Although domestic terrorism has always existed in the U.S., and to varying degrees and in different manifestations in most countries, the dominant threat in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks was thought to be from Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The sense of menace from FTOs was heightened by the twin bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, and attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. While most Americans only first heard of al-Qaeda and Usama bin Laden in the days and weeks following 9/11, many in the law enforcement and intelligence communities were already very familiar with the threat posed by foreign terror groups.
In response to the catastrophic terror attacks of 9/11, the U.S. and much of the western world immediately intensified their security posture with dramatic actions ranging from the development of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to specific target-hardening measures across the public and private sectors. Security around air travel dramatically changed with the fortification of cabin doors and more thorough screening of passengers, the number of security cameras in major cities grew exponentially, and we formally entered the era of “see something, say something.”
While the constant evolution in terrorist tactics and government counter-measures is often described as a game of “Whac-A-Mole,” resulting in the development of novel threats like shoe bombs and underwear bombs, a much larger and more significant behavioral response has taken place that has changed the nature of the terrorist threat. In the years before and immediately after 9/11, those who started down the pathway from radicalization to mobilization often engage in behaviors that were likely to be detected by law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Among the most suspicious was travel to regions known to host terrorist training camps. With “no-fly” lists and intensified travel security, movement between the U.S. and those places became more difficult.
Before 9/11, a would-be terrorist often followed a pathway that began with some type of contact with a terrorist propagandist or recruiter who was skillful in identifying vulnerable individuals in the community, at school or work, or in prison. Over time, these initial contacts or exposures to radical people and message more often took place online, but the primary mode was still face-to-face contact. As a new recruit became increasingly radicalized, and began to identify with a terrorist cause or ideology, they typically immersed into a group, further strengthening their identity, and often becoming vetted by group leaders as a “true believer.” Once fully accepting the ideology and joining a group, recruits received messages that were clear, powerful and persistent – true believers didn’t sit on their hands, they take action. Once convinced that action was required, a recruit might travel abroad to participate in training camps and receive funding and instructions to execute an attack before returning home.
At every step along the pathway from radicalization to mobilization were opportunities for the leaders of a terrorist group to vet the new recruit to ensure that they did not represent an operational security risk, and had the capability to execute a successful attack. Individuals who seemed unstable for any reason were usually rejected, sometimes pushed out of the groups if they were thought to be too risky. Anyone who displayed evidence of a mental illness was likely to be excluded from the group not only due to the perception that they might be unpredictable or unreliable, but because leaders did not want the optics of their group members being “crazy.” This “selection effect” served both operational and public relations purposes.
“In addition to the rise of the lone actor terrorist who is likely to be radicalized and recruited in the privacy and comfort of their own home is the fact that the lone actor is more likely to have a mental illness”
Due to the dramatic changes in security after 9/11, travel to meet with, and train with terrorist group leaders and fighters became increasingly difficult. Recruits were more likely to be intercepted and apprehended on their way to a camp. The detention and interrogation of a terrorist-in-training represented a serious threat to the survival of an FTO – cells could be discovered and communications and funding might be traced right back to the group’s core. This pathway from radicalization to mobilization was no longer viable.
As the radicalization-mobilization pathway was evolving, there was a confluence of two major factors in the years following 9/11. Cellular communication devices became increasingly ubiquitous and affordable, smaller, and more likely to be constant companions to the masses. Coinciding with the introduction of the smartphone and easy mobile access to the Internet, the most notable terrorist organizations began to promote the idea of “lone jihad” in their high-gloss propaganda pieces. Often referred to as “lone wolf” attacks, the new direction from terrorist leaders was for the true believer to use whatever weapons were at their disposal, including firearms, knives, vehicles, and even rocks, to attack their ideological enemies anywhere they found them. Online forums, magazines and eventually social media platforms influenced and spread violent extremist narratives and promoted violent activity. No longer was it necessary to meet a recruiter, join a group, and travel for training and vetting; all that was required was an Internet connection, acceptance of the cause, and a willingness to use violence to advance or defend the cause.
As travel and in-person vetting were no longer prerequisites to becoming a terrorist, neither was mental stability. In this new model of radicalization, the selection effect no longer influenced participation in terrorist activity. The barriers that might have prevented someone with a serious mental illness from being swept up in a violent ideology had been removed. Anyone could join the fight.
From a behavioral standpoint the shift from group-based terrorism to lone actor terrorism is of critical importance. Over time, the role of mental illness has become a central element in the evolution of the modern terrorism threat. There has even been some evidence of recruiters deliberately attempting to lure mentally ill individuals into extremist ideologies. Research suggests that 43 percent of the lone-actor terrorists had a history of mental illness, and the odds of a lone actor having a mental illness were 13.49 times higher than the odds of a group actor having a mental illness. Other research has found that 25 percent of FTO-inspired lone actors had a diagnosed mental disorder, which is closer to the base rate of the general population, but significantly lower than those lone actors inspired by single-issue causes (52 percent) such as anti-abortion, environmentalism, and animal rights. It is important to note that research consistently has found that people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than anyone else in the general population. Only a small number of people with a mental illness contribute to the overall rate of violence in the U.S., and those with serious mental illness are far more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violent crime. Mental illness is therefore not thought to be causal in terrorism, nor is it facilitative, but may be a contributing factor and one of many drivers in an individual’s pathway to violence. The presence of a mental illness may lead to certain vulnerabilities susceptible to radicalization.
Today we are at a very challenging crossroads where several key behavioral factors unique to the post-9/11 environment converge with an extremely complex and dynamic socio-political landscape. In addition to the rise of the lone actor terrorist who is likely to be radicalized and recruited in the privacy and comfort of their own home is the fact that the lone actor is more likely to have a mental illness. At present, one in five Americans and one in six Europeans suffer from some type of mental illness, and the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has forecast that mental health and substance use disorders will soon surpass all physical diseases as the leading cause of disability worldwide. It is also important to acknowledge the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health with about half of adults (47 percent) reporting negative mental health impacts related to worry or stress from the pandemic, according to the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation study. The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America poll indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has already resulted in significant mental health distress with nearly half (48 percent) of those surveyed stating that their level of stress has increased compared with before the pandemic. Public health emergencies, including pandemics, cast a very long behavioral health shadow. Research in the UK by the National Health Service and Centre for Mental Health predicts that levels of demand for mental health care will likely reach two to three times that of current capacity within the 3- to 5-year post-pandemic window. The impact on mental health will likely continues long after the physical threat has passed, and may grow worse for several years after. New findings published in the journal Psychological Science suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic may contribute to political violence. Directly or indirectly there seems to be a clear linkage between the pandemic, stress/mental health, and violence, some of which will likely be associated with extremist ideologies.
The most recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security National Threat Advisory System Bulletin clearly articulates that we are in a very complex and dynamic threat stream characterized by the risk of “grievance-based” violence. At present, there are plenty of grievances to go around. Strong feelings
about the ongoing global pandemic, including views on masks, vaccines, and government mandates, along with the emotions related to the events in Afghanistan, the economy, natural disasters, and many other issues, all contribute to the overall socio-political environment. Together or alone, these factors can act as accelerants in the process of radicalization and along the pathway to violence. The influence of behavioral factors related to the risk of terrorism or extremist violence is as significant – or more significant – than on 9/11 and will require all types of practitioners and professionals to be knowledgeable in homeland security-related human factors, and ever vigilant of the evolving landscape.