Stopping the next London attacker or Orlando shooter
© Getty Images

As the Stockholm, St. Petersburg and London attacks tragically reaffirmed, terrorists continue to pose severe domestic security risks. If governments hope to get ahead of the curve and prevent the next homegrown violent extremist from being radicalized to violent ends, they must build programs to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Early reports indicate the perpetrators of the St. Petersburg bombing may have been from "Russia's Muslim regions." More is known about Khalid Masood, the British-born London attacker who was the subject of an investigation for extremist ties, but was considered a "peripheral figure." But sometime since he was last the target of an investigation, Masood radicalized to the point of violent extremism with the tragic result of the attack at Westminster Bridge.

The fact is that even the best intelligence and law enforcement capabilities will not be able to stop every attack. In at least four cases here in the United States, individuals who were investigated by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies ultimately carried out acts of terrorism, in Massachusetts, Texas, Florida and New York.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the United States, even radical and abhorrent ideas are constitutionally protected, as is watching jihadist videos. The problem is that in an era of mass social media and digital communication, ideological radicalization and then mobilization to violence (the "flash to bang" ratio) is faster than ever. Legally protected but disturbing behaviors can quickly become threats to public safety if not handled in a timely manner.

 

In light of the pressing national security threats facing the homeland, there has never been a greater need for programs that enable the United States to get ahead of the curve on countering Islamist and other forms of violent extremism.

Today's most immediate threats are mostly from domestic, homegrown violent extremists who act in small groups or as lone offenders. Simply stopping people from certain countries from entering the United States does not address the problem: Radicalization happens here. According to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report, "most foreign-born, U.S.-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States."

DHS's findings echo a report issued by the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, which concluded that "The United States faces its highest Islamist terror threat environment since 9/11, and much of the threat now stems from individuals who have been radicalized at home."

But these reports are not all bad news. The DHS report concluded that radicalization trends in the U.S. present opportunities for tailored programs to counter violent extremism (CVE). This is also the conclusion of a new, bipartisan report from the Washington Institute (where I direct the counterterrorism program), which identified local communities as being "on the frontlines of defense against homegrown violent extremism."

Getting ahead of the curve and preventing the next homegrown violent extremist from being radicalized requires a CVE strategy that empowers communities and builds trusting partnerships with and within local communities to prevent and counter violent extremism.

CVE is not a soft alternative to counterterrorism, but rather a critical and complementary policy option for dealing with disconcerting but lawful beliefs and activities that occur in the pre-criminal space. Countering terrorism requires both tactical efforts to thwart attacks and strategic efforts to counter the extremist radicalization that fuels its hatred and violence and undergirds its strat­egy and global appeal.

Building resilient communities capable of resisting and countering violent extremism is clearly in the national interest. But U.S. counterterrorism experts also see CVE as a key part of the toolkit necessary to preempt terrorist activity in the first place and to help handle the many cases of extremism that will fall below the legal threshold for investigation. CVE efforts are attractive to law enforcement for the way they reduce the pool of potential terrorist recruits across the spectrum of violent extremist ideologies.

With more than 900 counterterrorism investigations related to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across all 50 states, the FBI lacks the bandwidth to maintain open-ended investigations on every case of radicalization that crosses its radar. U.S. law enforcement has therefore been at the forefront of the debate over how to create local community networks to which law enforcement could refer radicalization cases that fall short of breaking the law.

As one FBI official put it way back in 2014, "the key to countering violent extremism is to steer would-be attackers down a positive, productive path before they cross over from radical thinker to radical extremist." Indeed, that's the way to stop the next London attacker or Orlando shooter.

Matthew Levitt directs the counterterrorism program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and recently led a bipartisan task force on "Defeating Ideologically Inspired Violent Extremism."


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.