Terror knows no profile: Lessons learned from arrest of DC transit cop

Terror suspects have no set profile, no race and no static ideology or hard line prescribed set of beliefs. Those are some of the lessons learned in the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Nicholas Young, a Washington, D.C. Metro Transit police officer charged with conspiring to aid ISIS.

From what we know, Young’s beliefs were mixed. He had obvious sympathies toward ISIS and its brand of radical Islam. But it has also been reported that Young collected Nazi memorabilia and had a German eagle tattoo on his neck, evidencing some affinity for a right-wing ideology. Homegrown extremist threat mirrors the demographic and the diversity of beliefs in any country. Indeed, ideologies are not even mutually exclusive; one can simultaneously embrace a hybrid of views.

It is similar to what was discovered about Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had embraced right-wing and white supremacist propaganda before his attack.

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In other words, we’re not just dealing with an “ISIS ideology.” It is far more complex than that. Radicalization is never a straight path; it is a meandering road littered with a collection of ideas, emotions, questions of identity, frustrations, and often, psychological issues. Young told an informant that he had tortured animals when he was young, a major red flag for deep psychological problems.

The path to radicalization is also often walked with like-minded people. We are seeing how powerful social networks are in facilitating and accelerating a “cognitive opening,” a point at which one is most receptive to extremist ideologies and which stems from a personal grievance or failure that shakes one’s worldview and provides an opening for an ideology to take root. Young was interviewed in 2010 because he had contact with Adam Zachary Chesser, a homegrown extremist convicted for aiding al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. Two years later, Young was investigated for his connection to Amine El-Khalifi, an Alexandria, Va. resident who intended to carry out an attack on the U.S. Capitol.

These repeated interactions with convicted extremists are a familiar phenomenon in homegrown terrorism investigations. No extremist operates purely in a vacuum. There is always intense exposure to an ideology, and someone in the individual’s social network almost always knows about it. In this case, fortunately, it was an FBI informant who followed Young’s trajectory through the radicalization pathway.

Beyond the threat of radicalization, our national security apparatus, as well as domestic law enforcement, has long recognized the potential for its officers and agents to become vulnerable to outside influence.

While this is upsetting, it is not necessarily surprising. Police officers are human, and as with any profession, there is inevitably a small portion who are bad actors, be it with abuse of authority, corruption—and even support for terrorism. No race, religion or even profession is immune to extremism and radicalization.

I was appointed to the FBI in 1984 during the same month that Los Angeles FBI Agent Richard Miller was arrested for providing classified documents to the KGB, a crime of espionage and bribery for which he was later convicted. In 2001, FBI Agent Robert Hanssen was also arrested for selling secrets to the Soviet Union over a 22-year period. Arrests like these can shake an organization to the core, and they are reminders of the need for extra caution and care when granting authority to a law enforcement officer.

Yet, the public should not lose faith. The DC Metro Transit Police worked cooperatively with the FBI, and Young was investigated for 6 years, repeatedly meeting with an FBI informant. Young believed he was above the law, but law enforcement was all over him. After years under FBI surveillance, DC Metro Transit Police Officer Nicholas Young is accused of buying gift cards as a way of sending financial support to ISIS.

And while the allegations against Young are as serious as they come, Virginia’s U.S. Attorney’s office said he was not plotting an attack.

A final lesson for the public is that even as we cannot stop every threat, we are stopping many of them. Young’s arrest is plain evidence to extremists across America and the world that they are not operating in secret, though they often believe that they are. Inasmuch as Young was an insider threat, the DC Metro Transit Police and the FBI were insider threats to him and his network of extremists.

Unfortunately, this likely will not be the last time an individual vested with public trust betrays their allegiance and duties in the name of extremism. But this is not evidence that ISIS’ brutal ideology is festering unseen and corrupting America like an infectious disease.

Instead, Young’s arrest is a reminder that the threat from extremism always exists, and no race, religion, or chosen profession grants immunity to radical beliefs and actions. That’s the nature of the homegrown violent extremist threat, and it’s why we must remain ever Vigilant.

And evidently, the FBI is on the case.

Southers, a former FBI special agent and former assistant chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence for the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, is director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @esouthersHVE.


 

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