Homegrown radical terrorized US from grave
Another homegrown terrorist helped facilitate the bombings in New York and New Jersey this past weekend. We can’t arrest him though, because we killed him in 2011. Ringing in the ears of Ahmad Khan Rahami as he placed his bombs were the words of al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, who was taken out by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
The notebook of extremist ideas found on Rahami upon his arrest cited Awlaki as an influence. That detail is important in understanding the path to Rahami’s radicalization, but we must remember that becoming an extremist is a complex process that cannot be realized on propaganda alone.
Awlaki was an American, born in New Mexico. He lectured as an imam at a mosque in the Washington, DC, area and was by all accounts a charismatic and persuasive speaker. When he left the United States to become a terrorist recruiter for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he created a catalogue of videos and writings that have allowed him to live on, becoming a powerful influence for Muslim extremism since his passing.
Almost 5 years to the day after he was killed in the drone strike, Awlaki’s appearance in al-Qaeda’s online publication “Inspire” gives the impression that he is still alive. To this day, his lectures are regularly cited as a motivating source for violent extremists the world over.
This “bin Laden of the Internet,” as Awlaki has been called, inspired Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, would-be bomber Michael Finton, who was arrested in a sting operation, Zachary Adam Chesser, who targeted the writers of “South Park” and hundreds more people, known and unknown.
Last April, I attended the trial of four young men from Minneapolis, all of whom were charged with conspiring to support and join ISIS. The most chilling moment in the trial came when one of the defendants explained that it was Awlaki’s videos that convinced him that killing innocent people is justifiable. The recruiter had once again reached from the grave to lead an impressionable young person down the path of radicalization.
And yet, testimony during the trial also made it clear that it wasn’t just those videos that inspired the defendant to join ISIS. It was the face-to- face interaction with others intending to depart for Syria.
We should not accept wholesale the notion that online videos and other propaganda can, on their own, radicalize a person. The often-mentioned “self-radicalization” or “online radicalization” belies a more complex process. One does not simply watch a video and decide to build a bomb.
As Justin Hienz and I discovered during our study of foreign fighters in Minneapolis-St. Paul, face-to-face interaction with a recruiter or like minded person is often a critical component in radicalization. Even so-called lone wolves, as Rahami has been characterized, have traversed the radicalization pathway through a collage of ideas and discussions.
At the same time, the radicalization process is not brief. Extremism smolders like a hot coal, an idea that grows into a violent fire fueled by anger, conflicts of identity, feelings of humiliation and marginalization.. It is important for the public to understand that removing any one of these elements cannot fully disrupt radicalization. All of these and other root causes need to be addressed in the effort to not just apprehend terrorists, but dissuade the radicalization that leads to terrorism.
Terrorists do not live in a vacuum. There is almost certainly at least one person in Rahami’s wake who shared a conversation about his extremist views or saw warning signs that he was heading down an evil path. All of us have a stake in homegrown violent extremism and being effective participants in counterterrorism requires knowledge.
That starts by informing the public that radicalization cannot be distilled into overly simplistic foundations. Indeed, the example of Awlaki proves that even when a terrorist is killed, the threat they pose can endure. One long-term priority for U.S. counterterrorism efforts must be stemming the emergence of new terrorists, and that means community-based efforts focusing on preventing radicalization.
When we all have a clearer picture of the many factors at play, we can better share the collective responsibility to identify someone on a dangerous path and take the steps necessary to lead them away from it before it’s too late.
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.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.