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How To ‘Profile’ A Potential Terrorist

Courtesy Union County Prosecutor’s Office/Handout via REUTERS

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s call for “profiling” Monday in the wake of Ahmad Khan Rahami’s suspected New York City terror attack sparked a furious debate on the practice.

Trump has not specified what criterion he would use to profile potential terrorists.

Rahami’s troubled history of domestic violence, long time foreign travel, and embrace of strict Islamic ideology before the attack confirm an emerging trend of recent American “homegrown” terrorists. These criterion could serve as a useful benchmark for building a profile of future terrorists.

“Travel to the field of jihad, attempted or otherwise” along with “domestic violence” are two possible predictive indicators of potential terrorists, Vice President of the New America Foundation and author of a recent book on Homegrown terrorists Peter Bergen told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The New America Foundation’s analysis of 369 terrorism charges in the U.S. found 47 percent of suspects either traveled to a field of jihad, or were arrested at the airport. Rahami fits well within this profile.

Rahami was born in Afghanistan in 1988 and came to the U.S. at the age of seven. He took four trips to Pakistan throughout his 20s, took a Pakistani wife in 2011, and stayed in Pakistan for nearly a year in 2014. After his year-long jaunt in Pakistan, Rahami grew a beard, exchanged his t-shirt for traditional Muslim robes, and began praying fervently in the back of his family’s chicken shop.

Some reports indicate Rahami may have even traveled to Turkey in 2014 in an unsuccessful bid to join Islamic State in Syria.

“It’s like he was a completely different person,” a friend speaking on Rahami’s behavior after his return from Pakistan in 2011 told The New York Times. Rahami allegedly stabbed his brother in the leg in 2014, and spent nearly three months in jail awaiting trial for weapons and aggravated assault charges. Rahami’s father reportedly warned the FBI at this time his son was becoming increasingly militant.

Bergen highlights Rahami and other domestic terrorists’ proclivities for violence as a key differentiator for potential terrorists. In a hypothetical scenario, Bergen painted a picture in which a person may be amenable to militant beliefs, but simultaneously resolved a dispute by sending a letter to his local city council. This act would lower the threat profile of a potential terrorist because it shows his willingness to resolve disputes through lawful means.

Domestic violence instead shows a willingness to violently resolve incidents outside of the fold of the public forum. Both Boston Bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Orlando shooter Omar Mateen fit a strikingly similar profile to that of Rahami.

Tamerlan harbored dreams of becoming an Olympic boxer, but increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with an injury that sidelined his career. Tamerlan’s girlfriend called 911 at one point “hysterically crying” after he reportedly slapped her.

Tamerlan’s parents encouraged him to turn to Islam to fill his void, and he became especially religious. Before Tamerlan disappeared to the Dagestan for six months, Russia’s security service warned the FBI he was “a follower of radical Islam,” and that he planned on rendezvousing with Islamist terrorists while there. The FBI investigated the claim but could find no ties to extremist organizations.

Upon Tamerlan’s return, he reportedly grew a long beard and preached radical Islamist ideals. At one point, he interrupted a service at his local mosque, protesting their observance of American secular holidays. He increasingly bloviated about radical Islam on twitter, and brought his younger brother into his fold.

Tamerlan then downloaded an al-Qaida magazine with a tutorial on “How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mother.” Him and his brother put them in two backpacks and set them off at the Boston Marathon in April 2013. They killed six bystanders and maimed several hundred others.

Mateen was the son of an Afghan immigrant with a perpetually troubled childhood. Mateen suffered from anger issues, and reportedly terrorized his young wife. He routinely beat her, and restricted her communication with her extended family. Their marriage was short-lived, because his wife’s family was forced to come and rescue her from his house.

After she fled, Mateen bounced around between security jobs and tried to settle down. He went to Saudi Arabia on a religious pilgrimage and became increasingly enraged at perceived deficiencies in American culture. His former coworker told The New York Times Mateen was “Always shaken. Always agitated. Always mad.” Mateen’s radical statements led to two separate instances where the FBI questioned him, but neither investigation resulted in increased surveillance of Mateen.

Eventually, Mateen walked into Pulse nightclub June 12 and slaughtered 49 people.

The stark commonality in the stories of the three successful terrorists reveal an emerging trend among potential domestic terrorists. All three interacted with law enforcement, had a history of domestic abuse, and became increasingly religious before their attacks.

No interaction with law enforcement is actually quite rare, as in the case of Syed Farook and Tashfin Malik, who killed 15 people in San Bernardino.

The FBI indicates it has nearly 1,000 open cases on potential Islamic terrorists in all 50 states. Bergen highlighted that the ease of access to terrorist propaganda and its proliferation online has significantly reduced the radicalization window. By focusing on domestic violence, foreign travel, and individuals within its database, the FBI may prioritize this list to try to stop the next attack.

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