In the aftermath of the worst Islamic extremist terrorist attack since 9/11 in Orlanda, Florida, the FBI once again finds itself in the unenviable position of having to defend against unwarranted and undeserved criticism. The difficulty of operating in a world that is as much political as it is under attack from a largely unseen enemy, has again been made obvious.
The FBI — the finest most professional and efficient law enforcement agency in the world – is, along with other agencies in the homeland security community, charged with protecting Americans while under constant scrutiny from powerful people with personal agendas; a seemingly impossible task. Compounding their mission is the fact that their adversary is virtually invisible. The inescapable fact is the next Omar Mateen, Tashfeen Malik or Nidal Hassan walks among us today, and is as unseen and as obscure as your postman.
It’s called radicalization.
“We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack, but we’re also called upon to figure out which pieces of hay might someday become needles,” as FBI Director James Comey so aptly put it. This is the most impacting part of our collective problem set, and make no mistake, the problem is ours; not just that of the FBI, but all of ours.
FBI and other homeland security officials across the nation are faced with the dilemma of not only determining who the “next piece of hay” is, but how to intervene and counter the message of a most prolific and effective Islamic extremist recruiting machine; a machine with a message effective enough to convince your next door neighbor to kill the innocent, and himself in the process.
The mere idea that a sentient, often highly intelligent young person could be convinced to kill, and to allow himself to be killed, is hard to understand. It would be difficult to convince people that such was possible, but, unfortunately, we have only to look around us to see that it’s true. It’s is not only possible, but overwhelming evidence suggests it is easy. We are faced with that evidence on a daily basis.
So, if the issue of identifying those most vulnerable to the message of Islamic extremism is not difficult enough in itself, homeland security officials are being told by many in the world of counterterrorism and in the Islamic community that the job is insurmountable. “It is impossible to determine who will be next to succumb to the message,” we are led to believe.
In a March 2016, New York Times article written by Matt Apuzzo, Who Will Become a Terrorist? Research Yields Few Clues, he wrote, “After all this funding and this flurry of publications, with each new terrorist incident we realize that we are no closer to answering our original question about what leads people to turn to political violence.”
Marc Sageman, a psychologist and a longtime government consultant, wrote in the journal, Terrorism and Political Violence, in 2014, “The same worn-out questions are raised over and over again, and we still have no compelling answers.”
There are several practical reasons why this is seemingly such a daunting task. Combating the Islamic extremists in our midst has, from the beginning, been more of a political issue than a law enforcement or intelligence or homeland security issue. There are no easy answers, and in the end, any real criticism of the effort will be borne by our leaders, who are, to say the least, unenthusiastic about being criticized.
Our American Muslim community also shares blame in this matter. The lack of trust between them and the law enforcement community often leads to active efforts on the part of Muslim religious and political leaders to inhibit any identification of individuals who are most likely to succumb to the terrorist’s message, for fear such identification will lead to an indictment of their entire community.
Meanwhile, while politicians understand full well they cannot be held responsible for stopping an enemy who cannot be identified and cannot be held accountable for preventing a random act, such as one undertaken by a “self-radicalized lone wolf,” they also realize once there’s a face on the enemy or a name attached, they have no choice but to act.
The very terms, “self-radicalized” and “lone wolf’ were coined by those in positions of responsibility precisely so they could avoid such responsibility. After all, who could possibly stop someone from “self-radicalizing?” The truth is, there is no such thing as “self-radicalization.” Though an individual may succumb to a message as a result of little or no contact with the messenger, the message nevertheless was hammered home through a highly organized and structured system, managed by very intelligent individuals who worked long hours to see that the message was received and embraced.
Following the Orlando shootings and, to various extents, all of the Islamic inspired terrorist acts from Ft. Hood to San Bernardino, immediate attempts were made to cast the actions of the shooters as the result of faults in our gun laws, simple acts of class hatred and even workplace violence. Responses from our government were focused on taking the emphasis away from the idea that these actions were the result of an organized effort. The fact that these acts of terror occurred because of a very well organized and funded machine in the form of ISIS recruitment serves as a blanket indictment on our leadership.
They have failed us and they desperately seek an excuse. The concepts of “lone wolfs,” random acts of hatred, workplace violence, self-radicalized individuals and faulty gun laws all serve as safe havens for our leaders. It’s time to redirect the narrative and focus on the reality, and hold our leaders accountable.
The answer to a simple, rhetorical question can easily refute the assumption that the Orlando terrorist, Mateen killed, because of a hatred of homosexuals or some latent homosexual tendency; if he hadn’t harbored a hatred for gays or suffered from some supposed latent homosexual tendencies, would he have refused to attack anyone in the name of Islam? The common sense answer to that question is “no.”
The process of so-called ‘radicalization’
Mateen’s decision to launch an attack on American soil was based on his recruitment and radicalization by ISIS. His decision on a specific target may have been based on these other considerations, but make no mistake, he had already decided to commit jihad in the name of radical extremist Islam. His actual target consideration was secondary, and it is extremely disconcerting and even dangerous to allow ourselves to be distracted by such considerations.
The reason he “had already decided to commit jihad in the name of radical extremist Islam” is he’d been radicalized by ISIS recruiters following a well-organized and structured recruitment and radicalization effort. He was not “self-radicalized.” He did not wake up one morning and as a result of absolutely no input from any other source, decide tokill and to end his own life. He may have never spoken to or communicated to any single individual, and ISIS recruiters whose responsibility it is to assure that a line of folks like him are ready to act, may not have even known his name. But to assume this was a random act is foolish.
It does, however, take pressure off those in charge if they can convince the nation some mentally disturbed individual was convinced to enter into jihad and die for jihad simply because he just happened to stumble across jihadi material on social media. Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton likened the term “self-radicalized” to “spontaneous combustion” — no apparent cause, as it were. Unfortunately, there is a “cause, and there is, as we seen far too often, an “effect.”
Those charged with radicalizing young people in America are highly systematic, organized and structured. And the act of “radicalizing” someone is a group effort. The machine run by ISIS or Al Qaeda and the recipient act in unison. There is no such thing as “self,” and no such thing as “acting alone.” All Americans must realize this and must understand we are in a battle against an organized enemy, not a handful of misguided, bored teenagers.
There’s no such thing as “self-radicalization” or lone wolfs.” Though there is a great deal of hatred, it is first and foremost directed toward the non-believer or the infidel, and a change in gun laws will do absolutely nothing to defeat these Islamic extremists. There is a single Islamic extremist terror movement, and that movement, albeit under different leaders and possibly sharing varying Islamist ideological points, as a single entity has a single shared goal of killing all who refuse to embrace Islam.
Additionally, the assertion that it’s impossible to identify the next Omar Mateen or Syed Farook also brings some comfort to those charged with doing something about it. Such an assertion, however, could not be further from the truth. It has been proven over and over again to be not only possible, but highly feasible, using tried and verifiable methods.
Developing a viable profile
In the late 70s, FBI Special Agent John E. Douglas, using a straightforward interview technique, traveled the country interviewing serial killers such as David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy and Charles Manson, and successfully developed a “picture” of individuals most likely to commit horrific murders. His methods and techniques were simple and based on common sense and common research methodology. Hiis results are still used today to solve serial crimes.
To assume there is no pattern and no salient commonalities among a group of people who would succumb to a message as pointed and specific as that of the Islamic extremist propagandist, or the ISIS recruiter, is no only ludicrous, it is dangerous and self-defeating. There are obviously inherent problems in such research, but no more than those found in the most basic research problem sets.
To begin with, the very word “‘profile” has been known to send people into a stage of apoplexy likely leading to hyperventilation, but the exact efforts are undertaken every day to identify those most likely to develop diabetes or a dependency on tobacco or alcohol.
The reward for success in developing a profile of a young person who is most susceptible to the message of Islamic extremism, on the other hand, may be the development of highly effective intervention strategies and methods, and is likely as a result to save many lives. To shy away from conducting such research due to a concern over the relatively minor possibility of being offensive, is nothing short of egregious.
To that end, graduate and upper level undergraduates at Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi under the supervision of these authors, and an impressive panel of advisors, some of whom are noted members of the Islamic community such as Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, have launched Project Arrowhead.
Project Arrowhead is a research project using many of the same techniques and methods used by the FBI coupled with validated proven research techniques used by all institutions of higher learning to answer perplexing questions. The effort is supported by and subject to constant advisement and involvement from members of the Mississippi State Department of Homeland Security and Mississippi’s congressional delegation, as well as local and national offices of the FBI; FBI behavioral science analysts; counterterrorism officials in Washington, DC.; and former ISIS recruiters.
The results of this research will be provided to the Mississippi State Department of Homeland Security, as well as appropriate national homeland security organizations. Project Arrowhead will provide a picture of the “at-risk” population in terms of succumbing to the message of Islamic extremism and recruitment. The data will be invaluable in developing counter-messages and intervention strategies in order to combat the impact of the highly effective recruitment efforts on the part of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
With a proven, validated picture of those most at risk, which will include valuable insight into why they are at risk as well as events and occurrences that triggered “no turning back” decision points for those who succumb to extremists’ recruitment messages, Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department officials will be in a position to more effectively counter these recruitment efforts.
Project Arrowhead’s research will be directed toward developing a profile among a very narrow group of individuals, though the methods and techniques may later be used in a broader more diverse population. Our research will examine those individuals who were either born in the United States or came here at a very early age and were exposed to the American culture for some time before committing to Islamic extremism.
Our techniques and procedures, as is the case in all valid research, will remain concise and non-variable throughout the process. Though our ultimate data will be subject to scientific analysis, descriptive data and salient points across the spectrum of subjects will be supplemented with parallel supporting data.
Project Arrowhead research efforts are well underway, and our anticipated date of completion is early 2017. There is a way to define and identify the next “piece of hay,” and we will do that.
Senior Contributing Writer Godfrey Garner is a veteran special operations counterintelligence officer who retired from US Special Forces in 2006. He served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. His work there most recently was as a counter-corruption analyst. Garner is author of, Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, and, The Balance of Exodus.
Lt. Colonel (Ret.), Stephen C. McCraney is an adjunct instructor in Homeland Security Studies at Mississippi College. He has over 31 years of law enforcement and first responder experience as a former commander of a weapons of mass destruction unit; community corrections associate director, probation and parole; and a certified police officer who has worked in College, city and state level law enforcement positions. He is currently the chief of staff for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.