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RAND report: Threat of homegrown jihadism exaggerated, Zero civilians in U.S. killed since 9/11

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Some time ago we published an article entitled “All terrorists are Muslims, except the 94% that aren’t“, in which official FBI records were reviewed and it was determined that–contrary to public perception–only 6% of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from 1980 to 2005 were committed by jihadists.

We also linked to a study (via CNN) released by Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that concluded that “the terrorist threat posed by radicalized Muslim-Americans has been exaggerated.”

Now, the RAND Corporation–the incredibly influential nonprofit global policy think tank (financed by the U.S. government)–has released a report that confirms that the threat of jihadist terrorism in the United States  has been heavily exaggerated.  The report documents and analyzes acts of terrorism in the U.S. from 9/11 to the end of 2009.

The otherwise helpful report is only slightly marred by the misuse of the word “jihad”, something which has unfortunately been used synonymously with “terrorism”.  Jihad means “struggle”; the spiritual struggle against one’s ego, for instance, is considered by Muslims to be a type of jihad.  As for armed struggle, Muslim Americans view it as the Islamic equivalent of the “just war theory”.  Terrorism then is considered antithetical to jihad and in fact, a jihad is to be waged against terrorism.  In any case, the oversight on the part of RAND seems unintentional and therefore benign. We have ourselves retained the usage of the word “jihadist” in our own analysis, making a distinction between “jihad” and “jihadist”–using the latter in a purely pejorative manner.

The RAND report includes a time line of all acts of terrorism on U.S. soil committed by jihadists.  Not a single civilian in the U.S. has been killed by jihadists since 9/11.  However, thirteen soldiers and one military-contracted ex-soldier were killed outside a military recruiting site (Little Rock recruiting office shooting) and on a military base (Fort Hood Shooting).

Not only were no civilians killed by jihadists in this period, but only three jihadist acts of terrorism were committed. Jihadism thus accounted for only 3.6% of terrorist attacks.  The RAND report states:

[Of the] 83 terrorist attacks in the United States between 9/11 and the end of 2009, only three…were clearly connected with the jihadist cause.  (The RAND database includes Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas Day attempt to detonate a bomb on an airplane.) The other jihadist plots were interrupted by authorities.

Fifty of the 83 terrorist attacks were committed by environmental extremists and animal rights fanatics, “which account for most of the violence.”  Five civilians were killed by the anthrax letters.

The RAND report includes a number of other interesting findings:

(1) The number of jihadist recruits is “tiny”, and the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans oppose jihadist ideologies.  Therefore, a mistrust of Muslim Americans is unfounded.  The Muslim American community is not a fifth column, and does not seek to do harm to their fellow Americans.  Rather, jihadists remain “lone gunmen” and commit “one-off attacks”, with no community support.  The report reads:

…The number of [Jihadist] recruits is still tiny. There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, and few more than 100 have joined jihad—about one out of every 30,000—suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence. A mistrust of American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced…

The homegrown jihadist threat in America today consists of tiny conspiracies, lone gunmen, and one-off attacks…

There is no evidence that America’s Muslim community is becoming more radical. Overt expressions of Muslim militancy are muted and rare…

That [overseas] jihadist leaders have been reduced to appeals for others to carry out even small-scale attacks in the United States is evidence of an operational decline that America’s homegrown terrorists will not be able to reverse..

That, then, is the threat America faces at home today: tiny conspiracies, lone gunmen, one-off attacks rather than sustained terrorist campaigns (although a lone gunman killing at random could sustain a campaign, as we saw in the case of the Beltway sniper attacks in 2002).

(2) Jihadist websites, not the mosque, were the main source of radicalization. The report reads:

Many of the jihadist recruits in the United States began their journey on the Internet, where they could readily find resonance and reinforcement of their own discontents and people who would legitimate and direct their anger.

This confirms what is already well known amongst Muslim American circles, namely that mosques in the U.S. are a poor place to search for jihadists.  Mosques and the mainstream Islamic organizations that run them are seen by jihadists to be “sell-outs”, “traitors”, “puppets”, “stooges”, “house slaves”, and “Uncle Toms”.  In turn, mosque management in general shuns jihadists, forcing the latter to “go underground”, usually seeking like-minded people on the internet.  Monitoring militant websites is necessary, whereas excessive spying on mosques will be less fruitful and even detrimental.

(3) Many homegrown jihadists are not observant Muslims, but criminally inclined.  They are often attracted to jihadist ideologies due to the sense of adventure and thrill rather than religion or spirituality.  The RAND report declares:

Some of the recruits gained experience on the streets. At least 23 have criminal records—some of them very long records—for charges including aggravated assault, armed robbery, and drug dealing…Some were naïve, some were adventurers, some were misguided…The jobs they held and the criminal records of some suggest that many are high school dropouts (or immigrants in entry-level jobs). But at least 16 are known to have had some university training in subjects including computer sciences, engineering, pharmacology, and medicine, and at least four had graduate training.

(4) A glance at RAND’s list of terrorist acts indicates that a disproportionately large number of jihadists are converts to Islam.  If we combine points (2) and (3) above, we may conclude that many are criminally inclined and convert to Jihadist Islam as a means to fulfill their sense of adventure; they have very little if any interaction with the mainstream Muslim community or local mosques, but instead seek out jihadist websites which radicalize them further.  This voluntary isolation and involuntary exclusion from the main body makes it harder for the Muslim community to control or root the jihadists out, as the jihadists are–and remain–somewhat exogenous to the community and operate independently from it.

(5) Many of the jihadists had intention to harm but were arrested before they could actually act on it; convictions were based on intent, not action.  They were “ready to be terrorists” but had not yet committed terrorism.  Notwithstanding heavy-handed policing tactics that may be unconstitutional, this finding indicates that the U.S. authorities are keeping us safe, and as such we ought not live in mortal fear of jihadism. The report says:

A good percentage of those arrested could be described as having the experience and skills that would make them dangerous. But what is most at issue here are intentions, not ability. The 46 cases demonstrate earnest intent. The individuals were ready to be terrorists. Their ideological commitment was manifest…They came into contact with U.S. authorities when they tried to act on their beliefs. They had, in the words of one prosecutor, “jihadi hearts and jihadi minds,” and juries convicted them on their intent…

Most of the plots could be described as more aspirational than operational…[often] fantastic schemes…

(6) The need to prevent terrorism before it occurs promotes overly aggressive prosecution that may lead to people being convicted for “thought crimes”.  The report cautions:

That puts the American justice system perilously close to prosecuting people solely on the basis of what is in their hearts and on their minds. It is slippery terrain and not a domain where one ought to feel comfortable.

Furthermore, the authorities may be guilty of using entrapment, inducing radicalized Muslims to commit offenses which they would otherwise have been unlikely to commit.  Confidential informants can become agent provocateurs.  Some Muslim American leaders feel that efforts should be made to de-radicalize brainwashed youngsters instead of entrapping them.  The report warns:

Often, police intelligence depends on the use of confidential informants, which may be the only way to break into a conspiracy. There are, however, possible abuses in the employment of confidential informants, especially given the very broad interpretation of providing material assistance to a terrorist group and the difficulty of determining intent, particularly since one of the characteristics of many terrorist perpetrators is their malleability. Confidential informants are often determined to prove their value to their police handlers, whether the currency is cash or avoiding trouble relating to other criminal charges. Informants are also likely, of necessity, to display undiluted zeal in order to gain credibility among jihadist zealots. Thus, the informants can easily become agents provocateurs, subtly coaxing radicalized but hesitant individuals into action. Even without providing overt encouragement, the informant often plays the role of an enabler, offering people with extreme views but faint hearts the means to act, thereby potentially facilitating actions that otherwise might not occur.

Despite the fact that actual acts of jihadist terrorism remain relatively low, a disproportionately higher number of Muslims are convicted on charges of terrorism.  Objective observers have argued that many of the defendants have been railroaded by the justice system, due to a variety of reasons.  This overly aggressive prosecution has caused feelings of distrust in the Muslim American community.  The report reads:

Not everyone agrees that justice has been done in all cases [prosecuted]. Professional intelligence and law enforcement officials themselves wonder how far they can reach without repeating past excesses. Objective observers remain skeptical of the charges in several of the cases. Juries comprising frightened citizens do not always reach unbiased verdicts. National consensus is fragile. Risks must be carefully weighed…

Some of the recent arrests have been heavily criticized as reflections of post-9/11 paranoia, Islamophobia, and national hysteria.

(7) The report declares that “the 1970s saw greater terrorist violence” than nowadays, yet most Americans today perceive terrorism to be a radically new and emergent existential threat.  It is the perception of terrorism, not terrorism itself, that is greater than previous decades.  The report finds:

While radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism are cause for continuing concern, the current threat must be kept in perspective. The volume of domestic terrorist activity was much greater in the 1970s than it is today. That decade saw 60 to 70 terrorist incidents, most of them bombings, on U.S. soil every year—a level of terrorist activity 15 to 20 times that seen in most of the years since 9/11, even counting foiled plots as incidents. And in the nine year period from 1970 to 1978, 72 people died in terrorist incidents, more than five times the number killed by jihadist terrorists in the United States in the almost nine years since 9/11…

In the 1970s, terrorists, on behalf of a variety of causes, hijacked airliners; held hostages in Washington, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco; bombed embassies, corporate headquarters, and government buildings; robbed banks; murdered diplomats; and blew up power transformers, causing widespread blackouts. These were not one-off attacks but sustained campaigns by terrorist gangs that were able to avoid capture for years. The Weather Underground was responsible for 45 bombings between 1970 and 1977, the date of its last action, while the New World Liberation Front claimed responsibility for approximately 70 bombings in the San Francisco Bay area between 1974 and 1978 and was believed to be responsible for another 26 bombings in other Northern California cities. Anti-Castro Cuban exile groups claimed responsibility for nearly 100 bombings. Continuing an armed campaign that dated back to the 1930s, Puerto Rican separatists, reorganized in 1974 as the Armed Front for National Liberation (FALN), claimed credit for more than 60 bombings. The Jewish Defense League and similar groups protesting the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union claimed responsibility for more than 50 bombings during the decade. Croatian and Serbian émigrés also carried out sporadic terrorist attacks in the United States, as did remnants of the Ku Klux Klan.

Some of these groups clearly benefited from the support of radicalized subcultures or sympathetic ethnic communities, which made suppression difficult.

(8) Jihadists have failed to launch a sustained campaign in the United States.  Al-Qaeda has not succeeded in sabotaging American life.  One of the reasons for this is the Muslim American community, which has opposed the jihadist ideology.  Without sympathetic ethnic support, the jihadists have not been able to sustain themselves.  The report reads:

While radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism remain cause for continuing concern, the current threat must be kept in perspective. What has not occurred is just as significant as what has occurred: Thus far, there has been no sustained jihadist terrorist campaign in the United States. There are many possible reasons: Al Qaeda simply lacked the assets to carry out terrorist operations. The local Muslim community rejected al Qaeda’s appeals and actively intervened to dissuade those with radical tendencies from violence. Domestic intelligence efforts were expanded and improved and thus far have succeeded in thwarting all but two actual attacks. Surveillance of radical venues, real or imagined, plus actual arrests contributed to a deterrent effect. Guns are readily available, but the ingredients of explosives became harder to obtain and were more closely monitored. Security visibly improved. While constant government admonitions early in the decade to remain vigilant seemed silly afterthoughts to dire warnings of imminent attack, citizens became more watchful and reported suspicious activity, which in at least a few of the cases yielded real results, adding further to a deterrent effect…

(9) The heightened sense of fear of terrorism today as compared to the 1970′s can be attributed to 9/11, an event which remains an outlier but distorts perspective.  The report reads:

The scale of the September 11, 2001, attacks tended to obliterate America’s memory of pre-9/11 terrorism, yet measured by the number of terrorist attacks, the volume of domestic terrorist activity was much greater in the 1970s. That tumultuous decade saw 60 to 70 terrorist incidents, mostly bombings, on U.S. soil every year—a level of terrorist activity 15 to 20 times that seen in the years since 9/11, even when foiled plots are counted as incidents. And in the nine-year period from 1970 to 1978, 72 people died in terrorist incidents, more than five times the number killed by jihadist terrorists in the United States in the almost nine years since 9/11.

Since 9/11, no American civilians have been killed by jihadist terrorism.  And if we exclude 9/11, only nine people were ever killed in the U.S. from jihadist terrorism over the course of a decade and a half (from 1990 to 2005).

(10) Americans have ceded their civil liberties to the government due to the misplaced fear of terrorism.  The first group affected by these heavy-handed laws are Muslim Americans, which hampers anti-terrorism efforts by alienating the very community whose cooperation is so necessary.  The report declares:

In response, the country has conceded to the authorities broader powers to prevent terrorism. However, one danger of this response is that revelations of abuse or of heavy-handed tactics could easily discredit intelligence operations, provoke public anger, and erode the most effective barrier of all to radicalization: the cooperation of the community.

We argue that the loss of civil liberties and rise in xenophobia have a more significant and longer lasting effect than acts of terrorism.

(11) The report notes that the first line of defense to prevent terrorism are the relatives and close friends of the newly radicalized jihadist.  Therefore, it is imperative to maintain the trust of the Muslim American community, and not commit similar errors as some police officers did with the African American community in inner cities.  The report reads:

Relatives and friends are often more likely than the authorities to know when someone is turning dangerously radical and heading toward self-destruction…Maintaining positive police relations with all members of the community [is essential] without stigmatizing any group… The continued trust and cooperation of the Muslim community, tips to police from the family members and close acquaintances of those heading toward violence, alert citizens, and focused intelligence-collection efforts will remain essential components of the thus-far successful containment of domestic jihadist terrorism.

It is for this reason that we argue that racial profiling is the wrong way to go, as it will create animosity between authority figures and Muslim Americans.  (Not to speak of the un-American nature of the tactic.)

(12)  Totally eradicating terrorism is an unrealistic goal.  Terrorism is, and always has been, one of the day-to-day risks of living in the real world.  However, this risk must be put into perspective.  Over sixty times as many Americans die of peanut allergies per year than from acts of terrorism.  An American is 250 times more likely to be struck by lightning than be killed by terrorism. As for the threat of jihadist terrorism in specific, not a single civilian in the U.S. has been killed since 9/11.

The exaggerated fear of terrorism only empowers terrorists, giving them the feeling that they are far more effective than they really are. The Times Square bombing is case in point: it was an amateurish plot that failed miserably, but it managed to succeed in evoking national hysteria.

A calm public reaction is “an essential component of homeland defense.”  The report reads (emphasis is ours):

But prevention will not always work. More attempts will occur, and there will, on occasion, be bloodshed. In addition to traditional law enforcement, police intelligence collection, and community policing, public reaction is an essential component of homeland defense. Needless alarm, exaggerated portrayals of the terrorist threat, unrealistic expectations of a risk-free society, and unreasonable demands for absolute protection will only encourage terrorists’ ambitions to make America fibrillate in fear and bankrupt itself with security…

Bin Laden would not have publicly attached himself to Abdulmutallab’s failed bombing attempt unless he was persuaded that the young Nigerian had caused national upset—a tactical failure but a strategic success. As long as America’s psychological vulnerability is on display, jihadists will find inspiration in the actions of individuals like Nidal Hasan and Umar Abdulmutallab. And more recruitment and terrorism will occur. Panic is the wrong message to send America’s terrorist foes.

Anti-Islam ideologues fan the flames of “national hysteria”, and try to further exaggerate the threat of jihadism in order to turn the majoritarian group against an increasingly beleaguered Muslim American community.  This generated Islamophobia serves the interests of Bin Ladin and co., who seek to radicalize Muslim Americans in order for them to wage war against their fellow countrymen.  Discrimination against Muslims helps facilitate radicalism, and thus benefits jihadists.  Islamophobia gives credence to the jihadist narrative, which revolves around Western injustice against the Muslim people.  Beyond purely tactical considerations, bigotry is simply un-American and corrodes our society more than terrorism ever could.

RAND’s Official Summary

We have reproduced RAND’s official summary below:

Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001

Between September 11, 2001, and the end of 2009, a total of 46 cases of domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism were reported in the United States. In some of the cases, individuals living in the United States plotted to carry out terrorist attacks at home; some were accused of “providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations”; and some left the United States to join jihadist organizations abroad. All these individuals can be called “homegrown terrorists.”

Forty-six cases of radicalization in a period of little more than eight years may seem significant, but in each case, an average of only three people were accused—and half of the cases, including some of the fully formulated plots to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States, involved only a single individual. Only 125 persons were identified in the 46 cases. Although the numbers are small, the 13
cases in 2009 did indicate a marked increase in radicalization leading to criminal activity, up from an average of about four cases a year from 2002 to 2008. In 2009, there was also a marked increase in the number of individuals involved. Only 81 of the 125 persons identified were indicted for jihadist-related crimes between 2002 and 2008; in 2009 alone, 42 individuals were indicted. The remaining two individuals were indicted in January 2010 in connection with a plot uncovered in 2009.

Who Are the Recruits?

Most of America’s homegrown terrorists are U.S. citizens. Information on national origin or ethnicity is available for 109 of the identified homegrown terrorists. The Arab and South Asian immigrant communities are statistically overrepresented in this small sample, but the number of recruits is still tiny. There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, and few more than 100 have joined jihad—about one out of every 30,000—suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence. A mistrust of American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced.

Many of the jihadist recruits in the United States began their journey on the Internet, where they could readily find resonance and reinforcement of their own discontents and people who would legitimate and direct their anger. Some of the recruits gained experience on the streets. At least 23 have criminal records—some of them very long records—for charges including aggravated assault, armed robbery, and drug dealing. A good percentage of those arrested could be described as having the experience and skills that would make them dangerous. But what is most at issue here are intentions, not ability. The 46 cases demonstrate earnest intent. The individuals were ready to be terrorists. Their ideological commitment was manifest. Some were naïve, some were adventurers, some were misguided. But many were no doubt sincere in their anger and determination, having made the ideological leap to armed jihad. They came into contact with U.S. authorities when they tried to act on their beliefs. They had, in the words of one prosecutor, “jihadi hearts and jihadi minds,” and juries convicted them on their intent.

The 1970s Saw Greater Terrorist Violence

While radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism are cause for continuing concern, the current threat must be kept in perspective. The volume of domestic terrorist activity was much greater in the 1970s than it is today. That decade saw 60 to 70 terrorist incidents, most of them bombings, on U.S. soil every year—a level of terrorist activity 15 to 20 times that seen in most of the years since 9/11, even counting foiled plots as incidents. And in the nine year period from 1970 to 1978, 72 people died in terrorist incidents, more than five times the number killed by jihadist terrorists in the United States in the almost nine years since 9/11.

America’s perception of the terrorist threat today differs greatly from what it was 35 years ago. It is not the little bombs of the 1970s but fear of another event on the scale of 9/11 or of scenarios involving terrorist use of biological or nuclear weapons that drives current concerns.

In response, the country has conceded to the authorities broader powers to prevent terrorism. However, one danger of this response is that revelations of abuse or of heavy-handed tactics could easily discredit intelligence operations, provoke public anger, and erode the most effective barrier of all to radicalization: the cooperation of the community.

Are We Doing This Right?

Traditional law enforcement, in which authorities attempt to identify and apprehend a perpetrator after a crime has been committed, is inadequate to deal with terrorists who are determined to cause many deaths and great destruction and who may not care whether they themselves survive. Public safety demands a more preventive approach—intervention before an attack occurs.

As long as radicalization and recruitment to terrorism remain a reality, domestic intelligence collection,
always a delicate mission in a democracy, will remain a necessary activity. Under appropriate controls, intelligence operations can disrupt terrorist recruiting, uncover terrorist plots, and discourage those who would turn to violence.

And by preventing dramatic terrorist actions that inevitably create fear and alarm, intelligence operations can also prevent overreactions by the general public, allay unwarranted suspicions, and thereby protect vulnerable minorities (in this case, the American Muslim community) against official discrimination and even individual acts of revenge.

Meanwhile, expanded efforts must be made through community policing and other means to work with members of the Muslim community. These efforts must entail working with the community actively and consistently to address issues of crime, fears of crime, the suspicions of authorities, and other community concerns. Relatives and friends are often more likely than the authorities to know when someone is turning dangerously radical and heading toward self-destruction. On occasion, relatives and friends have intervened. But will they trust the authorities enough to notify them when persuasion does not work? Citizen involvement is essential, but so is maintaining positive police relations with all members of the community without stigmatizing any group or privileging special interests.

Recruitment Will Continue

The homegrown jihadist threat in America today consists of tiny conspiracies, lone gunmen, and one-off attacks. The continued trust and cooperation of the Muslim community, tips to police from the family members and close acquaintances of those heading toward violence, alert citizens, and focused intelligence-collection efforts will remain essential components of the thus-far successful containment of domestic jihadist terrorism.

But prevention will not always work. More attempts will occur, and there will, on occasion, be bloodshed. In addition to traditional law enforcement, police intelligence collection, and community policing, public reaction is an essential component of homeland defense. Needless alarm, exaggerated portrayals of the terrorist threat, unrealistic expectations of a risk-free society, and unreasonable demands for absolute protection will only encourage terrorists’ ambitions to make America fibrillate in fear and bankrupt itself with security. As long as America’s psychological vulnerability is on display, jihadists will find inspiration, and more recruitment and terrorism will occur. Panic is the wrong message to send America’s terrorist foes.

Related Posts:

All Terrorists are Muslims…Except the 94% that Aren’t

Europol Report: All Terrorists are Muslims…Except the 99.6% that Aren’t

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