to a Congressional Research paper dated (Jan 23, 2013)  “Radicalization” describes the process of acquiring and holding extremist, or jihadist beliefs.

This activity is not necessarily illegal. It becomes illegal when one takes on “violent extremism”, described as violent action taken on the basis of radical or extremist beliefs. For many, “violent extremism” is synonymous with “violent jihadist” and “jihadist terrorist.” In other words, when someone moves from simply believing in jihad to illegally pursuing it via violent methods, he becomes a terrorist. Because the move from belief to violence is so individualized, there is no single path that individuals follow to become full-fledged terrorists.

Combating homegrown violent jihadists requires an understanding of how radicalization works and formulating ways to prevent the radicalization from morphing into violent extremism.  In 2007, the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD’s) Intelligence Division released a study of domestic jihadist radicalization that has been widely circulated within the law enforcement community. The study describes a general four-step process of radicalization leading to violent extremism.

First, individuals exist in a pre-radicalization phase in which they lead lives unaware of, or uninterested in either violent jihad or fundamentalist Salafi Islam. Next, they go through self-identification in which some sort of crisis (job loss, social alienation, death of a family member, international conflict) urges them to explore Salafism. Third, individuals undergo indoctrination or adoption of jihadist ideals, combined with Salafi views. The study indicates that, typically, a “spiritual sanctioner” or charismatic figure plays a central role in the indoctrination process. Finally, radicalizing individuals go through “jihadization,” where they identify themselves as violent jihadists, and are drawn into the planning of a terrorist attack.  At this point, according to the NYPD, they can be considered violent extremists. The FBI’s own four stage model of radicalization closely follows that of the NYPD.

Where does Radicalization take place in America?

Intermediaries, social networks, the Internet, and prisons have been cited as playing key roles in the radicalization process. Intermediaries—charismatic individuals—often help persuade previously law-abiding citizens to radicalize, or even become violent jihadists. Social networks, virtual or actual, support and reinforce the decisions individuals make as they embrace violent jihad, as does perusal of online materials. While there has been much discussion regarding the powerful influence online jihadist material may have on the formation of terrorists, no consensus has emerged regarding the Web and terrorism, but the current trends point that a much greater online trend is taking place. Prisons, seen by some as potential hotbeds of radicalization, have not played a large role in producing homegrown jihadists.