A New York Police Department report issued Aug. 15 is the most thorough study yet describing the trajectories of radicalization that produced operational terrorist cells around the world and can help authorities find ways to slow the process.
Nothing is more important in the global war on terrorism than reducing the production of new terrorists. No matter how many terrorists are jailed or killed, terrorism will continue and the United States and other nations will be condemned to a strategy that is the equivalent of stepping on cockroaches one at a time if terrorists keep signing up new recruits.
Based upon the trajectories of radicalization observed involving terrorists in Hamburg (who ultimately carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks), Madrid, Amsterdam, London, Sydney and Toronto, the NYPD report constructs an analytical framework that tracks jihadist recruits from pre-radicalization to self-identification to indoctrination to jihadization. The cycle ends only with capture or death. This framework is then compared with terrorist conspiracies within the United States, including the jihadist clusters in Lackawanna, N.Y.; Northern Virginia; Portland, Ore.; and New York City.
Although there have been informative analyses of the paths to violent jihad in individual countries, the NYPD report is the most comprehensive review across national boundaries. The resulting analytical model will undoubtedly become the basis for comparison with additional cases as they are revealed in future attacks or arrests.
As the NYPD study points out, becoming a jihadist is a gradual, multistep process that can take months or even years, though since Sept. 11 the pace has accelerated. The journey may begin in a mosque where a radical Imam preaches, in informal congregations and prayer groups, in schools, in prisons and on the Internet.
The utility of the NYPD model goes beyond analysis. By identifying key junctions in the journey to terrorist jihad, the NYPD report should help in the formulation of effective and appropriate strategies aimed at peeling potential recruits away from a dangerous and destructive course.
The new report will be used to improve the training of intelligence analysts and law enforcement personnel engaged in counter-terrorist missions. It will assist prosecutors and courts in the very difficult task of deciding when the boundary between a bunch of guys sharing violent fantasies and a terrorist cell determined to go operational has been crossed.
Importantly, the insights of the report can also discourage heavy-handed wholesale law enforcement roundups based on prejudice and ignorance, and preclude dangerous overreactions if a terrorist incident should occur.
The United States has successfully suppressed the homegrown terrorist groups of the past through domestic intelligence collection and law enforcement. America faces an even more sophisticated adversary today.
Any form of domestic intelligence gathering provokes opposition and debate, as it should. Opponents of domestic surveillance denounce it as an evil manifestation of a police state, Big Brother, stereotyping and profiling. But an informed public debate about the need for and proper conduct of domestic intelligence is better than frightened acquiescence to broad assertions of unlimited executive authority or extrajudicial measures in wartime.
As the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, the United States and its allies have achieved some success in degrading the operational capabilities of the jihadist terrorist enterprise responsible for the attacks and numerous subsequent terrorist operations.
However, we have not dented the determination of the terrorists, prevented their communications or blunted their message. We have not diminished their capacity to incite, halted the process of radicalization or impeded the recruitment that supports the jihadist enterprise.
The 2006 National Intelligence Estimate concedes that “activists identifying themselves as jihadists … are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.” As a consequence, the estimate says “the operational threat from self-radicalized cells will grow in importance to U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, particularly abroad, but also in the Homeland.”
The absence of significant terrorist attacks or even advanced terrorist plots in the United States since Sept. 11 is good news that cannot entirely be explained by increased intelligence or heightened security. It suggests America’s Muslim population may be less susceptible than Europe’s Muslim population, if not entirely immune, to jihadist ideology. In fact, countervailing voices may exist within the American Muslim community.
A recent survey of Muslim Americans by the Pew Research Center supports this thesis. The vast majority of American Muslims reject al-Qaida’s violent extremism, though younger Muslims are more accepting of violence in the defense of Islam.
There is understandable pressure on authorities in America to intervene before bombs go off. This makes combating terrorism different from a traditional criminal-investigation approach, where police attempt to identify and apprehend the perpetrators after the crime. This is less acceptable when the perpetrators are bent upon mass murder, and may be willing and even eager to die in the process.
Preventive intervention does not always mean arrests. Terrorist propaganda can be countered, incitement blunted, angry young men dissuaded from becoming terrorist operatives without people necessarily going to jail.
It is necessary, however, to know the sources of incitement to violence, their message, the process of radicalization and jihadization. This requires a thorough understanding of how unremarkable young men become determined terrorist killers. It requires police intelligence and intelligent analysis, and this is precisely what the NYPD report provides.
© 2007 United Press International
Brian Michael Jenkins, who advised the New York Police Department on preparation of its terrorism report, is a terrorism expert with the RAND Corp., a non-profit research organization. He is the author of the RAND book “Unconquerable Nation,” which lays out a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on August 23, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.