May 5, 2010
Effective intelligence gathering and a Muslim community unsympathetic to calls to violence have discouraged homegrown jihadist terrorism in the United States, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.
While there were 13 cases of domestic terrorism during 2009—a spike over recent years—the perpetrators were mostly individuals who recruited themselves into the role of terrorists, according to the study. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there has been no evidence of widespread or large networks of homegrown terrorists planning attacks on the United States.
"Last year was troubling because it saw the most incidents of domestic radicalization since 2001," said study author Brian Michael Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "While most of these plots were detected and foiled—in many cases they were planned by would-be terrorists who were particularly inept—there certainly will be more domestic terrorist attempts in the future."
Jenkins says that the attempted weekend bombing in New York's Times Square, allegedly by a naturalized U.S. citizen, is another reminder that homegrown terrorism poses a real threat.
The study reports there were 46 publicly reported cases of domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism in the United States from Sept. 11, 2001, through the end of 2009, including the 13 occurring last year. An average of three people were accused in each case, and half of the cases involved just a single individual for a total of 125 people in 46 cases.
Only two of the 46 incidents—both in 2009 and involving lone gunmen—resulted in deaths. The incidents were the murder of one soldier and wounding of another at an Army recruiting office in Arkansas, and the murder of 13 people and wounding of 31 others by Army Maj. Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood, Texas.
The 46 domestic terrorist cases exclude plots by foreign terrorists who either attempted or carried out attacks in the United States. This includes individuals such as Richard Reid, the British man who attempted to detonate a shoe bomb while aboard an American Airlines plane in December 2001, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of attempting to bring down an airliner approaching Detroit in December 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear.
"One of the key factors in the increase in homegrown terrorism has been the Internet," Jenkins said. "There has been a dramatic increase in the number of jihadist websites and chat rooms, and particularly the increase in English-language sites. Without ever leaving the United States—or even their own homes—would-be jihadists can readily find resonance and reinforcement of their own complaints, as well as other jihadists who are only too eager to encourage and focus their anger."
There is no terrorist-prone personality and no real way to predict who will become a jihadist, according to the study. All but two of the U.S.-based perpetrators have been men, and nearly all of them have been Muslims or Muslim converts. But those are the only traits that nearly all of them have in common.
Jenkins says these facts should not promote a mistrust of American Muslims, particularly since out of 3 million Muslims in the United States only a hundred or so have embraced armed jihad. This suggests an American Muslim population that remains hostile to violent jihadist ideology, he said.
The use of confidential informants, often the only way authorities can break into these kinds of conspiracies, has proved effective. But the study notes that confidential informers can sometimes act as enablers, "offering people with extreme views, but faint hearts, the means to act." However, with appropriate controls, these kinds of investigations can disrupt terrorist recruiting and expose terrorist plots.
Jenkins said that in addition to intelligence work, there must be continued efforts made through community policing and other means to work with members of the Muslim community to address issues of crime, fear of crime and suspicions of authority. Heavy-handed tactics could easily discredit intelligence operations, provoke public anger and erode the most effective barrier of all to radicalization—the cooperation of the Muslim community.
The report also contrasts the domestic terrorists of the 1970s, who tended to favor symbolic violence, with today's terrorists, who aim for high body counts. Jenkins notes that compared to today the volume of domestic terrorism activity in the 1970s was actually much higher, with an average of 60 to 70 terrorist incidents every year. During the nine-year period from 1970 to 1978, there were 72 people killed in terrorist incidents in the United States, more than five times the number killed by jihadist terrorists in the United States in the nearly nine years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Public reaction is a key component of homeland defense, Jenkins said. Needless alarm, exaggerated portrayals of the terrorist threat, unrealistic expectations of a risk-free society and unreasonable demands for absolute protection will only encourage terrorists and further inspire would-be jihadists.
"So long as America's psychological vulnerability is on display, jihadists will find inspiration, and more recruitment and terrorism will occur," Jenkins said.
The study, "Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States since September 11, 2001," can be found at www.rand.org.
Research for this study was self-funded by RAND to further policymakers' understanding on this critically important topic. Support for such research is provided, in part, by the generosity of donors to RAND and by the fees earned on client-funded research.