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The Enemy Within - Violent Extremism in the United States

By Jerome Kahan

The Enemy Within, a PBS FRONTLINE special TV broadcast in 2006, exposed the unpleasant fact that there was an enemy within our midst composed of a network of Islamic extremists living in a small town in California that sought "to encourage, to energize, to activate ... extremist Islamic sentiments, to carry out acts on behalf of these terrorist groups and their extremist beliefs" here in the United States. In addition to these so-called home-grown terrorists, who have grown in numbers since the PBS special, the enemy within also includes an expanding group of extremists of all stripes capable of carrying out violent attacks on the nation's people and property in the name of their causes, which are not related to the jihadist terrorist ideologies, Surprising as it may seem, given the plethora of security dangers we face, the Obama administration has identified violent extremism as the "pre-eminent" threat to the United States.

Who exactly are these enemies in our midst? What dangers do they pose? What are the reasons individuals become violent extremists? How can we counter these threats? Are there roles for citizens as well as federal agencies and local police in rooting out and prosecuting these hidden hazards? This article will address these issues and draw some conclusions.
Who is the Enemy?

Jihadist violent extremists are Americans who may have traveled abroad to become exposed to the extreme ideologies of terrorist groups and returned radicalized and prepared to carry out domestic terrorism in the name of a jihad -defined as a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty. They are found in communities, often as part of clandestine terrorist "sleeper cells," waiting for direction by their foreign masters to take violent action against specified targets, inspired by jihadist beliefs to take action when and as they see fit, or independently undertaking extremist activities against people or property at a time and place of their own choosing. Other individuals with unhappy or unrealized lives looking for a new direction and meaning can stay in the U.S and become inspired by jihadism or even self-radicalized by propaganda placed on the Internet by terrorist organizations such as ISIS who also publish and broadcast anti-West and pro- terrorist messages via a series of online magazines and social media outlets. Suicide attacks are one of the most serious threats posed by jihadist extremists, reminiscent of Kamikaze pilots of WWII.

Domestic violent extremists, on the other hand, are U.S. citizens driven to violence by personal beliefs or extremist ideologies having no relationship to foreign terrorists. They are drawn to violence as a means of supporting a variety of scary causes including sovereign citizen anti-government movements, racism, bigotry, anarchy, white supremacy, right-wing militants, neo-Nazi views, anti-religious views, right wing and left wing political extremists, left wing civil liberties advocates, and even environmental extremists. These domestic extremists can act alone, but often join militant, ideologically motivated groups, who form their own small communities in which individuals with shared extreme beliefs live together in small "communities" and by their own rules of society without breaking the law-- disseminating extremist propaganda and retailing the ability to suddenly commit egregious acts. While terrorist attacks since 9/11 have made more headlines and tend to instill greater fear in the population, more Americans have been killed since 9/11 by such non-Islamic domestic terrorists than jihadist extremists.

The most immediate threat to the nation, as assessed by the FBI , however, are from "lone wolf" violent extremists - antisocial and disengaged individuals, as in the case of Dylann Roof who massacred nine citizens in a South Carolina church, motivated to take action by personal grievances, familial problems, individualistic ideologies, psychoanalytic dynamics, or extremist Islamic beliefs. Studies done by the SPLC indicate that these "lone wolves" are responsible for the large number of domestic extremist attacks that have occurred over the past five years.

Countering Violent Extremism
The causes of violent extremism are complex and numerous, shaped by the lure of terrorism as well as deep rooted political, social, cultural, and economic grievances as well as isolation from society. For these reasons, the Obama Administration's Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) issued in 2011 stressed the importance of finding and eliminating the root causes through enhancing engagement with local communities that may serve as "breeding grounds" for violent extremists, building government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism, and seeking "to protect, strengthen, and empower these communities" to discover and remove the basic drivers of violent extremism. The strategy acknowledges that an effective CVE strategy must first identify potential jihadist extremists and only then can there be interventions designed to halt if not reverse their path to radicalization or, if already radicalized, to thwart efforts to take destructive actions including suicide attacks. The strategy also entails efforts to counsel other forms of violent extremists who make themselves known in ways that make them see a productive future within existing society, while at the same time seeking to identify and track other domestic violent extremists in order to block and then reverse their efforts to turn distorted and dangerous beliefs into destructive actions.

As a practical matter, the above strategic objectives are virtually impossible to achieve, especially the all-important step of identifying individuals ripe for jihadist radicalization or those already radicalized. Most of these individuals already know how to blend into communities across the nation, staying in touch with other members of a small cell, typically with no visible signs of being dangerous to their societies. This is also the case for individual domestic violent extremists who can hide within communities, as distinct from those who live as part of outlier communities with their colleagues where they walk the line to avoid arrest.

Lone wolfs of any persuasion are especially hard to identify, given their relatively isolated lifestyles and the ability to plan and act without worrying about being part of a group activity, but may not be able to easily instigate a complex and high-consequence incident. This form of extremism poses a special danger, since it is easier for law enforcement to penetrate plots "concocted by several people than individuals who act on their own "given that the lone wolf's chief asset is no one else knowing of any plans for violence, making this threat exceedingly difficult to disrupt," as stated in the Age of the Wolf: A Study of the Rise of Lone Wolf and Leaderless Resistance Terrorism, by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in February 1, 2015.

If individuals monitored for a number of years exhibit no further progression in the radicalization process and provide no basis for intervention, these targets "fall off the radar screen" - often to surface later and conduct an act of violence. As in the case of other open Western nations, the U.S. faces a monumental challenge in trying to identify and then track potential violent extremists. In words that ring true to American authorities, a former senior French counterterrorism official noted there are "too many of them, too few of us [….and] that monitoring one suspected individual "requires three to ten agents for round the clock surveillance and such resources are not available to monitor all these people," as reported by CNN, Washington, January 8, 2015.

Role of Federal Agencies
The Administration's CVE strategy expects all relevant federal agencies - primarily the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) - to pursue specific programs within their areas of responsibility, relying upon and improving existing programs and instituting new initiatives. At a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February of last year, the President called for federal agencies to build awareness of the dangers of violent extremism at the community as well as national level, and be prepared to intervene in order "to undermine the attraction of extremist movements and ideologies that seek to promote violence […efforts to] address the root causes of extremism…"

As presented by the Bureau's Director before a Senate Committee, the FBI has established partnerships with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and built closer relationships with communities for countering the threat of domestic violence by jihadist or other extremists, whether groups or lone offenders. FBI special agents in charge (SACs) continue to run CVE educational programs for communities and assign designated points of contact in this issue at over two dozen FBI Field Offices. FBI field offices host the Community Relations Executive Seminar Training (CREST) program to develop positive relations with minority groups in their communities and in particular to dispel feelings among Muslims that government agents treat them all as extremists. Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) under FBI leadership, have been modified and upgraded to take the primary role in investigative, surveillance, source development, and other efforts to identify and take actions to disrupt violent extremist plots, both jihadist violent extremists and domestic violent extremists. In response to concerns over civil liberties, FBI agents have been encouraged to use the least intrusive methods possible in their investigations.

Coordinated by a Senior Executive, efforts of DHS to counter violent extremism cover a spectrum of activities across most of its major components, including the Intelligence and Analysis Division (I&A) tracking individuals who leave the U.S., become radicalized, and later return; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uncovering dangerous extremists who may be illegal immigrants; and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) preventing individuals with radical extremist beliefs from entering the country or potentially fleeing if they fear authorities are about to disrupt their plans for conducting violent actions. As bluntly put by the Reuters news service this past June, the Department's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has largely failed in its longstanding struggle to deal with the fact that terrorists have become increasingly adept in circumventing airport security when boarding international flights to the U.S.

About the Author

Jerome Kahan is currently an independent writer and analyst, having worked for over 40 years in the national security, arms control, and homeland security fields. At the State Department, Mr. Kahan held positions on the Policy Planning Staff, as Deputy Assistant Secretary with the Political-Military and Intelligence Bureaus, and as Politico-Military Counselor in our Embassy in Turkey. Mr. Kahan has written and/or contributed to a number of books, published articles in a variety of journals, and taught for ten years as an Adjunct Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.


This is only a partial version of the article published in the latest Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security Int'l.
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