Why The United States Needs to Reform Counter-Terrorism Efforts on the Home Front

Since the September 11th attacks on the United States, many believe that the biggest threat to the United States is from foreign jihadists.  Media outlets constantly associate terrorism with foreign jihadist organizations such as ISIL or Al-Qaeda; however, they fail to give adequate attention or coverage to extremist incidents that occur directly on our own soil.

Today, the largest threat facing the United States does not comes from foreign jihadist extremists.  Instead, the largest threat to the United States appears to be the rapidly growing threat of domestic violent extremism. Domestic extremism includes homegrown radical Islamist terrorism, right- and left-wing extremism, white supremacist and neo-Nazi extremism, and more.  The domestic extremism threat facing our nation today has essentially evolved over time into two major issues that have gone unaddressed by policy makers. First, overseas terrorist organizations have become increasingly adaptable and now use online platforms to recruit vulnerable individuals across the country in order to incite violence.  Second, the rise in hate crimes and right-wing extremist events over the past decade has occurred at an alarming rate, and has been disregarded by many public officials and policy makers.

The Recruitment of Jihadi-Motivated Extremists in the US

With the availability of new technologies, foreign terrorist organizations no longer need to infiltrate foreign states to attempt attacks of their own.  Now, organizations have the capability to recruit, motivate, and initiate attacks online with false messages and propaganda. The rise in Islamophobia has led many to believe that individuals who have conducted such lone-wolf attacks are Muslim or Arab. However, this has not always been the case.  According to a study by the RAND Corporation, “the historic stereotype that Muslim, Arab, immigrant males are most vulnerable to extremism is not true to today.  Today, recruits in the United States are more likely to be white, black, younger, uneducated, and born citizens.”  New America’s study on Terrorism After September 11th explains how since 2001, the number of domestic jihadist terrorism cases

has risen dramatically, from only two individuals being charged in 2001 to a record high of eighty being charged in 2015.  The study also reiterates the trend that the majority of the individuals being charged with a lethal extremist attack have been American-born citizens; in fact, according to the study, eighty-five percent of individuals charged with a lethal attack in the United States have been citizens or legal residents.  Of this percentage, a majority (two hundred and twenty nine) of terrorism cases have involved American-born citizens. Ninety-nine of the cases have involved naturalized citizens, and fifty-five of the cases have involved permanent residents.  Only five cases have involved illegal immigrants, nineteen cases involved refugees or asylum seekers, and twenty-five cases involved non-residents of unknown status. The majority of domestic terrorists are now everyday American citizens and residents who have been inspired by the jihadist movement abroad to take action against the secular West.  As Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, famously stated, jihad today has become “American as Apple Pie.”

The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism

Jihadi-extremism, while mainly homegrown, now makes up only a small portion of the attacks occurring on American soil.  Throughout the last decade, right-wing extremist attacks have risen at an alarming rate.  Right-wing extremism includes white supremacy, anti-government extremism, and single-issue movements such as anti-abortion, anti-immigration, and anti-Muslim extremism. While the United States has remained focused on the danger posed by jihadi extremism, there has been a “glaring blind spot” towards the changing dynamic and magnitude of threats facing the United States.  According to statistics from the Anti-Defamation League, between 2009 and 2018, 73.3 percent of domestic extremism incidents in the United States were due to right-wing extremism, while only 23.4 percent of incidents were due to jihadist extremism and 3.2 percent were due to left-wing extremism.  Furthermore, the rate at which the incidents are increasing is dangerously rapid.  In 2018, of the 50 extremist-related murders that occurred, right-wing extremists caused almost all incidents.  In fact, right-wing extremists caused 98 percent of the incidents, while only 2 percent of the incidents were caused by domestic Islamic extremism.  According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, individuals targeted for the recruitment of right-wing terrorism are often one of three categories: “frustrated and angry youth looking for solutions to their problems; individuals looking for intimate relationships outside of their families; and younger adolescents who typically lacked maturity and may have been unable to fully comprehend the ramifications of the groups radical ideology.”

Policy Recommendations

  1. Politicians and policy makers need to make reducing domestic extremism a national security priority.

Domestic extremism needs to be recognized as a major threat.  In the past decade, it has largely been ignored and pushed aside by policy makers and politicians, who have been putting a disproportionate amount of attention on the foreign threat of jihadi terrorism.  Domestic terrorism needs to be made a federal crime by Congress.

  1. Seek to increase community awareness about the dangers of all forms of terrorist recruitment, especially in the populations that are deemed to be most vulnerable.

Community awareness programs should partner with the Department of Education in order to educate children, teachers, parents, and guardians about the dangers of terrorist recruitment.  The programs should specify the different types of extremism in the United States, the way groups attempt to recruit individuals, and the risks and consequences associated with being involved with such organizations.

  1. Promote anti-bias intercultural education and after-school programs in elementary and secondary schools.

Education can be the most proactive measure to counter youth radicalization.  With the average profile of radicalized individuals being young and uneducated, it is most important to promote educational programs in schools to counter the radicalization and recruitment of young individuals who feel frustrated, angry, and alone.  After-school programs should especially be promoted as a way to offer a sense of belonging, community, family, and purpose for individuals who are particularly vulnerable.

  1. Reframe the Countering-Violent Extremism Program, and reassess how to properly distribute CVE resources.

The CVE program does not just need a new name, it needs to be completely reframed.  As of right now, the program has been largely targeted at countering jihadi extremism in the United States, and has cut funding for programs that counter other forms of extremism.  Muslim communities have been targeted by the current CVE programs while young black, white and uneducated individuals have become more and more vulnerable to being recruited by different forms of domestic extremism.  Funding for grants and research needs to be expanded in order to combat all the different forms of extremism in the United States.

  1. Make an honest and prioritized effort to countering the ideology of hate.

The United States government must make countering hateful ideologies and extremist groups a top-priority. Politicians have continuously failed to punish right-wing extremist groups for their actions, sending a confusing message about what is constituted as terrorism and when it is considered acceptable to use such violence in the United States.   Continuously cutting funding for research grants and for countering right-wing extremism programs has also enabled such issues to escalate in the United States. To stop such incidents from occurring again, changes must be made.

Plans for Still-Radicalized Members of the Islamic State

A man surrenders outside Baghouz. Image Credit: Al-Jazeera.

            Near-victory has been declared over the remnants of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria. However, some fighting still remains, and the implications of continued conflict are beginning to be explored. Waves of often-reluctant Islamic State members coming to surrender exacerbate the daunting job that those participating in the fight against extremist ideologies are facing. As recently as last week, 3,000 suspected fighters and active Islamic State members have surrendered, overloading those tasked with analyzing the future threat these individuals pose. This writing intends to promote a conversation about the dilemma of those ‘hardcore’ believers in the Islamic State, examining how or if they can assimilate to Western society.

            Since December, roughly 60,000 people have fled from the area around Baghouz, Syria, the last populated stronghold of the crumbling caliphate. These individuals have been captured or placed into displaced persons camps. Estimates suggest that around 10% of these people are believed to be Islamic State fighters, with many others being family members of current or former fighters. Through various Islamic State propaganda outlets, as well as debriefing reports from people who have previously fled Islamic State-controlled territory, it is known that there has been a strong effort to indoctrinate children into the ideology spread by the group. For this reason, the children of Islamic State members should receive increased attention in the deradicalization process.

            The Islamic State has continued its propaganda campaign, which was once a driving factor behind the groups rapid expansion, from within Baghouz. In one video, a man going by the kunya of Abu Abdel Adheem states that “it is said that we have lost – but God’s judging standard is different”. In another, a man going by Abu Abd al-Azeem, is quoted as stating “Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in Hell”. This is hardly the language of repentant individuals or individuals, making it unlikely that they will be susceptible to many deradicalization programs.

            It is unclear how many foreign fighters of Western origin remain in Baghouz, but those that are there should be considered some of the most adherent followers to the group. Many existing deradicalization programs are targeted towards individuals who are psychologically open to leaving an ideology. Those individuals still clinging to the last remnants of the caliphate in Syria, and those who have reluctantly surrendered, do not generally fit into this profile. Numerous Westerners, including Americans, have been captured recently and are considered suspected members of the Islamic State. It is important to distinguish between individuals who were indeed captured and those who willingly surrendered due to a change in ideology and not due to the caliphate being on the losing side of the conflict. Those who have surrendered of their free will are likely good candidates for deradicalization programs. Those who have surrendered but remain loyal to the vision of the Islamic State represent a real problem for all Western nations.

Further complicating the situation, there are Westerners still engaged in the fighting. Zulfi Hoxha, an American who goes by the kunya of Abu Hamza al-Amriki, has risen through the ranks of the Islamic State and is now believed to be a Senior Commander. There have been no public declarations of his death or whereabouts. How exactly do we plan to deradicalize Hoxha? Is deradicalization even a possibility?

            Those Islamic State members still operating in Iraq and Syria have been displaced from their once-vast caliphate. Some have given up on the vision, but it appears that many still place their loyalty in the future of the proto-state. Numerous officials from the United States have suggested that they do not believe that there are any senior Islamic State members, including caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Baghouz. The unknown location of these leaders represents the continued threat that the group will once again reform down the road, with lessons learned. Until then, it is imperative that we decide what to do with those who have left.


John Patrick Wilson is a Law Enforcement Professional and Research Fellow at Rise to Peace

Boko Haram and Nigerian Instability

Since November, over 60,000 refugees have fled from Nigeria in fear of Boko Haram.   Image Source: IRIN

Boko Haram, or the Islamic State in West Africa, is a formally nonviolent militant organization based in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. The group aims to “purify” Nigeria and other territories based on their own Salafist ideals. Clashes with the Nigerian government in 2009 over an investigation into the organization sparked a violent uprising, which has escalated in years since.

Decade Long Crisis

Boko Haram’s persistent insurgency in Nigeria has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and displaced millions since it began in 2009. It is estimated that about 35,000 individuals have been killed in the insurgency, making this conflict the region’s deadliest of all time.  The United Nations Refugee Agency claims that attacks across the Lake Chad Region have left over 2.5 million individuals displaced, including 250,000 individuals from Nigeria alone.

On February 5th, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that Boko Haram had been “decimated.”  He stated that his government had achieved enormous feats in the campaign against Boko Haram, and had reduced their criminal activity to a minimum.  While major military operations by the Nigerian military have been able to contain and significantly degrade the organizations territory, Boko Haram remains a major threat which has continued to devastate northeastern Nigeria. The continued attacks have limited Nigeria’s economic development, disrupted community life, destroyed infrastructure, and now pose a threat to the upcoming general elections.

Increased Severity of Attacks

Since November, a wave of renewed attacks has forced over 60,000 Nigerians to flee their homes and marked the highest level of disruption in over two years.  Attacks in recent months by Boko Haram have also become increasingly deadly. On November 18th of last year, Boko Haram infiltrated a military base in Metele of northeast Nigeria. They were able to overpower Nigerian troops, loot valuable military equipment, and allegedly kill over one hundred soldiers- essentially destroying the base.

Earlier this year, Boko Haram attacked the city of Rann in northeast Nigeria after the withdrawal of troops left the town vulnerable to attack. The town had been set up as a shelter area for the millions of individuals displaced in the conflict.  Around 9:00 am on January 28th, a group of Boko Haram fighters arrived to the town of Rann and set fire to the structures of the town in order to kill any displaced individuals still hiding.  According to Amnesty International, the attack killed 60 individuals, making it the deadliest confirmed Boko Haram attack to date.

Satellite image of Rann, Nigeria after the January 28th Boko Haram attacks.  The red coloring shows healthy vegetation, while the dark brown and black coloring shows areas heavily burned from the attack.  Image Source: CNES/Airbus and Amnesty International

Is Military Inadequacy is Causing Vulnerability?

In recent months, Boko Haram has been escalating attacks, building their arsenal, and shifting tactics in order to remain a threat to the Nigerian military.  As Boko Haram’s tactics have shifted away from conventional strategies- including increasingly sophisticated tactics such as the use of drones to track the military’s positions, the adaptation of foreign fighters, hiding within the local population, and the use of guerilla warfare tactics and infrastructural buildings- Nigerian forces have struggled to adequately adapt to new threats.

Nigeria’s defense strategy has left them increasingly vulnerable to attack. While Boko Haram’s attacks have been escalating, security in northern Nigeria has been deteriorating, and troops have been provided with inadequate weaponry and equipment.  Despite Nigeria’s large military defense budget, it appears as though troops have been pulled out of high-risk regions and left without sufficient weapons. Even further, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Sean McClure, the Nigerian military has not been able to adjust to the advancing threat of Boko Haram, and continues to rely on conventional warfare tactics.  Without a change in their military strategy, the Nigerian Army may not be able to defeat Boko Haram in the near future- and with elections soon approaching, many question how the next government can regain control of the country.

Strategies for Countering Neo-Nazi Radicalization

American members of the National Socialist Movement. Source: Southern Poverty Law Center.

Decades after the end of World War II, Nazism continues to incite hatred and divide the globe. Thousands have been radicalized into what is now deemed neo-Nazi ideology from dozens of countries across the world. Although the phenomenon of neo-Nazism is well documented, research has yet to establish a common profile of those deemed vulnerable to its recruitment. Several have attempted to establish a potential profile; however, the American cases that have been studied stem from vastly different backgrounds, and their diversity is too difficult to account for with any one theory.

Though the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks stemming solely from neo-Nazi groups is relatively low, such groups present a unique threat. Neo-Nazi groups tend to be embedded with other racist extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and other anti-Semitic groups. Fringe members of these groups present an often-undetectable lone wolf threat which is extremely difficult for law enforcement to counter. Neo-Nazi groups are also often associated with the trafficking of narcotics and prostitution, potentially leading to a large indirect cost on society.

In discussing neo-Nazi radicalization, former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini has a unique take on the process. Picciolini, who become radicalized into neo-Nazi ideology after attending a gathering of a skinhead group at 14 years old, has since deradicalized and now works to help others do the same. But Picciolini does not attribute neo-Nazi radicalization to an ideology at all. In an informative interview, Picciolini stated that “I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did, up to now, up to what we’re seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology”. The vulnerabilities mentioned in the interview stem from both real and perceived grievances, felt by some youths as they grow and learn about the world and their place in it. Like so many youths searching for answers to their anger and frustrations, Picciolini found answers amongst neo-Nazi propaganda. Unfortunately there was not a counter narrative strategy in place to address the statements presented to him.

Exploiting vulnerabilities is a normal gang recruitment strategy. Many neo-Nazis are recruited while in prison, and the process is similar to other gang recruitment methodologies. However, neo-Nazi gangs are distinct in their provision of a more thorough ideological base for those who they radicalize. Further, the agenda of neo-Nazism is the creation of a Fourth Reich, which obviously goes far beyond the belief system associated with a typical street gang. Because of the hybrid nature of the radicalization process between extremist group and street gang that is observed within neo-Nazism, a hybrid approach to deradicalization and a hybrid counter-narrative strategy is needed.

Law enforcement’s response to neo-Nazi groups has begun to change in recent years. Whereas for a long time neo-Nazi groups and skin heads were often associated with the punk rock scene and were considered kids acting out their frustrations, now they are being considered legitimate concerns for homeland security.

Though they may pose a significant security concern, simply addressing neo-Nazi radicalization as a law enforcement matter does not properly address the underlying issues that cause some to become radicalized. In discussion about freedom of speech when it comes to hate speech and propaganda, experts suggest that education is the likely best route for countering extremism. An effective solution will couple education with a strategy in which local governments and communities adapt partnerships with organizations who have experience in deradicalization. One such organization and program is the Anti-Defamation League’s “A World of Difference” campaign, which uses mass media and education in schools to address bias, racism, anti-Semitism, and a variety of radicalization and extremist behaviors. Policy encouraging local communities to embrace programs mentioned above could potentially hold the key to severely disrupting recruitment efforts of the dozens of neo-Nazi groups operating in the United States.


John Patrick Wilson is an Law Enforcement Professional and Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

China’s Perspective on Ethnic Detention: The Ends Justifies the Means

Source: BBC (Dabancheng, April 2018)

While not broadly reported, the detention of Uighur Muslims in China has developed into what BBC reporter John Sudworth Calls “one of the most pressing human rights concerns of our age”. Reports emerged in 2017 that China was operating a system of internment camps for Muslims in Xinjiang. This began after the adoption of “Regulations on De-extremification”, which banned the following: growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer, fasting or avoidance of alcohol, or possessing books or articles about Islam or Uighur culture. Since then it has been estimated that at least one million Uighurs (as well as some other foreign citizens) into what China has labelled as “vocational education” camps, where they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and Communist party rhetoric. Those sent to the camps have no legal right; they have no access to lawyers are not subject to a trial.

After growing criticism of these detention camps, China is presenting the detention of Muslim citizens as a contribution in the fight against terrorism internationally. The topic came up recently when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Friday. The Chinese foreign ministry published the following in part of its account of the meeting: “China has the right to take antiterrorism and de-extremisation measures for safeguarding national security. The Saudi side respects and supports that and is willing to strengthen cooperation with China.”

The fear based tactic of detaining individuals specifically due to ethnicity has led to countless atrocities throughout history. There has been growing international criticism of the camps, specifically from UN panels, Turkish and Malaysian politicians, and Muslim civic groups. Despite this, there is evidence that these camps are steadily growing in population. It is unlikely that this issue will be resolved any time soon.