Wednesday, August 15, 2007

NYPD Report on Homegrown Terrorism

The NYPD Intelligence Division has released a major new report on homegrown terrorism, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. Specifically, the report focuses on the process by which seemingly ordinary citizens become radicalized as jihadists.

The report has been briefly covered elsewhere. Here, I'll try to dig a bit deeper and connect it to some other sources on the radicalization and recruitment processes.

A few initial thoughts:

1. The NYPD study spends virtually all of its energy examining the activities of terrorists during the radicalization process - the phases during which radicals are recruited, become committed to the cause, and eventually go operational. As I've emphasized before, I think that the recruiting and radicalization process are absolutely the place to undertake counterterrorist activities. The earlier phases present the best opportunities for detecting existing radicals and for preventing the radicalization of potential recruits. The report itself says:

Where once we would have defined the initial indicator of the threat at the point where a terrorist or group of terrorists would actually plan an attack, we have now shifted our focus to a much earlier point—a point where we believe the potential terrorist or group of terrorists begin and progress through a process of radicalization.
2. From a theoretical perspective, the study does not really provide much new insight into the radicalization process. The four-step process described in the NYPD study (Pre-Radicalization, Self-Identification, Indoctrination, Jihadization) has been described elsewhere, albeit in different terms. For example, see the State Department's recent e-journal Countering the Terrorist Mentality, this chapter of the McGraw-Hill Homeland Security Handbook, or the excellent book Unconquerable Nation by Brian Michael Jenkins, who also participated in the creation of the NYPD report.) However, the NYPD study still has great value in that it describes how this process has played out in the real world, in 11 different cases of jihadism, both inside the US and in other Western countries.

In other words, the study bridges the gap between theory and practice. As such, it provides a useful blueprint for law enforcement and other agencies (such as the FDNY) who seek to prevent future terrorist activities.

3. The title of the NYPD report, "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat" strikes me a a misnomer, since the report focuses exclusively on jihadist radicalism. Generally speaking, the process of radicalization, as well as the attendant threat of terrorism, applies to other ideologies as well (e.g., the anti-government ideology of Timothy McVeigh).

So ... on to the review.

The guts of the NYPD report is as follows. If you read nothing else of this bloated post, read this:
An assessment of the various reported models of radicalization leads to the conclusion
that the radicalization process is composed of four distinct phases:

• Stage 1: Pre-Radicalization • Stage 2: Self-Identification • Stage 3: Indoctrination • Stage 4: Jihadization

o Each of these phases is unique and has specific signatures
o All individuals who begin this process do not necessarily pass through all the stages
o Many stop or abandon this process at different points
o Although this model is sequential, individuals do not always follow a perfectly linear progression
o Individuals who do pass through this entire process are quite likely to be involved in the planning or implementation of a terrorist act
Significantly, NYPD makes an important note which I've argued before: There are "markers" to the radicalization process, and these present a significant vulnerability for potential terrorists:
The four stages of the radicalization process, each with its distinct set of indicators and signatures, are clearly evident in each of the nearly one dozen terrorist-related case studies reviewed in this report.

o In spite of the differences in both circumstances and environment in each of the cases, there is a remarkable consistency in the behaviors and trajectory of each of the plots across all the stages.
o This consistency provides a tool for predictability.
I'll take a closer look at the four stages suggested by the NYPD and then offer some insights into where we might go from here.


The NYPD points out that, for the most part, jihadists are self-selected. They move voluntarily into the radicalization process. (A point that was also made by Brian Michael Jenkins in his April testimony before Congress.) There are no specific triggers that spur the start of the radicalization process:
[T]he transformation of a Western-based individual to a terrorist is not triggered by oppression, suffering, revenge, or desperation. Rather, it is a phenomenon that occurs because the individual is looking for an identity and a cause and unfortunately, often finds them in the extremist Islam.

There is no useful profile to assist law enforcement or intelligence to predict who will follow this trajectory of radicalization. Rather, the individuals who take this course begin as “unremarkable” from various walks of life.
It's been argued before that there is "no profile" for a jihadist, but I prefer the NYPD language - that there's "no useful profile." It's possible to create a profile, using the broad outlines that NYPD and others have suggested. Jihadist recruits do tend to be young males who are searching for something that will give their life meaning. But since that describes almost every male in the world between the ages of - say - 15 and 25, it's not particularly useful as a predictive model.
This [Salafist] ideology is proliferating in Western democracies at a logarithmic rate. The Internet, certain Salafi-based NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), extremist sermons /study groups, Salafi literature, jihadi videotapes, extremist - sponsored trips to radical madrassas and militant training camps abroad have served as “extremist incubators” for young, susceptible Muslims -- especially ones living in diaspora communities in the West.

The Internet is a driver and enabler for the process of radicalization.

The radicalization process is accelerating in terms of how long it takes and the individuals are continuing to get younger. [JB: Trends that have also been noted in Britain.] Moreover, with the higher risks associated with heading down this pathway, individuals will seek to conceal their actions earlier, making intelligence and law enforcement’s job even more difficult.

Individuals generally appear to begin the radicalization process on their own. Invariably, as they progress through the stages of radicalization they seek like-minded individuals. This leads to the creation of groups or clusters. These clusters appear almost essential to progressing to the Jihadization stage—the critical stage that leads to a terrorist act.
The last paragraph above is vital: Radicalization is a social process. Groups of like-minded people are almost always involved.

There are very few Ted Kacynski's out there - loners who are drawn into radical beliefs and progress on their own through the process of becoming operational terrorists.

This is a vulnerability for terrorists. They must cluster together. They must have safe spaces. They must, at some point, share their radical beliefs with one another. As they go operational, they must maintain security.

There is not only an actual vulnerability in all of these social activities; there is also a strong perception of vulnerability. Terrorists have to look over their shoulders. Even the perception of a threat can be a strong de-motivating factor to them, as the anxieties of the Fort Dix plotters suggest.

And even top al Qaeda strategists recognize the vulnerability of operations if the participants are not fully indoctrinated into the ideology.

As a social process, radicalization relies on leaders:
Although there are many groups or clusters of individuals that are on the path of radicalization, each group needs certain archetypes to evolve from just being a “bunch of guys” to an operational terrorist cell. All eleven case studies had a “spiritual sanctioner” who provides the justification for jihad—a justification that is especially essential for the suicide terrorist [as well as] an “operational leader” who is essential as the group decides to conduct a terrorist act--organizing, controlling and keeping the group focused and its motivation high.

The sanctioner is responsible for developing the “Us-versus-Them/War on Islam” worldview among the group that provides the moral justification for jihad. The sanctioner is often a “self-taught” Islamic scholar and will spend countless hours providing a “cut-and-paste” version of Islam which radicalizes his followers. In many cases, the sanctioner is not involved in any operational planning but is vital in creating the jihadi mindset. The role of this “spiritual sanctioner” cannot be underestimated because “if an individual respects an Islamic scholar and that scholar tells him that fighting in the jihad is a religious duty and the only way to please God, the advice can have an enormous effect on choices.”
The "self-taught" nature of the sanctioner is a vulnerability. Islam does not typically encourage freelancing where theology is concerned, which can help to undermine the perceived religious justification for jihadism. Of course, to adopt this strategy will imply the development of a relationship with local, respected Muslim imams.

Without a solid foundation in ideology, the terrorist project can crumble:
Ideology is the bedrock and catalyst for radicalization. It defines the conflict, guides movements, identifies the issues, drives recruitment, and is the basis for action.
See also the recent testimony by Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington U, who argued that "extremists have woven an effective tale of an imaginary “clash of civilizations.” The extremists’ compelling “call to action” based partly on myths and falsehoods begs for the development of an effective counter-narrative that forcefully refutes and responds to the extremists’ own.

Of course, along with ideological grounding there are more practical concerns. Since radicalization is a social process, jihadists need physical spaces in which to operate:

Critically important to the process of radicalization are the different venues that provide the extremist fodder or fuel for radicalizing—venues, to which we refer to as “radicalization incubators.”

Generally these locations, which together comprise the radical subculture of a community, are rife with extremist rhetoric. Though the locations can be mosques, more likely incubators include cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, nongovernmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores. While it is difficult to predict who will radicalize, these nodes are likely places where like-minded individuals will congregate as they move through the radicalization process. The Internet, with its thousands of extremist websites and chat-rooms, is a virtual incubator of its own. In fact, many of the extremists began their radical conversion while researching or just surfing in the cyber world.
The existence of these "incubators" can facilitate the transition from peaceful, pre-radicalized citizen to self-identified jihadist.

Self-Identification Phase

As indicated before, potential jihadists are typically seeking a cause - something to give meaning to their lives. If they find a cause and meaning in a radical group, they are susceptible to radicalization themselves:
Individuals most vulnerable to experiencing this phase are often those who are at a crossroad in life—those who are trying to establish an identity, or a direction, while seeking approval and validation for the path taken.

Ultimately the individual is alienated from his former life and affiliates with like-minded individuals, who, via small group dynamics, strengthen his dedication to Salafi Islam. Importantly, this phase is characterized by a self-selection process by which individuals first join a group that then becomes radicalized.

These crises often compel these individuals to seek out other like-minded individuals, who may be experiencing the same inner conflict. Subsequently, clusters of like-minded individuals begin to form, usually around social circles that germinate within the extremist incubators.
It should be noted that this process of self-identification is not unique to the jihadist enterprise. Young people want to join something that gives structure and meaning to their lives.

In a healthy environment, young people will have a wide range of positive choices to do so. These may be affiliated with churches, schools, civic organizations, the military, a trade or technical profession - just about anything.

But the negative side, young people may find meaning and support within gangs, criminal organizations, or even terrorist organizations. This suggests that it is vital to ensure that young people are exposed to a wide range of positive choices.


As suggested by the al Qaeda doctrine referred to above, it is essential for jihadists to entirely accept the ideology. This occurs during the Indoctrination stage.
Indoctrination is the stage in which an individual progressively intensifies his beliefs, wholly adopts jihadi-Salafi ideology and concludes, without question, that the conditions and circumstances exist where action is required to support and further the Salafist cause.

The key aspect of this stage is the acceptance of a religious-political worldview that justifies, legitimizes, encourages, or supports violence against anything kufr, or un-Islamic, including the West, its citizens, its allies, or other Muslims whose opinions are contrary to the extremist agenda. In effect, as the individuals become indoctrinated, they re-define their direction in life.
NYPD suggests that, for jihadists, one of the key indicators of this stage is ironically:
Withdrawal from the Mosque. As individuals begin to conceive militant jihad as an objective, they retreat from the mosque—the mosque that not only served as an extremist incubator for their formative years in becoming radicalized but also and often as the place where these individuals met their like-minded cohorts. This withdrawal is sometimes provoked by the fact that the mosque no longer serves the individual’s radicalization needs. In other words, the individual’s level of extremism surpasses that of the mosque.
This suggests that a trusting relationship with the local imam may be helpful in identifying potential radicals.


During the final phase, Jihadization:
[M]embers of the cluster accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen.
The group is more important, but also harder to bust.
By the jihadization phase, small group dynamics play a much more prominent role. While during the earlier stages, the group members may have been only acquaintances, meeting each other in Salafi chat rooms, at university or simply by being friends, by the jihadization phase the group has solidified and hardened. Individuals see themselves as part a movement and group loyalty becomes paramount above all other relationships.
Once indoctrination is complete, the Jihadization stage may occur quickly. And for one or more members of the group, overseas travel may be a trigger:
It is critical to note that while the other stages of radicalization may take place, gradually, over two to three years, the jihadization stage—the stage which defines the actual attack--can occur quickly, and with very little warning. In some cases, this stage runs its course in as little as a couple of weeks. The jihadization stage contains many substages, all of which usually occur, but not necessarily sequentially. Each of these substages is characterized by a unique set of indicator(s).

• Accepting Jihad/Decision to Commit Jihad. As each group member accepts jihad, they often look abroad--seeking that one trigger that will lead to their final acceptance of jihad or for others an opportunity to actually conduct jihad.

Frequently, but not always, one or more members of a particular Western-based cluster travels abroad. This travel often follows or contributes to a member’s decision to commit jihad. The travel is more often than not to a militant training camp—a camp usually in a country or region that is regarded as a field of jihad.
There are also more mundane matters in going operational. All of these present opportunities for detection and intervention:
Prior to launching the attack, many of these clusters have participated in some form of group training and preparation to include:

“Outward Bound”-like Activities. Activities such as camping, white-water rafting, paintball games, target shooting, and even outdoor simulations of military-like maneuvers have been popular among these groups once they reach this stage of radicalization.

Attack Planning. Once a cluster or group decides to conduct an attack, they begin conducting research while holding secretive tactical group discussions on targets, the mode of attack, the operational scenario (date, time, and hour), and the role of each group member. This sub-stage includes several indicators such as:

o Reconnaissance/Surveillance. Drawing maps, videotaping targets, and staking out target areas will invariably be conducted in the run-up to any attack.

o Acquiring Materiel/Developing the Device. The majority of the devices used or that were being planned to be used in the homegrown plots were either commercially available or reasonably obtainable. Fertilizer-based devices, commercial explosives, cell phones and explosive ignition devices have all been acquired with relative ease.

That said, the acquisition of the materiel and the development of the weapon has on occasion been associated with low-end criminal activity and almost always suspicious activity such as: cooking chemicals to form explosives in bathtubs, purchasing large amounts of any one chemical or material, outfitting/modifying backpacks, buying TNT and wiring watches as detonators.
If the signs of radicalization are not discovered by this time, it's essentially too late:
The ultimate stage of jihadization is, of course, the actual attack. By this time, all the potential preemptive indicators have expired. The terrorists have attained both intention and capability and the chances for law enforcement and intelligence thwarting or preventing an attack is extremely low.
This is the same point I made in this post regarding the London and Glasgow bombings.

Strategies for Addressing the Radicalization Process

What to do about the radicalization process, then? The challenges are clear:
Identifying whether an individual is being radicalized is hard to detect, especially in the early stages.

The individuals are not on the law enforcement radar. Most have never been arrested or involved in any kind of legal trouble. Other than some commonalities in age and religion, individuals undergoing radicalization appear as “ordinary” citizens, who look, act, talk, and walk like everyone around them. In fact, in the United Kingdom, it is precisely those “ordinary” middle class university students who are sought after by local extremists because they are “clean skins”.

In the early stages of their radicalization, these individuals rarely travel, are not participating in any kind of militant activity, yet they are slowly building the mindset, intention, and commitment to conduct jihad.

As evidenced by all eleven case studies these groups, or clusters of extremists:

Act autonomously, can radicalize quickly, and often are made up of individuals, who on the surface, appear to be well-integrated into society.

Are not “name brand” terrorists or part of any known terrorist group. For the most part, they have little or no links to known militant groups or actors. Rather they are like-minded individuals who spend time together in clusters organized, originally, by previously established social network links.

Are not crime syndicates and therefore, applying organized crime strategies will fail.
The NYPD report does not delve deeply into potential solutions, but instead provides a template for understanding how solutions may be developed.

In his introduction to the NYPD report, RAND's Brian Michael Jenkins also contextualizes the challenge for law enforcement:
[E]fforts 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 borders on areas 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.
NYPD notes that signs of radicalization are often subtle:
The subtle and non-criminal nature of the behaviors involved in the process of radicalization makes it difficult to identify or even monitor from a law enforcement standpoint. Taken in isolation, individual behaviors can be seen as innocuous; however, when seen as part of the continuum of the radicalization process, their significance becomes more important. Considering the sequencing of these behaviors and the need to identify those entering this process at the earliest possible stage makes intelligence the critical tool in helping to thwart an attack or even prevent the planning of future plots.
In the US cases examined by NYPD, it was not always even readily apparent that radicalization had occurred:
The three U.S.-based cases provided fewer examples of signature activities during the stages and sub-stages of the radicalization process than the five foreign examples. The lack of rich details on these U.S. cases, coupled with the fact that they were disrupted at a relatively early stage, obscured the fact that radicalization had occurred.
Although NYPD does not provide a blueprint for intervention, others have suggested potential approaches to countering the radicalization process. I think there's a nice dovetail between the radicalization process identified by NYPD and the solution set offered by the State Department in Countering the Terrorist Mentality:
To make such active measures effective, the three strategic components of the terrorist threat that must be neutralized are leaders, safe havens, and underlying conditions.
Addressing underlying conditions will affect the Pre-Radicalization stage. Disrupting the perceived security of safe havens will frustrate the Self-Identification and Indoctrination stages. Identifying and neutralizing leaders will deter action during the Indoctrination and Jihadization stages.

Another preventive approach is the "Capone Strategy" I've discussed before, which exploits the common vulnerability of terrorists: the commission of "precursor crimes." (See this CRS report for more on precursor crimes.)

From a broader perspective, it is important to recognize that "top-down" approaches are likely to be ineffective. Per the previously cited testimony by Frank Cilluffo:
[T]he solution sets for the problem under discussion must emanate principally from the grassroots, from local communities, their leaders and the citizens that reside there. ... law enforcement at the local level should develop new relationships and deepen existing ones within Muslim communities as local figures are best placed to identify radicalization at its earliest stages.
There is, of course, a delicate balance to be maintained here, as Jenkins alluded to when he discussed First and Fourth Amendment concerns. The United States cannot become a police state. The nation was founded on the then-radical principle that if people are given liberty, they can be generally counted upon to do the right thing. In short, we are a nation built on trust. We cannot jeopardize that principle. As Frank Cilluffo and 9/11 Commission co-chair Lee Hamilton argued on behalf of the Future of Terrorism Task Force:
Trust is the most valuable currency we have in this battle because trust underpins all counterterrorism tools (e.g., military, diplomatic/policy, legal, economic and covert action).
All things considered, the NYPD report is an excellent addition to the literature that can help local homeland security professionals develop a strategy to prepare for and prevent terrorism.

Cross-posted in IPS Blogs at the Institute for Preventive Strategies.

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