Getting the Threat Right


Jun 15, 2012

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Photo by HyperionPixels/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on CATO Unbound on June 12, 2012.

Overall, I agree with Risa Brooks' contention that the threat of homegrown jihadist terrorism in the United States has proved to be less than many feared. "Unfortunately," she writes, "evaluating precisely how many American Muslims are attracted to terrorism and will in the future engage in terrorist plotting is a difficult enterprise." True, but we do have indications in the number of those who have been charged with supporting al Qaeda or other jihadist terrorist organizations, joining or attempting to join jihadist fronts abroad, or more seriously, plotting terrorist attacks in the United States.

Despite al Qaeda's campaign to inspire and activate homegrown terrorists, only a tiny turnout has responded. Excluding non-jihadists connected with Hamas or Hezbollah, between 9/11 and the end of 2011, there were 96 cases involving 192 persons. If we estimate the American Muslim population to be several million, this works out to be a mere six persons per 100,000 over a ten-year period, or .6 per 100,000 annually—a meager yield. As marketing operations go, al Qaeda is not selling a lot of cars.

The small numbers suggest that al Qaeda's ideology has gained little traction in America's Muslim communities. The cases offer no evidence of an organized jihadist underground, with the exception of a local effort to recruit young Somali men in Minneapolis. Decisions to join jihad are individual, not community driven.

There was an uptick in the number of cases and the number of individuals arrested in 2009 and 2010. Risa Brooks writes that "there are reasons why the number of people arrested on terrorism charges may increase even if no more individuals are engaging in terrorist plotting. One reason is the growing tools available to law enforcement to detect terrorist activity, which increases the odds that activities that may in the past have been overlooked are instead discovered." In other words, the uptick is due to increasingly efficient suppression.

A close examination of the arrests, however, indicates that a good part of the uptick was owed to the increased recruitment of young Somalis following the 2007 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, a hated enemy. Intense nationalism, clan ties, and war stories by veterans of Somalia's incessant wars appear to have been more important than jihadist ideology, although Somalia's al Shabab has since formally become a branch of al Qaeda, and a number of the American recruits have carried out suicide bombings in Somalia.

The recruiting effort was discovered in 2008. Federal authorities and local police working with members of the local Somali communities have largely shut down this trickle.

Some of the 2009 and 2010 cases also represent the culmination of investigations initiated as far back as 2005. Removing the Somalis and older cases blunts the 2009 spike. The total number of cases and individuals declined sharply in 2011.

America's jihadists are a diverse bunch. Their ages range from the mid-teens to 76; their average age is 32. Almost three-quarters are U.S. citizens, the majority of them native born; only a handful of those arrested are in the country illegally. About a quarter of them are U.S.-born with non-Muslim names—mostly converts. Educational levels range from high-school dropouts to those holding post-graduate degrees. The percentages coincide roughly with the U.S. national average.

Jihadist recruiting themes emphasize religious duty, defense of Islam against infidel aggression, restoration of honor, and the promise of paradise. Faith is one of the reasons why young men radicalize and recruit themselves to terrorism, but it is not always the major factor. Personal circumstances appear to be more important. Would-be jihadist warriors are angry, eager for adventure, out to assuage personal humiliation and demonstrate their manhood. Many appear to be motivated by personal crises—terrorism does not attract the well adjusted. They are stray dogs, not lone wolves.

They find resonance and reinforcement on the Internet where they can threaten, exhort each other to action, and engage in the fantasies of the powerless. They download violent jihadist videos along with porn and other Internet offal. Participants in online jihad may number in the thousands, almost all of whom are content to participate vicariously. The Internet gives them an opportunity to vent without the risks of taking action in the real world. For many 20-somethings, the Internet is the real world. Al Qaeda has managed to create a virtual army, which thus far, has remained virtual.

Brooks notes that America's jihadist terrorists have demonstrated little competence. In fact, they have been remarkably incompetent. She suggests that the reasons are the country's "impermissive security" environment and the fact that the homegrown terrorists lack the skills and savvy of seasoned international terrorists. While both statements may be true, they do not explain why there have been so few plots to begin with, even fewer with anything like an operational plan.

The only two cases with casualties involved lone gunmen. Carlos Bledsoe killed an Army recruiting officer and wounded another in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 of his fellow soldiers and wounded 31 others at Fort Hood, Texas. Guns are readily available in the United States and even mentally disturbed gunmen have demonstrated their ability to arm themselves and kill large numbers of people. The fact that they don't lack for means suggests a determination deficit on the part of the jihadists.

Second, terrorists do not fall to earth seasoned and savvy. They all start out as amateurs and get better with on-the-job experience. The absence of any continuing clandestine organization precludes learning.

Elsewhere, Brooks has suggested that the success of the authorities has acted as a deterrent, which is a more promising proposition. Anyone capable of calculating risk would wisely confine their jihad efforts to Internet braggadocio, leaving actual attempts to the most determined, but not always the most effective. A deterrent theory, however, suggests that if authorities were not so effective, we would see more terrorism, because the intent is there. Acting on it is the variable.

Nor can comfort be drawn from the fact that America's jihadists are not smart operators. A short distance separates the very foolish from the extremely dangerous. Given that Americans unrealistically have come to expect 100 percent security, a single terrorist success could provoke paroxysms of panic and overreaction.

Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the president at the RAND Corporation.

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