Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Preventing Terrorist Recruiting

Tuesday's post about radiation detectors, and how they're just one element of a preventive system against radiological terrorism - regardless of how ubiquitous they become - got me to thinking more about how local homeland security professionals can work to prevent terrorist attacks in their communities.

Protective regimes - detectors and the like - are certainly important. But by themselves they are essentially just a series of nets. If something slips through, then prevention has failed. And terrorists are adept at evading detection; their experience with non-terrorist related crime teaches them this (if nothing else does).

But local homeland security people can take the offensive. One method that has always interested me is intervening to prevent terrorist recruitment. In any terrorist attack, the irreplaceable element is always the terrorist. Without the terrorist, there's no terror.

With that in mind I turned to the recent testimony of Brian Michael Jenkins before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security - Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

His presentation, entitled
"Building an Army of Believers: Jihadist Radicalization and Recruitment," is a good primer on terrorist recruiting and what can be done to stop it at the local level. It echoes some of the ideas from his excellent book Unconquerable Nation, which I reviewed here.

Jenkins starts by defining the problem:

Although the United States and its allies have achieved undeniable success in degrading the operational capabilities of jihadist terrorists worldwide, they have had less success in reducing the radicalization and recruitment that support the jihadist enterprise.

Nearly five years after 9/11, a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that “activists identifying themselves as jihadists … are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.” As a consequence, “the operational threat from self-radicalized cells will grow in importance to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, particularly abroad, but also in the Homeland.” In testimony before the Senate, FBI Director Robert Mueller indicated concern about extremist recruitment in prisons, schools, and universities “inside the United States.” In March of this year, Charles Allen, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security, concurred that “radicalization will continue to expand within the United States over the long term.”

More than a military contest, the jihadist campaign is above all a missionary enterprise. ... Recruiting is not merely meant to fill operational needs. It is an end in itself: It aims at creating a new mindset.

There is a distinction between radicalization and recruitment. Radicalization comprises internalizing a set of beliefs, a militant mindset that embraces violent jihad as the paramount test of one’s conviction. It is the mental prerequisite to recruitment. Recruitment is turning others or transforming oneself into a weapon of jihad. It means joining a terrorist organization or bonding with like-minded individuals to form an autonomous terrorist cell. It means going operational ...
So ... who are likely jihadist recruits?
Al Qaeda’s brand of jihad offers a comprehensive and uncomplicated solution ... It is a message that is especially attractive to angry young men and frustrated, compliant individuals.

Potential jihadist recruits in Western countries are part of a marginalized immigrant subculture or are themselves cut off even from family and friends within that community. The more vulnerable are those who are at a stage of life where they are seeking an identity, while looking for approval and validation. They are searching for causes that can be religiously and culturally justified, that provide them a way to identify who they are, and that provide a clear call for action. The jihadist agenda is action-oriented, claims to be religiously justified, and appeals to this relatively young, action-oriented population. ... This is the group that currently poses the biggest danger to the West.

Personal problems also play a role. Recruits often come from dysfunctional families, have experienced disruptive relocations, suffer identity crises, face uncertain futures, feel alienation; many are in trouble with authorities. ... But jihadists also include sons of well-off families, people with promising careers, and individuals who are seemingly well-adjusted. There is no single psychological profile and no obvious indicator to permit targeted intervention.
It's probably worth noting here that there is a difference between a terrorist recruit and someone like the Virginia Tech gunman. The Va. Tech shooter was a deeply disturbed individual who apparently developed violent fantasies within his own mind. It's very hard to intervene to stop that sort of actor unless he reveals his thoughts and desires - which this man apparently refused to do in multiple rounds of counseling and mental health treatment.

But unlike the anti-social Va. Tech gunman,
terrorist networks are inherently social. Terrorists must come together in social spaces to reinforce their own belief systems, share strategic and tactical information, and make plans for future actions. Because terrorism in general - and terrorist recruiting specifically - is an inherently social activity, it can be discovered and exploited more easily than a single disturbed individual can.

So ... what are the tactics that jihadists use to entice recruits? What social spaces do they use? What are the implications for counter-recruitment efforts?

Jihadists recruit one person at a time.

Volunteers move on by self-selection. There may be powerful peer pressure, but there is no coercion. Submission is voluntary. Not all recruits complete the journey. Commitment is constantly calibrated and re-recalibrated. Some drop out along the way. A component of our counter-recruiting strategy must be to always offer a safe way back from the edge.

While the jihadist message is widely and increasingly disseminated, the actual connection with the jihadist enterprise, outside of Middle Eastern and Asian madrassahs, appears random, depending on personal acquaintance, finding a radical mosque, or being spotted by a recruiter. That, in turn, suggests that the numbers are driven not merely by the appeal of the jihadist narrative, but also by the number of “retail outlets” where recruiters can meet potential recruits.

The recruiting process, therefore, seems to be not very efficient—the yield is low. However, only a few converts suffice to carry out terrorist operations. Nevertheless, this suggests that reducing the number of suspected recruiting venues would seriously impede jihadist recruiting.
To what degree are jihadist recruiters operative in the United States?
[A]rrests, along with intelligence operations, indicate that radicalization and recruiting are taking place in the United States, but there is no evidence of a significant cohort of terrorist operatives. We therefore worry most about terrorist attacks by very small conspiracies or individuals ...
How can our counter-recruitment efforts be more successful?
This suggests that efforts should be made to enhance the intelligence capabilities of local police, who through community policing, routine criminal investigations, or dedicated intelligence operations may be best positioned to uncover future terrorist plots.

Of these, continued intelligence operations are the most important. Radicalization makes little noise. It occurs in an area protected by the First and Fourth Amendments. It takes place over a long period of time. It therefore does not lend itself to a traditional criminal investigations approach.

Recruiting for jihad takes place both inside and outside of identified radical mosques and other known venues. These “retail outlets” can be identified and monitored. Surveillance, real and imagined, of recruiting venues can inform authorities of possible terrorist plots and may discourage recruiting. ... Prisons are another recruiting venue that could be better controlled.

Society’s purpose in this area is twofold: to deter vulnerable individuals from recruitment into destructive paths and to protect society itself against destruction—this may require preemptive intervention before manifest criminal behavior occurs.
Are there any unintended consequences to be avoided?
[T]he first principle must be to do no greater harm, to avoid misguided policies, needless hassles that only create enemies.
Who is best positioned to engage in counter-recruitment?
It is important to keep lines of communication open at all levels of government. This is community policing in its broadest sense, but the collection of intelligence and initiatives aimed at maintaining dialogue among communities and faiths are best handled at the local community level.
It is clear that local efforts to stop jihadist recruiting are vital. It is also clear that more can be done within local communities, as this report suggests. (Also see my post.) Community relationships are irreplaceable - not just to protect vital assets and to detect the signs of potential terrorism - but also to prevent conversion to radicalism and recruitment into terrorist operations.

Tomorrow I'll have more on preventing terrorism in local communities.

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