Homegrown terror: Revisiting the path to domestic radicalization

Scott Erickson Contributor
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Last month marked the nine-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks against the United States. As we reflect upon the strikes that took nearly 3,000 lives, recent events remind us of the ongoing struggle to protect the American homeland from further acts of terror. As every month seems to usher in the revelation of a new terror plot hatched within our nation’s borders, we are reminded of the vigilance necessary to combat the dangers posed by radical Islamist ideologies.

Over the past fifteen months, 23 cases involving 56 individuals, both citizens of the United States and foreign nationals of legal residency, have been uncovered while in various stages of development. The groups and individuals captured over the past year and a half derived their inspiration, and often direction, from al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and the broader Islamist fundamentalist movement.

These individuals were not radicalized on foreign soil or in a Madrasa located far from American shores. These individuals began their journey on the path to jihad while living within the inclusive and tolerant communities of the United States. As incidents of domestic radicalization appear to be on the rise, it is incumbent upon the broader intelligence community to fully understand the process of domestic radicalization. Recognizing the signs of radicalization can help our nation’s law enforcement agencies prevent future terrorist acts.

In 2007, the New York Police Department (NYPD) released an influential report on the development of domestic radicalization. This report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, outlined the process whereby otherwise “unremarkable” individuals set off on a path that culminated in jihad.

While competing hypotheses exist to explain the complex emotional and psychological adjustments that define an individual’s gravitation toward radicalization, the NYPD report provides a compelling — and relevant — four-stage summary of this phenomenon. Its relevance can be understood as it is applied to several case studies involving both individual and collective acts of terror, developed and plotted in Western societies, and perpetrated or attempted against targets both foreign and domestic.

The four stages of radicalization, as outlined by the NYPD, are Pre-Radicalization, Self-Identification, Indoctrination, and Jihadization. The following is a brief summary of each stage:

  • Pre-radicalization: Pre-Radicalization describes the characteristics of an individual prior to his embarking upon the path to radicalization. Typically, these individuals seek out other like-minded individuals within their communities. As stated in the NYPD report, “Commonalities among these individuals’ age, residence, school, interests, personality, and ethnicity are critical in determining who becomes a member of a particular group or cluster.”
  • Self-Identification: During this stage of the radicalization process, an individual begins to explore the tenets of Salafi Islam, a fundamentalist Sunni interpretation of Islam frequently adhered to by Islamist groups. Often spurred by personal tragedy, or a political event of particular significance, individuals in the self-identification stage of radicalization seek to understand their circumstances through religious beliefs and associations. The NYPD report cites two key indicators as often accompanying this stage of the radicalization process; namely, a consistent movement toward Salafi Islam, and regular attendance at a Salafi mosque. During this stage, individuals may become alienated from their friends and associates. They may begin to enhance their associations with like-minded individuals, abandon their previous vices, e.g. smoking, drinking, etc., and adopt a new persona consistent with their more strident adherence to Salafi Islam.

  • Indoctrination: The NYPD reports, “Indoctrination is the stage in which an individual progressively intensifies his beliefs, wholly adopts jihadi-Salafi ideology and concludes, without question, that the conditions and circumstances exist where action is required to support and further the Salafist cause.” As their beliefs intensify, and their commitment toward radicalization becomes strengthened, individuals will find validation for their convictions from a number of sources. In recent years, the internet has proven a veritable distribution center of radical literature and a virtual meeting place where like-minded individuals can express their radical beliefs in an anonymous setting. Often on jihadist sites, “spiritual sanctioners,” such as Ridwan al-Issar or Anwar al-Awlaki, will encourage their acolytes to pursue jihadist endeavors. As individuals’ indoctrination intensifies, they may remove themselves from the mosque, as their radicalization outpaces anything found among their peers. The end-stages of this process involve the development of a “loosely-knit but cohesive group of people.”
  • Jihadization: The final stage of the radicalization process involves the decision upon the part of a group of similarly indoctrinated and motivated individuals to engage in an act of jihad. As they begin to designate themselves as mujahideen, or holy warriors, the group will begin to embark on acts that advance their objective. This may include travel to foreign destinations to participate in jihadist training camps or the development of operational plans with designs on domestic targets. In the process of fundamentalist Islamist radicalization, whether a target is foreign or domestic, the end-goal is universal: “To punish the West, overthrow the democratic order, reestablish the Caliphate, and institute sharia.”

It is important to note that the NYPD’s continuum of radicalization is neither wholly inclusive nor deterministic. An individual’s apparent movement down the path to radicalization is no guarantee of their inexorable descent into jihadization.

The continuum of radicalization, as outlined in the NYPD report, suggest a powerful method for understanding and recognizing the developmental stages of domestic radicalization.

A better understanding of this phenomenon will enhance the ability of the domestic law enforcement community to address its root causes. Coupled with vigilant community involvement and a commitment among public and private institutions, communities will improve the likelihood that acts of terror are identified and addressed before they can become tragic realities.

Scott G. Erickson is an advocate of conservative, principled solutions to the issues facing America. He has worked to advance conservative priorities through coalition building and is an active participant in myriad organizations seeking to restore the foundational principles of America. A committed public servant, he has worked in the field of law enforcement for the past decade and holds both his B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice Studies. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.