Experts Think Homegrown Terrorists All Have One Thing In Common
Before he planted bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three bystanders and injuring some 260 others, Tamerlan Tsarnaev wanted to be an American hero.
As late as 2010, the Chechen refugee was hoping to receive citizenship in time to join the U.S. Olympic boxing team. A new rule that year for Golden Gloves, the national amateur boxing tournament, prevented non-U.S. citizens from participating in the tournament.
With his path to stardom blocked, Tsarnaev’s personal identity increasingly centered on the mosque he had recently joined. By 2011, the FBI and Russia’s Federal Security Service were actively investigating his behavior.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died as Massachusetts police tried to apprehend him April 19, 2013, days after the bombings. His younger brother Dzhokhar, who survived arrest, is on death row awaiting his execution.
The Tsarnaevs’ parents were refugees from Chechnya, the troubled majority-Muslim region in southwestern Russia. Neither son had ever been to Chechnya. Tamerlan was born elsewhere in Russia, and Dzhokhar in Kazakhstan shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In America, where the family immigrated on grounds of political asylum in 2001, they hoped to find the stability and opportunity that had evaded them for decades. Instead, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev found themselves drifting from mediocrity to desperation and finally to infamy.
In the years since the Boston bombings, Islamic State has attracted hundreds of American fighters to its self-styled caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Countless others have made or attempted attacks on American soil — including Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi.
When Simpson and Soofi attempted to attack a conference center in Garland, Texas, May 3 of 2015, they did so just minutes after vowing their allegiance on Twitter to ISIS’ leader, its so-called “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They referred to him by the historical title given to leaders with authority over all Muslims: “Amirul Mu’mineen,” that is, “Commander of the Faithful.” Enraged by an anti-Islam group hosting its “First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest,” they opened fire at the building’s entrance and injured a private security officer.
Simpson was an Illinois-born convert to Islam. Soofi, the son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, grew up as a child of divorce, with one foot in Texas — then later Utah — and another in Islamabad. The two men were roommates in Phoenix at the time of the attack.
Though a police officer shot and killed Soofi and Simpson almost immediately, Islamic State Twitter accounts quickly hailed the #texasattack as the group’s first successful operation in the U.S. It would have been unthinkable just two years ago — when the Tsarnaevs were identified as the perpetrators in Boston — for extremists on the other side of the planet to instantly claim credit for a botched raid by two men.
But like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Simpson was the focus of an FBI investigation in 2007, long before he committed any crime. In 2010, he was arrested one day before boarding a flight to Somalia, but he was released when a judge found insufficient evidence that he was intending to join a terrorist group.
THE GOVERNMENT RESPONDS
Since the Boston bombings, federal and local law enforcement have struggled to predict and stop what they call “violent extremism” by Americans. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) has become a widespread term at the FBI and the Department of State. Initiatives in the CVE field range from local outreach to ambitious international messaging campaigns, from training for religious leaders to infiltration of terrorist recruitment cells.
The targets of these operations often meet a certain profile — not racial or even religious, but psychological.
Farah Pandith served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, most recently with the title “Special Representative to Muslim Communities” at the State Department before retiring from government. She traveled extensively in that role, representing the U.S. in Muslim-majority countries as well as places where Muslims are small minorities.
Pandith told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview that at the heart of every case of jihadi radicalization, anywhere in the world, lies “a crisis of identity.” Native-born Muslims and converts alike can find themselves alone, “searching for belonging and understanding, and the people with answers for them are the extremists.”
Another former State Department official, Alberto Fernandez, agreed. He told TheDCNF, “this is basically an issue of identity and alienation.” What’s more, recruiters recognize the negative aspects that targets perceive in their own lives, and contrast it with their own idealistic message.
“It would be great if just psychopaths were joining ISIS. The problem is it’s also people who are motivated by positive things,” Fernandez said. “They think they’re going to heaven on earth when it’s hell on earth.”
The challenge for governments, Pandith says, is that “no government in the world is a credible voice to push back against the message of extremists.” By definition, anyone willing to commit terrorism has already discounted the legitimacy of existing governments. Rather than seeing it as a “messaging war,” Pandith sees the struggle as a war of ideas. “The credible voices are those at the community level, very local.” Those include Muslim clergy, but also parents, teachers and other well-respected people who represent alternate ideologies to those which terrorist groups espouse.
In the name of CVE, one government response has been to partner informally with local communities. The Department of Justice has established “pilot programs” for engagement, focusing for now on Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Montgomery County, Maryland. Each has a different structure, experimenting with different ways for local and federal law enforcement to help families and communities detect early signs of radicalization.
Massachusetts’ assistant U.S. attorney, Aloke Chakravarty, prosecuted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at his federal trial. Speaking at a Washington conference in June, he said that in cases like the Tsarnaev brothers’, potentially avoidable steps toward radicalization took place because “there was no plan, no specific resource” that those around them could bring to the authorities.
In the months leading up to the attack, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev started a second Twitter account in parallel to his now-famously banal main account. The second account was called “Ghuraba,” an Arabic word meaning “strangers,” which jihadis often use to describe Muslims in non-Muslim countries. “Ghuraba” only tweeted seven times, but the tweets urged Western Muslims to “stand out among the nonbelievers as one body,” and to read the works of U.S.-born al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
Chakrabarty pointed out that Tsarnaev felt like one of the ghuraba, “even though he was fully integrated in American society, had every tool of resiliency that a typical American child would have, and was well-loved.” To a well-trained observer, Chakrabarty contends, there would be an opportunity to recognize his behavior as potentially dangerous and intervene before he committed a crime.
American Muslims are understandably cautious about the government scrutinizing every action of anyone who seems suspicious. Not only does such behavior potentially constitute legal discrimination on the basis of religion, but blanket surveillance of Americans based on demographics is a slippery question for civil rights.
Speaking in June, Chakrabarty responded to criticism by saying the government “can’t go tell people what they should believe and what they should think … That is also a community responsibility.”
Criminal prosecution is a last-resort measure against those who have already lent terrorist groups verbal or material support, Chakrabarty said. By beginning its outreach to local communities, the Justice Department can start “bringing together a coalition of people who … feel like a part of the American fabric.”
Domestic law enforcement is often legally constrained in its ability to take proactive steps. An antagonistic relationship with local communities can be another barrier. But the State Department has taken a radically different approach, one which more closely resembles a “messaging war” than a “war of ideas.”
Since 2011, a multi-agency office at the State Department called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has wielded the tools of public diplomacy with an aggression not seen since the Voice of America extended its airwaves to dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. The CSCC combats the recruitment messages of Islamic State, al-Qaida and others through online activity in English as well as multiple other languages.
Fernandez, the retired official who recognized that ISIS recruits “think they’re going to heaven on earth,” led the CSCC from March 2012 to February 2015. While some in government believe that “feeding the trolls” is a futile exercise, Fernandez told TheDCNF that “they need to be fought with all the weapons that we have.”
Countering jihadi propaganda requires nuance and flexibility. “The ISIS message is multifaceted,” says Fernandez. “There’s people there who are idealists, there’s sick puppies who basically want blood and violence and abusing women, and there’s people who are concerned about the suffering of Muslims in Syria.”
Islamic State propagandists have made horrifically effective use of their “decentralized common-use network.” By contrast, Fernandez complains, “numbers on the good guys’ side are very small.” While all governments worldwide, as well as private entities dedicated to counter terrorist messages, control “at best a few dozen” online accounts, “ISIS has at any given point 3,000 to 4,000 accounts” with an unbelievably diverse output.
The U.S. government, Fernandez says, is not bringing the resources to match. When he was at the helm, the CSCC operated on $500 million annually — “one-third of the price of one drone” — for 20 staffers to produce content in four different languages. “It’s ridiculous to think that the U.S. is going to beat the best-funded terrorist group in history with 20 people.”
And ISIS’ flexibility also allows it to learn quickly from its mistakes, while Fernandez says that in government, “the more important an issue becomes, the more centralized it is.” As the White House recognized the centrality of messaging to the anti-ISIS campaign, “stuff that should have been decided at the working level was then decided at the White House, which is a recipe for disaster.”
Instead, Fernandez envisions a “diffuse network” of government-affiliated messengers, which allows for potentially risky mistakes but also would “empower more people, give them more freedom to do different things.” If the U.S. ultimately hopes to dissuade Islamic State’s prospective recruits, who can easily find an entire online world of jihadi supporters, Fernandez says, it’ll “take a network to beat a network.”
As one example of possibly risky messaging, Farah Pandith suggested that news of radicalized young Muslims should not be out-of-bounds when trying to reach vulnerable young people. She called Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s descent into radicalism a “perfect example” of a story in which “kids are watching themselves,” frankly recognizing the dangers and hazards of the dark path of terrorism.
European governments have even convinced disillusioned ex-jihadis, who have peacefully surrendered to authorities in their homelands, to speak frankly and openly about how their hopes of heroism were met with brutality and disappointment.
Another piece of evidence might be the FBI’s increasingly strong track record of stopping would-be jihadis before they strike.
In February 2015, the FBI arrested three Brooklyn men for trying to travel to ISIS territory. All three were born in Central Asian republics near Russia. One of them, 19-year Akhror Saidahmetov, was financially dependent on his mother. At one point, suspecting him of contacting extremists online, she had confiscated his iPhone.
The three Brooklynites came onto the FBI’s radar after failing to cover their digital tracks, not even attempting to conceal their IP addresses. Within a week, an FBI informant befriended one of them at a mosque and saw evidence of his outreach to ISIS recruiters. Curious about how serious the would-be-terrorists really were, the informant kept in touch, posing as another man interested in traveling to Syria.
Matthew Levitt, a former Department of Treasury official, explained the government’s rationale for these stings to TheDCNF.
“The FBI opens the door sometimes,” he said. “They don’t push someone through, but they open the door, and see if someone walks through it.” Instead of provoking potentially radicalized individuals to commit crimes, Levitt says, the Bureau’s goal is “seeing if they can rule out that [targets] are a threat.”
Levitt resists the idea that doing so is profiling or entrapment. In fact, he says, “there’s no need for this kind of old-school profiling, especially when you have white Anglo-Saxon converts” — who are “converting more to radical ideology than to any religion” per se. In other words, the most radical forms of Islam become an outlet for all kinds of personal and political grievance, “putting this into a worldview and giving it structure, meaning and purpose.”
Law enforcement and Muslim families ultimately have the same goal, Levitt says, “to work together to protect these children” from destroying their own lives.
AUTHORITIES NEED TO ACT SOONER
Kathryn Seifert is a forensic psychologist and author of the upcoming book “Failure to Attach: The Why Behind Terrorists and Mass Murderers.” Seifert has spent much of her adult life trying to get to children and adolescents before they turn to violence. She currently runs three clinics with more than 4,000 patients combined. Regardless of their origins, they all share similar downward spirals as they “become distant or isolated from society from the very beginning.”
It usually starts with a household of abuse and domestic violence. If a child isn’t taught violence is wrong from an early age — they are already in the risk zone. On top of that, they fail to bond with their parents and receive the first of many rejections in life. They then go through troubled school years where they get discouraged to do well rather than get the help they need and, more importantly, get rejected from a peer group. If the person lacks the vocational skills to interact with society in combination with the other two, they have made themselves targets for terrorist organizations.
Seifert draws the same conclusion as Fernandez in that terrorist organizations are stronger, smarter and better than government agencies at locating these individuals. But society has a clear advantage in the many warning flags that pop up along the way. The process of finding a future terrorist is “pure logic and very easy,” Fernandez says. FBI might have kept track on Tsarnaev, Simpson and Soofi prior to their attacks, but interventions could have taken place much earlier when there was still time to correct course and turn it around.
“Twenty percent have mental health issues in the country. Around 7 percent of these get the treatment they need. The people from the remaining 13 percent that get abused at home on top of the two factors turn out to be the target audience of terrorist recruiters,” she said. “Gangs and terrorist recruiters know how to spot those kids.”
The ones with an immigrant background who come to America from a foreign nation have a clear disadvantage from the start. Tsarnaev and Soofi illustrate the conflicted personality many immigrants experience. They arrive to a new culture and become outsiders that struggle to connect. At the same time, they assimilate enough to detach from their original culture. They have, if you will, become the Ghuraba wherever they go.
“Often they take trips back to their homeland and find they are too Americanized there, and again they become isolated, rejected from society,” Seifert said.
Groups like ISIS now have new prospects. By offering a sense of community, they can lure in individuals desperate to feel a belonging and purpose again. Militant recruiters accept them, welcome them. In the most manipulating way, “they are telling them a tale about belonging to a group, and [the targets] buy it,” Seifert says. At this moment, the power of religion can be used as a magnifier. People need to have a purpose in life, and “religion can play a huge role in people having a purpose in life.” For Simpson this was the reality. He immersed himself in Islam in high school and spent most of his time at a mosque in Phoenix during the years leading up to the attack.
“It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Seifert said. “There is this repeated rejection from pro-social society almost pushing them in the directions of a violent group and pushes people into an anti-social peer group.”
The Tsarnaev brothers showed that radical extremism on American soil doesn’t have to have a terrorist organization’s label on it. The loners, drawn into depression and segregation, are usually highly intelligent people, according to Seifert. By underachieving and falling short of accomplishing their goals, like becoming an Olympic boxer, they have unfinished business with society, and they’re bright enough to pull it off on their own.
“By isolating themselves, their ideas about how to get even with society just becomes bigger and bigger and bigger,” Seifert said. “Because again, you don’t have the guidance to sort out the issue and come to a conclusion.”
The would-be terrorists that have had a glimpse of success in life blame their failures on society. They lack the necessary social skills to overcome roadblocks, and instead turn their entire focus in one direction. Several immigrants-turned-terrorists have been successful in overcoming roadblocks and joining American society, at least on paper. Faisal Shahzad — the man behind the failed Times Square car bombing in 2010 — moved to the U.S. in 1997 to attend college at the now-defunct Southeastern University in Washington, D.C. Shahzad went on to receive a Master Of Business Administration from The University of Bridgeport in Connecticut in 2004 and became a permanent resident two years later.
A year prior to the attack he lived with his wife and two children in a condo outside Bridgeport, earning $70,000 as a financial analyst. It was an immigration story of perfect assimilation on the surface, but what the records didn’t show was an angry man that grew increasingly frustrated with the American way of life. When he lost his job, and later his home to foreclosure, his radicalization fomented. Growing up he had gotten accustomed to an upper-class lifestyle in Pakistan, fed by his father’s income as one of the highest ranked in the Pakistani air force. When his American Dream started to fade, America itself was to blame.
It’s a common narrative for the radicalized man in the West. Every defeat and every hurdle is a result of society, not oneself.
“They define themselves by their occupation and aspirations,” Seifert said. “The skill to succeed in life is to overcome your roadblocks.”
What Shahzad and Tsarnaev have in common is American authorities telling them they no longer could achieve their goals for failing to meet the standards required. It’s a problem of lacking social skills, Seifert says, but the exact same traits can be found within terrorist organizations on an institutional scale. What unites groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS is “not just the fact that other people in the world have other beliefs,” but that they blame those other people, the other societies, for their failure to achieve goals of “who they are and where they are in the world,” Seifert argues.
In the end, it’s a narrative of coming up short and failing to join society. Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez was the kid that played wiffle ball in the backyard of his suburban neighborhood outside Chattanooga, Tenn. A polite young man, as described by his neighbors, with an interest in martial arts and writing. As he drove through his neighborhood, a little faster than he should have, he gave a friendly wave to his neighbors. He jokingly wrote: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?” on his graduation yearbook page and went on to receive an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
In April 2015 he was arrested for driving under the influence. The incident led Abdulazeez into deep depression, and a July 13 post on his blog stated that “life is short and bitter.” Three days later he opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, killing five and injuring two before responding police officers gunned him down.
The FBI report called Abdulazeez a “homegrown violent extremist,” but his seemingly normal life made it difficult to determine a motive. An inside look at his diary showed yet another immigrant frustrated with his failures in America, out for revenge over a broken American Dream.
“I have collected the many injustices directed at me my whole life,” he wrote, “and now, I will kill as many people as I can for my revenge.”
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