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.

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.

Women and Radicalization

Ninetta Bagarella and her husband, Totò, who successfully raised children in the extremist Mafia tradition. Image credit: Associated Press.

Emilie König, Yasmin Bulbocus, Sadaa Boular each have something in common: all are women of ISIS. Emile is a well-known example of a young French woman who converted to Islam and emigrated to Syria, where she served as a recruiter and propagandist for ISIL, while Yasmin is a former extremist that was radicalized when she was only seventeen. Meanwhile, the case of Safaa Boular, her sister Rizlaine, and her mother Mina, who were found guilty of plotting  terrorist attacks in Britain, is a clear example of transmission of dysfunctional values within families. Each has a unique story about how and why they became radicalized, but as a group, they provide fascinating insight into the role women play in ISIS.

As co-leaders, strategists, trainers, advisors, ruthless criminals, and persuaders, women involved with terrorist groups such as ISIS, as well as women in organized crime rings such as the Mafia, often share the same harsh attitudes towards authority and broader society. They reflect the criminal subcultures that raised them, bear unhealthy values, purvey hatred, and act as loyal partners in crime.

Many women of the Mafia pursue their own battle against the State and Civil Society. They are tasked with raising future generations of “men and women of honour,” thus ensuring the survival of their clans and criminal associations. The following conversation took place in the visitors room of the penitentiary where Gianni Riina, the eldest son of the most fierce Sicilian mafia boss Totò Riina, was imprisoned:

Salvo Riina: “See, I’m from the school of Corleone.”

Ninetta Bagarella: “Well, thank goodness, thank goodness.”

Salvo Riina: “My father’s from Corleone, my mother’s from Corleone, what other school and blood could I have?”

Ninetta Bagarella: “Pure blood.”

In this conversation, Ninetta Bagarella, Totò Riina’s wife, clearly expresses her satisfaction after her son Salvo remembers his “pure” Corleonese origins. As a woman, part of her role is to raise children who, like Salvo, have “pure” origins and strong ties to the organization- something which women in ISIS, raising extremist “cubs,” must also do.

The determination they show in pursuing these roles demonstrates that their power is seriously underestimated. Both in extremist groups and in mafia organizations, women make their own contributions in two ways:

  1. They provide potential extremist women with role models;
  2. They ensure the survival of criminal systems by raising children with extremist values.

With regard to the first issue, one possible counter-strategy could envisage the creation of narratives that focus on the life stories of women that were formerly involved in criminal organizations and decided to quit. The confrontation with real life examples of women who chose to abandon lives of extremism could help potential extremists develop new ideas and opinions about criminal groups, based on more genuine information.

The second issue presents us with a big challenge: preventing children from being indoctrinated by their parents and families. During the first few years of life, babies are totally dependent on their parents, so it is inconceivable to develop a strategy leaving their mothers or fathers out of their socialization. Instead, it is possible to expose older children to messages of tolerance and peace, using means familiar to them like cartoons, books and songs or planning different operations according to the characteristics of the context.

Ultimately, counterterrorism strategies should just not be “gender-sensitive,” but should be more specifically based on social roles.

This will ensure that the social roles played by women, often overlooked, are finally addressed- and that generations of their children will no longer be raised in lives of crime.

Women are key to counterterrorism efforts, because they play crucial roles in families and educational institutions and thus play a key role in either increasing or mitigating the risk of radicalization. Increasing the participation of women in the prevention of criminal behavior could help tackle the problem at its roots, giving new generations more chances to grow up with positive cultural values that promote social cohesion and solidarity.

Mohammed Hamzah Khan: Case Study of an American Extremist

Mohammed Hamzah Khan, the young man radicalized in the suburbs of Chicago.

Born in the United States to first generation immigrants, Mohammed Hamzah Khan and his siblings were raised about 35 minutes west of Chicago in the middle class suburb of Bolingbrook, Illinois. Considering he was a student at Benedictine University, a well-known Roman Catholic university, it can be understood why it was such a surprise when Khan was arrested by federal authorities at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Khan was detained with his brother (16) and sister (17) at the airport, where they intended to fly to Vienna before taking a bus to Turkey where they would meet with an IS operative who would smuggle them into Syria to join the caliphate. Mohammed was seen by authorities as the influence over his younger (and still juvenile, in the U.S. criminal justice system) siblings. Accordingly, his siblings were released to their parents without charges- but Mohammed remained.

Zarine Khan, Mohammed’s mother, stated that he and his sister were radicalized and preyed upon by IS recruiters on various social media accounts. In preparation for his travel to the caliphate, Khan got a job at a local store and raised sufficient travel funds for both himself and his siblings. It should be noted that Khan bought round trip tickets for the trip in an effort to mask their plans to travel to the caliphate- belying that there was likely some coaching in operational security by an IS operative online. Khan’s lawyer stated that Khan desired to join something bigger than himself, longing for a higher purpose. Khan’s lawyer made a strong argument against a long prison sentence, referencing the U.S. prison system and its record of further radicalizing individuals.

After years of court proceedings, Khan was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, including time already served. Upon his release from prison, he enrolled in the College of DuPage, earning a 4.0 GPA and academic honors- though he remained subject to routine and random searches of his living quarters and electronic devices for at least 20 years after release. In the spring of 2018, Khan was found to have accessed multiple prohibited social media networks and- in clear violation of his parole. The judge tasked with overseeing Khan’s case stated that Khan had demonstrated major steps of rehabilitation, exemplified by his schooling successes, and suggested that the violations were due to a lack of maturity. However, on the day that federal authorities searched his room and discovered his parole violations, they also uncovered an IS flag and documents in Arabic under his bed- the translation of which remains unclear.

In light of this, it is understandable to wonder what could have driven an American citizen to such radicalization. Khan is the child of immigrants, making it possible he felt marginalized as a result. Additionally, Khan is a Muslim of Indian descent- a community which does not necessarily have a large population in the Chicago area, potentially deepening Khan’s marginalization even among the Chicago Muslim community. It is possible that these factors contributed to Khan’s recruitment and radicalization. However, Khan’s schooling also proved that he has above average intelligence and can function without issue in western society.

Notably, Khan had no criminal history prior to his arrest for attempting to provide material support to the IS. There is little information available about Khan’s time in prison, but it is critical to question whether further radicalization occurred during his time in custody. Khan’s attorney mentioned that it could potentially be more dangerous for Khan to have a lengthy prison sentence, due to the extremist ideologies often fostered in prison culture. Within prisons, those prisoners who are radicalized are typically radicalized by other inmates and not by outside motivators. Since Khan was already radicalized, he would have been susceptible to other inmates’ radical influence as well.

Discussion of reform in the United States prison system is beyond the scope of this particular research or case study; however, one reform policy could clearly limit radicalization in this case and others. To counter radicalization within prisons, personnel working in corrections must be diversified. This is particularly true when discussing radicalization amongst the Muslim prison population. The Salafist ideology suggests that the West is at war with Islam, and having a mostly Christian, Caucasian prison staff could increase the “us versus them” mindset amongst prisoners- making more prisoners susceptible to radicalization. Implementing hiring procedures and protocols to ensure that staff more accurately mirror the demographics represented in the prison population at each particular facility could help reduce some types of radicalization. This policy implementation would take a significant amount of time, but could be impactful in decades to come.

Ultimately, Mohammed’s case is an unusual one, but it is not entirely isolated. With the rise of IS recruiting online and through increasingly global networks, the United States must prepare for more cases like Mohammed’s- and implementing prison reform could be a key first step.

Toy Soldiers on a Mission: The Training and Indoctrination of Children for Jihad

Image result for child jihadist

On September 26, a children’s show aired on Iran’s Channel 2 to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war. Translated by The Middle East Media Research Institute, it shows children of different ages dressed in conservative Muslim clothing and military uniforms while praising martyrdom and jihad. In the video, the young protagonists wear badges of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on their chests and sing a song about their fathers fighting in the Iranian army, willing to die “in the path of God”[1]– presenting a disturbing example of youth indoctrination.

Another recent example of early indoctrination comes from the Indonesian city of Probolinggo, where a kindergarten has been accused of promoting radicalism for dressing children in ISIL-style costumes during an independence day parade.[2]

It is widely known that training is a fundamental component in the strategy of extremist and terrorist groups. The basis for the conservation of the jihadist ideology is to find new proselytes and to plant the seed of hatred in the next generations of jihadis. However, the data reveals this phenomenon to be an increasingly alarming one.

According to a Secretary-General report on children and armed conflict in Nigeria, since 2009 at least 8,000 young soldiers have been recruited by Boko Haram and, by the end of 2016, their army included many boys between 10 and 18.[3] Disconcerting data also suggests that in 2017, the number of recruited children in Somalia (2,127), South Sudan (1,221), the Syrian Arab Republic (961) and Yemen (842) was still remarkably high.[4]

Image result for child jihadist

We are all well aware that socio-cultural backgrounds play a leading role in shaping peoples’ future attitudes towards violence, especially in the early years of life. The reason is simple: social groups pass values, customs, beliefs, and rules from one generation to another to ensure a degree of uniformity and the survival of dominant ideologies.

What we often forget is that the transmission of cultural heritage can be both conscious and unconscious, because youth both unintentionally absorb the habits of those around them and deliberately follow instructions given to them by family, schools, peers, and media. This is such an effective means of imparting violent ideology that the innocence of children has now become a matter of grave concern for all of us.

Children are undoubtedly more suggestible than adults; their brains are not yet equipped with knowledge consolidated by past learning processes and experiences. As a consequence, they are extremely receptive to any information which could warp their worldview. The condition of children used as spies and suicide attackers[5] clearly exemplifies the above-mentioned concept: during childhood, critical thinking faculties are underdeveloped, making it difficult for youth to evaluate risks and personally assess the information given to them by jihadis.

Furthermore, jihadi strategists are fully aware of the role emotions play in learning. For this reason, they design specific media content to manipulate children, including songs, cartoons, and games which offer children jihadi role models and spread extremist ideas.

In the face of all this, the outlook seems bleak- so what can we do to prevent children from being drawn to terrorism?

De-radicalization strategies should be targeted at children and primarily based upon human variability because there are different types of extremist movements and the motives involved in joining them vary from person to person. Presumably, no single program could cover them all. In the case of children, we have already discussed how the origins of their radicalization process mainly lies in those people that provide them with role models to identify with. In order to keep children away from violent extremism, it is therefore absolutely necessary to stop adults from supporting or becoming terrorists.

In this digital age, new media has also become a powerful tool for spreading terrorist narratives to children. However, reacting to this threat merely by carrying out cyber attacks or playing the blame game will not help us develop the most effective counter-strategies. To be efficient, any approach should include three main operations: providing an in-depth analysis of terrorist narratives, preparing counter-narratives able to foster intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding, and disseminating counter-narratives (especially through social media and learning institutions.) This will help to reduce the effectiveness of the radical messages children and youth are currently being shown.

Cultural changes require time and cooperation to effectively eradicate dangerous norms and beliefs. But growing the seeds of hope and tolerance will provide our society with a positive foundation for future generations, and it all begins with protecting the youth.

[1] Iranian TV Children’s Show: Standing Next to Missiles, Children Sing in Praise of Jihad and Martyrdom, 9-26-2018, https://www.memri.org/tv/iranian-tv-children-show-children-glorify-fathers-jihad-martyrdom.

[2] Kindergarten dresses children as jihadis for parade in Indonesia, 8-20-2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/20/kindergarten-dresses-children-as-jihadists-for-parade-in-indonesia.

[3] Cf. Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Nigeria (S/2017/304), 4-6-2017, p.6, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/N1709682.pdf

[4] Cf. Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict (A/70/836-S/2016/360), 5-16-2018, p.2, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/N1815109.pdf

[5] Cf. UNODC, Handbook on children recruited and exploited by terrorist and violent extremist groups, Wien, 2017, p.11, https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/Child-Victims/Handbook_on_Children_Recruited_and_Exploited_by_Terrorist_and_Violent_Extremist_Groups_the_Role_of_the_Justice_System.E.pdf