Dickey: How Homegrown Terrorists Are Made

What happens when politics and politicians, legislation and regulations fail to address the real and continuing threat that terrorists pose to our homes, families and businesses? Do we pretend that the fundamental laws we've got in the United States, including the Constitution and Bill of Rights, need not apply? Or should we declare war half a world away, imagining that with shock and awe and open-ended military occupation we can terrorize the terrorists? No. We've been there, done that, and there's every indication the threat is not only growing but growing closer to home. Maybe as close as next door.

Fortunately, a study published Wednesday by the New York City police department's Intelligence Division, which is run by former CIA deputy director of operations David Cohen, provides a clear-eyed assessment of the risks that are real, rather than imagined, and opens the way for solutions that support the enforcement of the laws we've got in the war of ideas that is at hand. The terrorists' ideology, it warns, "is proliferating in Western democracies at a logarithmic rate." And the police can only do so much to counter this fact. Communities have to understand it as well.

"Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," which I read in draft form several weeks ago and just reread on the Web, provides the most succinct and pragmatic analysis of recent terrorist trends I have seen anywhere. Its conclusions are based on a close study of 11 cases, from London, England, to Lackawanna, New York; Sydney, Australia, to Portland, Oregon; Madrid, Spain, to Herald Square in the heart of Manhattan, with some revealing insights into the September 11, 2001, plot as well.

The authors, Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, work mainly out of the NYPD's intelligence headquarters in a fashionable (and officially unspecified) corner of Manhattan, but they were able to call on firsthand reporting by NYPD detectives and analysts deployed around the globe. They also had input from outside consultants, including influential French criminologist Alain Bauer.

The conclusion: in the six years since 9/11, the real threat to the West that has taken shape is not from abroad but from within, and most of the plotters are what NYPD Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly calls "unremarkable" people with unremarkable jobs and educations. "Direct command and control by al-Qaeda has been the exception, rather than the rule," the report concludes. Radicalization of young Muslims takes place not in spite of a Western environment but, in many cases, because of it. Communities that feel like Muslim ghettoes, isolated from the Western society and values around them, are especially vulnerable to extremism, says the report.

The psychological and social evolution of radical Muslim terrorists has been observed by scholars of mayhem for many years (indeed, you can see it in Kurt Kurtovic, the American-born jihadi at the center of my 1997 novel, "Innocent Blood"). And much has been written of late about the way the Internet serves as "a driver and enabler for the process of radicalization," in the words of the NYPD report. But the cops go further here. They lay out clear and observable stages in the making of a homegrown terrorist:

Pre-Radicalization: Some characteristics of "pedigree, lifestyle, religion, social status, neighborhood and education" are common "just prior to the start of their journey" down the path to violent jihad. They're not poor. "Middle class families and students appear to provide the most fertile ground for the seeds of radicalization," the report concludes. They are mostly male Muslims under the age of 35 and local residents or citizens of Western liberal democracies. Some of "the most vulnerable" were born to other faiths and recently converted to Islam. They are of varied ethnic backgrounds—and almost all are "clean skins" in police parlance. They've got no records. The bottom line: at this stage they're effectively impossible to profile.

Self-Identification: This is where the winnowing begins; the terrorists-to-be start to identify with what the report calls Salafi Islam, which emphasizes a "pure" faith harking back to the early days of conquest and empire in the Caliphate of the seventh century. In fact the ideology they embrace is even narrower than that. It's the version often ascribed to Al Qaeda, but embraced by many other radical groups as well, which twists the revelations, sayings and hearsay of the Prophet Mohammed to serve anti-Western rage. A political or personal crisis can provoke this phase. So does an increasing association with small clusters of other angry young men (and occasionally angry young women).

Indoctrination: Goaded by the "groupthink" of fellow believers and fed by a constant diet of Internet propaganda, the terrorist candidate comes to believe that his faith demands action. Most likely, there will be what the report calls a "spiritual sanctioner" who literally blesses the idea of violent jihad with his teachings and opinions. There will also be a sort of "incubator"—whether a mosque, bookstore, student group or other small organization—where contacts can be made and fanaticism can be reinforced by the group's approval.

Jihadization: In this, the final phase, "members of the cluster accept their individual duty to participate in jihad." They call themselves holy warriors, and ultimately begin planning their attacks. Typically, by this stage they don't want to waste any time. While earlier steps from ordinary guy to would-be mass murderer may take years, "this jihadization component can be a very rapid process," says the NYPD report, "taking only a few months, or even weeks to run its course." At its center will be an "operational leader," like Mohammed Siddique Khan, who commanded the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, or like Muhammad Atta, on September 11, 2001—both of whom seemed so unremarkable just months before.

One of the most interesting observations in the study, in fact, compares the cluster in the 9/11 attack with those that came after. The similarities are remarkable. The real difference, apart from the number of casualties, is that the Hamburg cell that attacked on 9/11 eventually had more direct contact with the Al Qaeda leadership and was persuaded to hit the United States as part of a plan originally conceived by mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in the 1990s. But the way the key members of the group identified, radicalized and prepared themselves for the action fits right into the paradigm. They were "the critical piece" that KSM and Osama bin Laden needed, says the report. Muhammad Atta and his buddies were "fluent in English, Western-educated, and accustomed to Western culture and lifestyle." And they delivered themselves to Al Qaeda like a gift. The 9/11 attack itself hugely accelerated the overall process of radicalization among similar bunches of guys.

The fact that the pattern is so consistent "provides a tool for predictability," says the report. But, knowing all this, what can law enforcement do about it? Few arrests can be made before a clear conspiracy is taking shape in the final stage. Any effort at blanket surveillance of Muslim communities is likely to be counterproductive, to say the least, by feeding the anger of those who already feel themselves singled out and persecuted.

The answer, says criminologist and consultant Bauer, is "human intelligence, human intelligence, human intelligence." But to get effective information, the community has to be enlisted in the cause, not alienated by repression. So the report was presented Wednesday to an organization called NYPD Shield, which aims at "countering terrorism through information sharing" with businesses and security specialists. Kelly says it is also meant "to contribute to the debate among intelligence and law-enforcement agencies on how best to counter this emerging threat."

You'd think it would be obvious that to stop groups of violent jihadists, especially in a free society that wants to remain that way, it makes sense to study how they begin. But, then again, common sense has not been the hallmark of Washington's policies these last six years. It's good to know it can still be found in New York City.

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