Extremism Assessment Series: Homegrown Islamist Extremism in the US

Summary of Extremist Assessment

  • There is no set profile of a homegrown violent extremist; can be any ethnicity and can come from any socioeconomic background
  • The need to belong, political grievances, and sense of purpose are other common factors in an individual’s radicalization
  • Individuals are often radicalized through the internet/social media or through family and friends
  • Attacks are typically aimed at political figures and monuments and are not often organized
  • Although individuals may be sympathetic to terrorist ideologies, they may not have formal ties to the organization

Brief summary of their narrative 

Homegrown Islamist extremists follow the same narrative as established Islamist terrorist organizations, such as ISIL and al-Qaeda. They are mainly motivated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, aiming to not only spread Islamist beliefs and establish the caliphate, but also to bring down oppressive powers such as the US as well as all “disbelievers”. Rather than travel abroad to fight with a foreign terrorist organization, they stay in their homeland and plan attacks. They use violence in order to achieve their political goals. Islamists believe Islam is the only basis for the legal and political system. They are opposed to liberal democracy and are oftentimes radicalized online and through social media.

Brief History of the ideology or group in the United States

Prior to 9/11, Islamist extremism within the US was not a primary concern. After the 9/11 attacks, the US government re-directed its security focus to counter future attacks and also declared a War on Terrorism in the Middle East. This War on Terror created a divide not only between the US and the Middle East, but also within the US with Muslim communities becoming more and more marginalized. Politicians openly spoke about the possibility of other Muslim-Americans becoming radicalized and conducting attacks on US soil. The resulting bigotry and hate rhetoric aimed at Muslims in the US produced a volatile community. This led to even more discontent and frustration among Muslim-Americans, with some individuals turning towards extremist propaganda to air their political grievances, find a sense of belonging, or a sense of purpose. More recently, homegrown Islamist extremism has been overshadowed by the threat of right-wing terrorism, although the HVE threat still lingers.

Current State of Islamist Extremism in the United States

Homegrown violent extremists that are sympathetic to the Islamic State are constantly attempting attacks here in the US. Most of these attacks have been foiled by security officials, much like Rondell Henry’s suicide-plot to drive a U-Haul van into a crowd of people on a Maryland waterfront, attempting to kill as many “disbelievers” as possible. Law enforcement officials were able to stop Henry before he could pull of his attack. Henry explained that he had been admiring ISIL’s work for 2 full years and was inspired by the van attack in Nice, France.

Over the past 5 years, law enforcement has foiled nearly 58% of attempted attacks by homegrown violent extremists sympathetic to the Islamic State. These homegrown extremists have been encouraged by the Islamic State to conduct attacks on their own within their homeland. This has been a strategic way for ISIL to pull off attacks in the West without any risk financially or structurally. Homegrown extremists are able to conduct attacks with little to no training and are not as organized as attacks conducted by terrorist cells or networks. It is the lack of intense planning/organization of these attacks that make them more difficult to uncover and prevent.

In the US today, homegrown Islamist terrorism has seemingly fallen behind right-wing terrorism in terms of immediate security threats. Although right-wing terrorist attacks have increased in frequency, the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism still lingers. The successes of local law enforcement and intelligence agencies have caused people to assume that the threat has diminished, even though individuals are found attempting to support ISIL every day.

Where are they prominently operating? 

Homegrown violent extremists operate without borders. Attacks have been carried out all over the world, some by individuals who have been described as “normal” prior to their radicalization. These individuals were radicalized either online or through personal connections and were inspired to act within their home countries. These attacks have taken place in the US and Europe, with several attacks leaving individuals severely injured or dead. The advantage of homegrown violent extremists is that they can attack anywhere at any time and are not restricted in where they operate.

A recent United Nations report stated that ISIL is planning to exacerbate existing political divisions in Western European nations. ISIL will most likely utilize homegrown extremists and foreign fighters for these attacks, carrying out reconnaissance and encouraging homegrown extremists to conduct their own operations in order to inflame discontent within the region.

What are their primary recruitment methods 

The primary recruitment methods of homegrown Islamist extremists include the use of social media to spread their radical ideology and the scoping out of sympathizers. Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS release speeches online calling on all Muslims to join together and rid the world of disbelievers. Individuals that sympathize with these extremist ideologies are often initially exposed to this propaganda through social media. They interact with like-minded individuals through encrypted applications and are able to use training manuals from terrorist organizations to aid in their operations

ISIL also uses virtual planners who plan attacks online through encrypted apps, provide technical expertise, and assist with picking a target. These virtual planners utilize homegrown extremists to carry out their attacks abroad, minimizing the resources spent by the terrorist organization and also minimizing risk. Foreign fighters have also played a large role in the recruitment of homegrown violent extremists, often times through recruiting HVEs for specific attacks or through spreading extremist propaganda.

The recruitment of homegrown violent extremists by ISIL allows them to operate externally, even while they are losing territory in Syria and Iraq. Although a large number of external ISIL attacks against the West have been executed abroad, only 36% have been executed by individuals that had no formal ties to the terrorist organization.

Image Source: The open source image of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Trump Called Off Negotiations with Taliban: What’s Next?

Ahmad Mohibi’s news analysis on Afghanistan’s TOLOnews in regards to the 9/11 anniversary that marks the 18 years of US war in Afghanistan. 


Since talks have been deemed ‘dead’, it is a better option for the US to take a more active stance on their South East Strategy of 2017 to counter state-sponsored terror and increase pressure on countries, such as Pakistan, who actively harbor the Taliban.

September 11, 2019, marked 18 years since the 9/11 attack — a tragic day in the history of the United States. It also marked the beginning of the US’s longest war in Afghanistan. It is a wake-up call for the western world to pay deeper attention to the rise of terrorism around the world and learn from past conflicts, as the US did in the 1990s in Afghanistan — leaving allies ally while terrorism retaliates and attack. 

The United States has not been entirely successful in its counter-insurgency operations over the past 18 years. However, progress has been made. An example would be the weakening of Al-Qaeda — a group that had the ability to reach New York and plan deadly attacks. Today, their ability to carry out such an attack has been massively hindered. On the negative side, ISIL has emerged and the Taliban has become stronger than at any point since their removal from power in 2001. Thus, we see some success but at the same time, multiple failures. 

Public opinion differs in both Washington and Kabul. In the United States, conservatives, such as Senator Lindsay Graham, are against troop withdrawal and are more in favor of hitting the enemy militarily, while liberals and the majority of Americans have grown tired of a long war in Afghanistan. Everyone is clear: they want an end to this war, but differ on how to bring about that end. So far $ 2.8 trillion USD has been spent, many lives lost and energy expended — it is hard to judge whether the US Global War on Terror was a success or a failure, so let numbers and statistics speak on the matter. 

The former head of the Afghan National Security Directorate (NDS), Masoom Stanekzai has said recently that one of the reasons that the US has failed in the war against terrorism is regional barriers. 

The Afghan case is sensitive, complex and hard, but it does have similarities to Vietnam. President Richard Nixon’s “Peace with Honor” failed due to US domestic politics, the Watergate scandal, the ongoing Cold War with the Soviets, and mass Chinese support for the communist Vietnamese. The same situation unfolded in Afghanistan.

The Afghan war is not only a religious and ethnic conflict but also a proxy war with many foreign actors. It may appear that the Taliban want to bring an Islamic Emirate and defeat western democracies, but it is more complex than that. Intra-Afghan tribal differences, US economic rivalries with China and political rivalries with Russia, as well as interference from Pakistan and Iran, have all influenced conflict in the region. 

There is no doubt that the United States proudly commands the world’s strongest economy and military. During the 9/11 memorial, President Trump said

We had peace talks scheduled a few days ago. I called them off when I learned that they had killed a great American soldier from Puerto Rico and 11 other innocent people. They thought they would use this attack to show strength but actually what they actually showed us is un-reluctant weakness. The last four days we had hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before and that will continue.

He further emphasized that he will not use nuclear weapons to show American strength, but that the strength will come from the US soldiers. 

The Afghan war is complex and the US has not been as successful in counterinsurgency operations as they had hoped, but if we look at the achievements of the past 18 years, it is satisfying. After the Taliban was toppled, from 2004 – 2005 Afghanistan was relatively peaceful, the Taliban appeared to have been defeated, but they went to Pakistan where they regrouped and came stronger. Now they claim to control over 70% territory in Afghanistan. 

Since talks have been deemed ‘dead’, it is a better option for the US to take a more active stance on their South East Strategy of 2017 to counter state-sponsored terror and increase pressure on countries, such as Pakistan, who actively harbor the Taliban. It is vital that Kabul receives military aid in the form of aircraft and advanced intelligence to combat the Taliban. 

At the same time, the US needs to increase efforts to impede Taliban financing. This includes a comprehensive strategy that includes the use of the financial and banking system levers.

Going forward, the United States will need to focus on the implementation of this strategy while creating better counter-insurgency operation strategies in coordination with the Afghan forces and the Afghan government. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Political and economic pressure on Pakistan
  • Capacity building of the Afghan government
  • Fight corruption 
  • Intelligence information sharing
  • Provide vital equipment and training to the Afghan National Security Forces  

These are important steps the US can take going forward to see progress. This way, President Trump can see the achievements he promised in his presidential campaign and bring the soldiers home.

As we are speaking, the agenda for peace in Afghanistan is lost, said Ahmad Mohibi to TOLOnews. Whilst at an event recently, when commenting on the Afghan peace process, a former State Department official smiled and said, “What peace?… Isn’t it dead?”

President Trump is serious about national security. We have seen three National Security Advisors resign or been fired since he took over the current administration. Elections are near; both in Afghanistan and the United States. President Trump wants to show achievements, however, to avoid making Nixon’s mistake, he needs to tread carefully in Afghanistan. Following the recommendations above, he may achieve what Nixon couldn’t — make peace and bring the troops home.

The United States should not consider an immediate troop withdrawal to avoid making the same mistake as Vietnam. As Senator Lindsay Graham emphasized, “If America completely pulls out of Afghanistan, I fear the Security Forces will fracture along regional lines, creating growth opportunities for Al Qaeda and ISIS.”

In conclusion, the US should avoid a troop withdrawal and direct more pressure on regional actors, mainly Pakistan, to stop harboring and financing terrorism in Afghanistan. The US needs to support a transparent election in Afghanistan and ensure the government is chosen by the people. Ideally, the US cancellation of peace talks will be a ‘slap in the face’ for the Taliban so that they may learn from their mistakes, and be open to peaceful negotiations in the future.

The military option has not been as successful as the US hoped over the past 18 years and will only work if the Taliban’s financing is cut on a macro level, which includes pressuring state sponsors. This way, there is a possibility of peace in Afghanistan. We must stress, however, it will not happen overnight. It will require generations of Afghans to work hard and build their nation back up again.

Ahmad Mohibi on TOLOnews


Ahmad Mohibi, a writer and is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

US-Taliban Peace Talks: So Close, Yet So Far

The United States slowly inched toward a peace deal with the Taliban since talks in Doha, Qatar began some months back. There is a strong desire in Washington to pull its troops out of Afghanistan since the 2001 intervention turned into the longest war in US history. Peace talks between the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban reached what seemed to be an agreement. Such a deal was contingent upon the Afghan government and this added factor makes the process more difficult.

The Afghan government was critical of any possible resolution because they feared loss of political power and held concerns over national security. They consider it unwise to relinquish any sort of political influence to the Taliban, an easily identifiable enemy of the state for many years.

The proposed agreement consisted of four main parts. First, a timeline of US troop withdrawal. Second, the upcoming presidential elections were to be secured so that they are free and fair. Thirdly, the Taliban were to be incorporated into the mainstream government. Lastly, an overall cease-fire between the US, Afghanistan, and Taliban forces. Simply put, the key factor throughout is that US would leave at the same time that the Taliban promised to become a peaceful and cooperative actor within the Afghan political system.

This would have been beneficial for the US because they would be finally relieved from military deployment to the region. Washington had a primary goal of pulling out 5,000 troops within 135 days, where there are currently 14,000 troops stationed. Further, the agreement was advantageous to the Taliban because they would finally be considered a legitimate political group.

The Afghan government had its reservations with the proposed US-Taliban deal because they believe the country would become unstable without the US military presence and they remained skeptical that the Taliban would uphold their end. This is a reasonable assumption as the Taliban is considered an enemy that has terrorized civilians with terrorist attacks, such as mass shootings, bombings, and kidnappings for years. The government is entitled to this viewpoint as it makes little sense to place trust in a group that has tried to destroy the political system of the country.

Terror attacks in recent days support the Afghan government’s hesitation towards giving the Taliban additional political power. Bombings left 10 civilians and 2 NATO service members dead. Nevertheless, Khalilzad stated that the US will not just merely withdraw, but seek “a peace agreement that enables withdrawal.” He was optimistic about the US-Taliban talks, where he viewed both sides getting what they wanted.

On September 7, President Trump canceled a Camp David secret meeting with Taliban and Middle Eastern leaders. He called off the summit due to the recent Taliban attack that killed a US soldier and others. Since the 2016 campaign, Trump has been a supporter of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and as president, he took steps to finally complete the task. It seems all has been lost on the mission now.

Dealing with any terrorist group can be problematic because they do not play by international rules like nation-states.  In this example, the Taliban expressed that they are ready for peace and then committed an attack that killed a dozen people the next day. In this sense, Trump was justified to cancel the contested meetings because the Taliban demonstrated they are not a peaceful actor.

Trump has said that Taliban negotiations are now “dead.” This could prolong the 18 year war; already the longest war in US history. The president has been critiqued for being hawkish at times insofar as his decisions often align with National Security Advisor John Bolton. In recent weeks, the media speculated that Bolton has been distanced from the Oval Office because his hawkish perceptions of foreign policy are more severe than both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Only the future will reveal if Afghanistan can finally achieve peace.

Image Credit: Associated Press. Photographer Alex Brandon. Shutterstock.

proudboys

Extremism Assessment Series: The Proud Boys

  • The Proud Boys participate in semi-organized violence, typically associated with political protests
  • The group has been directly and indirectly linked to several other alt-right, neo-Nazi, and white nationalist groups
  • As the 2020 election cycle ramps up, anticipate further street-level violence in furtherance of fringe political groups, including The Proud Boys

 

Summary of Extremist Narrative

The Proud Boys are a western chauvinist group that believes that white males are being unfairly targeted in an age of political correctness. The group is openly anti-Islamic, stating that western society and the values of Islam are incompatible. Members of the group speak out against what they call a society based around political correctness. While the group states that any male, regardless of race or sexual orientation can join, their apparent participation alongside far-right, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups at political protests leads to questions as to how genuine such a rule is. Fighting is considered a normal life occurrence for a Proud Boy. Going back to their anti-political correctness rhetoric, The Proud Boys believe that fighting is a necessary activity in which males should engage to avoid becoming less of a man. The group has declared on their website that they are anti-Drug War, Pro-Free Speech, Pro-Gun Rights, and even anti-Racist.

History of The Proud Boys

The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes. The group originally formed during the political turmoil surrounding the 2016 presidential election and was viewed by some on the right as a conservative response to far-left organizations such as ANTIFA. Regardless of exactly how the idea to form the group had come to fruition, The Proud Boys have been engaged in violent political protests across the United States since the 2016 election cycle.

According to the rules and regulations of the group, any man – regardless of race or sexual orientation – can become a member, as long as they do not view the while male as the problem for the issues of modern society. The group believes that women should return to more traditional roles within society, bringing about claims that the group is misogynistic. There does exist a Proud Boys’ Girls, but this is a secondary organization that falls below the male section of the group.

While the group has often shown support for Republican political figures, the group believes in more libertarian ideals. As the group identifies a western chauvinist movement, it views itself inherently at odds with Islam and its leaders have openly expressed criticism of the faith since the groups’ inception.

The Proud Boys have been willing participants in violence at a number of prominent and controversial sites across the United States from Charlottesville to Portland. These sites have observed extremist violence, with The Proud Boys contributing to the chaos.

Current State of The Proud Boys

The group has been ripe with controversy, often related to alt-right members and their association with alt-right groups, neo-Nazi groups, and white nationalist groups. Despite their attempt to label themselves along libertarian political ideals, the group is often now associated with neo-Fascism. This has created a bit of an identity crisis amongst less hardened members and will likely impact their ability to draw followers to protests in the next election cycle.

Social media metrics of the group online represent a significant online following. At the end of 2017, the Facebook and Twitter pages for the group both had over 20,000 followers. It is important to note that this does not necessarily represent figures who actually engage in political protests, nor those who may or may not carry out an act of violence in furtherance of the group.

The Proud Boys have often rejected claims that they are ‘extremist’ in nature, despite their participation in violence during political protests. Some reports have indicated that the FBI is considering the organization as an extremist group, one that has direct ties to white nationalism. In its current state, The Proud Boys are relatively organized, with an apparent organizational structure and chapters. Those members who travel to protests likely represent small cells within the overall organization that have their own hierarchy.

Prominent Sites of Operation

As a national organization, The Proud Boys can be found anywhere a large political protest is anticipated. From major cities to college campuses, physical altercations between The Proud Boys, far-right groups, far-left groups, and ANTIFA will remain commonplace throughout the 2020 election cycle.

Recruitment Methods

 There are several steps to joining the Proud Boys. As a first degree member, a would be Proud Boy must declare “I am a western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world”. This is usually via video on a social media account linked to The Proud Boys. The second degree entails the individual enduring a physical beating until they are can state the name of five breakfast cereals. An odd initiation that is similar to the ‘jumping in’ phase of joining many street gangs. The third degree can only be completed after the individual completes the first two, and has demonstrated their commitment to the group. The third and final degree is completed with a Proud Boys Tattoo.

The recruitment methods employed by The Proud Boys are not limited to a specific area, however have been known to recruit individuals that are in areas of ongoing protests, such as the Pacific Northwest.

Image Credit: Proud Boys logo as found on their website.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Extremism Assessment Series: Sovereign Citizens Movement

  • The sovereign citizen movement is often disorganized, but organized groups do exist.
  • The spread of this extremist ideology typically exists and is spread on online platforms.
  • While not all followers of the movement are violent, such ideology has led to the murder of law enforcement officers and terroristic threats against government employees.


Summary of Extremist Narrative 

The sovereign citizen movement is based on an assembly of various conspiracy theories, many of which stem from the 14th Amendment and conspiratorial interpretations of it. The 14th Amendment states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside”. Followers of the sovereign citizen movement view this statement as creating two distinct classes of individuals amongst the population residing in the geographic United States. These two classes, de Jure (or rightful citizens) and 14th Amendment citizens, separate sovereign citizens from those who are considered citizens of the federal United States. Because followers of the movement believe that the amendment created two separate classes of citizens, one being superior to the other, they believe that the government has failed to properly represent the republic of the United States, making it an illegitimate government. Any laws or attempts to enforce such laws by such an illegitimate government are then viewed as illegitimate by followers.

Followers of the movement do not believe that they have to follow the laws of the United States, often citing ‘common law’, which has little to no definition and is often based on aspects of biblical and constitutional rulings. As laws after the 14th Amendment are viewed as completely fraudulent in the movement, the followers often cite that the 16th Amendment, which allowed for a federal income tax, need not be followed.

History of the Movement

There is no exact doctrine in which sovereign citizens base their beliefs. Nor is there a sovereign citizen group which believes in the exact same ideology as other groups. Several sub-sects exist within the movement, as will be discussed.

Much of the ideology has spread via conspiratorial books, and more recently amongst online blogs and manifestos. Many followers of the movement will consume numerous of these narrative platforms and pick and choose segments to fit their perceived needs best.

The last two decades have also saw a rise in African Americans who have begun to follow certain sub-sects of the sovereign citizen movement. Many African Americans who follow such ideologies follow a distinct movement often referred to as “Moors” or “Moorish”. These individuals believe that their independence comes from obscure treaties signed by the United States in the 1700s.

Because of the conspiratorial belief that laws of the United States are illegit and that they as sovereign citizens do not need to obey them, followers often become engaged in situations with local or state law enforcement. Sovereign citizens are known to make their own driver’s license, vehicle tags, and other common forms of physical identification, further leading to increased law enforcement interaction. While some of these cases end when less hardened believers of the movement realize that they do in fact need to obey the laws of the United States, others have ended in fatal attacks on law enforcement.

Current state of the movement 

While there are some collective sovereign organizations, the overall movement his highly disorganized and made up of many individuals who physically practice their specific beliefs on their own. In certain areas, organized or semi-organized sovereign citizen groups have been linked to white nationalist organizations. The FBI has stated that amongst the criminal activities that followers of the sovereign citizen movement are murder, assault, battery, terroristic threats, and a wide variety of financial crimes. Amongst the more organized sovereign groups, leaders are often in their 60’s and 70’s.

In a study carried out by Brian S. Slater, sovereign citizen legal proceedings saw drastic increases in the last two decades. Measuring from the early 2000s up until mid-2016, Slater noted that such proceedings (to include legal appeals) rose from 4 in 2008 up to 142 in 2016. While this does necessarily represent a rise in violence attributed to the movement, it is concerning that it appears that the movement’s ideology is spreading which may lead to increased violent trends.

Where are Sovereign Citizens operating? 

Several large sovereign movement organizations exist along the east coast of the United States, however, such organizations also exist in several states where some have been associated with select white supremacist organizations.

The Slater study mentioned above lists the following states as having the most prominent sovereign citizen activity:

  • Illinois
  • Wisconsin
  • Florida
  • North Carolina
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • California
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • Tennessee

What are the primary recruitment methods into the movement? 

As the movement is largely disorganized, there are no known specific recruitment practices. The ideological narrative has been spread by books in the past and more recently online blogs and by circulated manifestos. Several sovereign citizen online blogs state that there are certain ways a sovereign must declare themselves independent of the United States government, all of which are based on odd legal jargon that is completely incorrect. While not all sovereigns adhere to such a declaration, it is often times the case that proponents of the movement believe that it is needed to officially become a sovereign citizen.

Image Credit: A Title 4 flag typical of the sovereign citizenship movement; as found on related website ‘Fake Freedom’.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.