Homeland Security and Public Safety

The Changing Face of Terror in the U.S.

The localized face of terrorism has forced law enforcement to the ‘home game.’

The term “homeland security” became an indelible part of the English language after 9/11 — but the focus mainly has been overseas and keeping the bad guys out of the country.That’s changed as more homegrown terrorists — ones who are living and working in the country and blending in with local communities — begin to emerge.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is being tried for murdering 13 people and wounding 32 in 2009 at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. Hasan had voiced concern about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and crossed the line into violence with a shooting spree.

Nineteen-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, once an Oregon State University student, was called “Mo” by neighbors and looked to be a typical teen, according to reports — until he was arrested in 2010 for planning to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Oregon.

There have been many others who seemingly blended in with the community, but would have liked to do it great harm. According to a May 2010 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report, attempted attacks against the United States during the previous nine months surpassed any one-year period in history. They’re smaller attacks — part of a strategy by al-Qaida and others to “bleed the enemy to death.”

There are commonalities among the people who attempt these attacks, but there are also enough differences to make the job of fighting homegrown terrorism difficult.

A study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that these individuals run the gamut in terms of socio-economic backgrounds, educational status and locations within the country. Some were doctors, some were training to be doctors, and some were unemployed and disenfranchised.

“One of our conclusions was that you have to be careful in profiling an individual because there may not be a standard profile for this,” said Rick Nelson, director of the CSIS homeland security and counterterrorism program and senior fellow of the international security program. 

“I always ask people, ‘What was the last terror attack in the United States using an aircraft?’’’ Nelson added. “People say 9/11. No, it wasn’t; it was Joseph Stack in Austin taking his [plane], crashing into the IRS building and killing people. We don’t know what the next face of terrorism is.”

There are, however, some commonalities, he said. Most had adopted a radical form of Islam and embraced the notion that the United States and the West were at war with Islam.

Of course those views are legal, and usually it takes an intermediary getting involved — such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen living in Yemen and orchestrating terrorist activities in the United States — to turn those views into acts of terrorism.

A cleric, al-Awlaki was born and educated in the United States. He has been considered by Muslims to be a religious scholar, and is sought out by Muslims for advice on adapting to Western culture. His turn to terrorism is recent.

“He did slide very quickly down into a more radicalized position,” said James McJunkin, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. McJunkin said not everybody who contacts al-Awlaki is or wants to be a terrorist. “He gives a lot of advice to a lot of people.”

There is a period between the time someone begins to think about terrorism and commits an act — and traditionally law enforcement isn’t involved until a law is broken. “There’s sort of a phase people go through whether they’re deciding they want to rob a bank or shoplift candy, they sort of have a process to bring themselves to a decision,” McJunkin said. “It’s not against the law to go through those decision-making events. That’s the tough part. You may be radicalized but haven’t acted yet.”

There may not always be an intermediary like al-Awlaki or others like him;  numerous things can cause a person to turn to terrorism, McJunkin said. “Whether it’s al-Awlaki, another individual, an Internet website or a group — the influencing factors are broad and diverse,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a combination of things that causes somebody to take up an act of terrorism.”

The link to a foreign intermediary coupled with the difficulty in recognizing someone ready to act in the United States makes it more imperative than ever that the intelligence apparatus work and communicate with domestic law enforcement.

“You have to fuse, like never before, the international intelligence with domestic law enforcement information,” Nelson said. “You simply can’t play the away game and make it separate from the home game, so to speak.”

Infused With Local Culture

The domestic component is a tricky one because it’s not illegal to espouse anti-American rhetoric — and because many would-be terrorists blend in with the locals.

“You have people who’ve been schooled in the United States, speak the United States slang, are familiar with United States culture and don’t stand out as being strange within the community or as someone you want to set up a defense mechanism against,” said Michael Greenberger, director for the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. “It’s not a matter of whether someone is a person of color or Muslim or anything else in terms of what the threat could be.” 

But they may be radicalized or advised by someone outside the U.S. like al-Awlaki, making the connections between foreign intelligence and local law enforcement critical.

The FBI understands intelligence from a national perspective, and federal programs like the Department of Justice’s Suspicious Activity Reporting initiative and the Department of Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign are important because local law enforcement understands its community and what to look for.

“When you look at the threats that have been interdicted, it has been local law enforcement to a large degree,” Nelson said. “The U.S. government has been focused on terrorism overseas, and now we have the potential for it to get nasty here. And they’re working diligently to get their arms around this.”

Nelson warned of the dangers of taking this networking approach to the problem too far. “The one caveat — and this is going to be tricky and challenge us as a nation — is that we don’t want to go too far in the other extreme where we’re collecting information for the sake of collecting information, and we start infringing upon people’s civil liberties and civil rights.”

Greenberger expressed the same reservations. He said he believes that before the decade is out, the country will experience “several episodes,” likely from guns or homemade bombs.

His biggest concern, however, would be an overreaction to such an event.

“It might cause us to go into a state of panic,” Greenberger said. “I fear that people will lose all reason in dealing with this thing, rather than taking it in stride and adapting our resources intelligently.”

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.