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Radicalisation in the West: The Homegrown Threat

The Australian has an interesting and important article about a landmark study by the NYPD’s intelligence division, which deals with the formation and development of Islamist terror cells in Western countries.

And surprise, surprise, the terrorists are not driven by desperation or poverty, nor is the root cause of Islamic terrorism Israel.

Jamal Zougam was a handsome and popular 30-year-old who frequented the discos in Madrid’s Moroccan quarter and ran a mobile phone shop with his brother. Born in Tangier, Morocco, he had migrated to Spain with his family as a child and seemed perfectly integrated into Spanish society.

“He was good looking, he didn’t have a beard, he joked around a lot,” recalled one of his friends. “He’s the kind of guy who would walk around in a Lacoste T-shirt in summer.”

Zougam was also a terrorist, Spanish police say. It’s alleged that on March 11, 2004, he helped plant 10 bombs that ripped through four packed commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1800. He and 27 others are awaiting verdicts from a Madrid court after a four-month trial.

Zougam may seem an unlikely candidate to join a terrorist cell. But he is the archetypal terrorist recruit, according to a landmark study by the intelligence division of the New York Police Department, which has traced the formation and development of Islamist terror cells in the US, Britain, Canada, Spain, The Netherlands and Australia.

Their report, Radicalisation in the West: The Homegrown Threat, is the most comprehensive cross-national study of how terror cells form, develop, plan and execute large-scale attacks. Its results are groundbreaking. It finds there is “a remarkable consistency in the behaviour and trajectory” of the terrorists studied and their plots. Crucially, it provides “a tool for predictability” to help identify emerging terror cells before they strike.

The report’s authors, Mitchell Silber and Arvin Bhatt, are special assistants to the deputy commissioner of intelligence for the NYPD. Their brief was to identify terrorists in the making in order to pre-empt mass-casualty attacks rather than arrest the perpetrators after the event.

“Where once we would have defined the initial indicator of the threat at the point where a terrorist or group of terrorists would actually plan an attack, we have now shifted our focus to a much earlier point, a point where we believe the potential terrorist or group of terrorists begin and progress through a process of radicalisation,” say the authors.

Their report comes at a critical time. Recent US intelligence estimates say “activists identifying themselves as jihadists are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion”, and “the operational threat from self-radicalised cells will grow”.

The NYPD’s assessment is that while al-Qa’ida’s central core of leaders, operatives and foot soldiers has shrunk since the September 11, 2001, attacks, “its philosophy of global jihad has spread worldwide at an exponential rate”. This “wave of militant ideological influences” has underpinned a surge of radicalisation in the West that is known as the “home-grown” threat.

The NYPD analysts studied cells that carried out the March 2004 train attacks in Madrid, the July 2005 bombings in London, the Toronto 18 who plotted to bomb the Canadian parliament and behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Hofstad group in Amsterdam which murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and two groups of men arrested in Australia who are awaiting trial on terrorism charges. They also examined four groups in the US: the Lackawanna Six, the Portland Seven, the Northern Virginia Paintball group and the September 11 attackers.

They found that across the board cell members started out as “unremarkable” individuals, typically from second or third-generation middle-class immigrant families, often successful university students with little if any criminal history. Most “do not begin as radical or even devout Muslims”.

In the Australian study, at least seven of the men charged with terrorism were the children of Lebanese immigrants who had grown up “somewhat secular” and had only begun practising Islam 18 months before their arrest. Likewise, some in the Toronto group had not practised Islam until they began to radicalise.

Men who become “home-grown” terrorists are not driven by religion, at least not at first, nor are they motivated by oppression, suffering, revenge or desperation. Rather, they are looking for an identity and a cause, which they find in radical Islam.

They are not recruited from above but usually begin the process of radicalisation alone, then gravitate towards like-minded individuals, form clusters and “self-designate themselves as holy warriors”.

Silber and Bhatt identify four stages in the process of radicalisation. The first is the “pre-radicalisation” phase, where an individual is often frustrated with his life or the politics of his home government and is looking for meaning in life.

Middle-class families and students provide fertile ground. Young Muslim men living in diaspora communities are particularly vulnerable. These communities provide “ideological sanctuaries” for radical thought and tend to tolerate the existence of an “extremist sub-culture”. The more “pure” and isolated they are from the rest of the community, the more vulnerable they are to extremism.

The second stage is “self-identification”, where the individual discovers Salafi-jihadist ideology, a Sunni revivalist movement which aims to create a “pure” Islamic society based on a literal reading of the Koran. Under this interpretation, complex disputes such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and Kashmir are simplified into a single global war between “believers and non-believers”.

“This powerful and simple ‘one size fits all’ philosophy resonates with the younger diaspora Muslim populations in the West who are often politically naive,” Silber and Bhattwrite.

Many attracted to this ideology have suffered a personal crisis such as the death of a family member, loss of a job, personal discrimination or “moral shock” caused by political conflicts abroad, and turn to religion to deal with it.

They seek out others experiencing the same inner conflict, and clusters form. Recent converts tend to be the most zealous as they seek to prove their new-found religious conviction. At this stage the joiners become alienated from their former lives, often giving up cigarettes, drinking and gambling, while they begin to wear Islamic clothing, grow beards and become involved in social activism. At the same time they gravitate towards extremist incubators such as radical mosques, prayer rooms and book stores. The NYPD study identifies the Michael Street mosque in Brunswick, Melbourne, run by Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah leader Mohammed Omran as the “extremist incubator” for a number of Australians, a place where they “began to self-identify with the jihadi-Salafi ideology”.

The third stage in the radicalisation process is indoctrination, when the individual’s views intensify and become all-consuming.

“What was merely an ideology transforms into a personal cause” and the individual decides he must take action to further it. The group becomes his new world while unbelievers become the arch-enemy. His new beliefs become politicised: in the Australian case study, this was manifested in a desire to force the Australian Government to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this phase, all of the cells that were studied withdrew from their regular prayer room, which was no longer sufficiently radical. The Melbourne group shunned Sheik Omran’s mosque and began meeting and worshipping in private homes.

In each case, as they became more isolated from the world around them, the internet played a crucial role, acting as a “virtual echo chamber” and “radicalisation accelerant”, while also providing a tactical resource, the authors say.

The fourth and final stage of transformation is jihadisation, the point at which members of the group “self-designate themselves as holy warriors”.

“Group-think” becomes a force multiplier for radicalisation and invariably paves the way for action. They engage in bonding activities such as camping, whitewater rafting, target shooting and paintball games. They spend hours on internet chatrooms and watching jihadist videos, which help to psych them up by glorifying death by jihad as a “true hero’s inevitable fate”.

The decision to attack is made as a group and driven by an operational leader, which the NYPD study found is a crucial element in the formation of a terrorist cell. The next step, target selection and operational planning, happens very quickly and with little warning, in as little as two weeks.

A critical focus of the NYPD study was to identify why some societies are more vulnerable than others to the emergence of home-grown terror cells. Britain and Europe have an arrest rate for terrorism offences five times higher than the US.

Silber and Bhatt conclude: “Europe’s failure to integrate the second and third generation of its immigrants into society, both economically and socially, has left many young Muslims torn between the secular West and their religious heritage. This inner conflict makes them especially vulnerable to extremism: the radical views, philosophy and rhetoric that is highly advertised and becoming more and more fashionable among young Muslims in the West.”

They believe the US has proven more resistant to extremism because of its greater economic opportunities, a stronger work ethic compared with Europe’s welfare culture, and the “more assimilating nature of American society”. US Muslims are more educated and earn more than the average American and are more integrated into society than their European counterparts, and hence have fewer grievances.

The crucial question for Australian policy-makers and counter-terrorism specialists is: where does Australia sit on this spectrum?

Former CIA officer and forensic psychologist Marc Sageman has profiled hundreds of terrorists for his books Understanding Terror Networks and the newly released Leaderless Jihad, and his work is cited in the NYPD report. Sageman believes Australia is less at risk than Europe but more so than the US. He cites the latest figures on terrorism-related arrests: Australia has had about 30 arrests out of a Muslim population of about 300,000, compared with about 60 arrests in the US from a Muslim population 10 times the size.

The NYPD analysts concur with Sageman’s view. “Australia and Canada (are) more like the UK in terms of the more lenient asylum standards and more generous welfare benefits,” says Silber.

“These enabled a less professional, lower economic strata of immigrants to enter the country. However, unlike the UK, both Australia and Canada are much closer to the US in terms of being societies that had histories, in fact histories integral to their national stories, that involved taking in new immigrants. This made it easier for the immigrants to integrate. So, in short, diaspora populations in Australia may not be as vulnerable to radicalisation as the UK, but not as resistant as the US.”

The NSW Police assistant commissioner for counter-terrorism, Nick Kaldas, who was briefed last week in New York on the NYPD study, agrees Australia is less vulnerable than Europe but more so than the US. An Egyptian-born fluent Arabic speaker, Kaldas believes the key to preventing radicalisation is ensuring a constant flow of communication with Muslim communities, giving them a conduit to air grievances.

“Our efforts in community outreach are focused exactly on that: trying to minimise the pressures on those communities from minority extremist elements,” says Kaldas.

“If they’re talking to us and telling us what’s on their minds, we figure they’re less likely to feel aggrieved and to go down a different path.”

About the author

Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
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