Not all extremists are under investigation - At the end of last year, just over 1,000 Islamist extremists across all 50 states were being actively investigated by the FBI. In order to open an investigation, the FBI needs to have evidence of criminal behavior, or high suspicion of criminal behavior.
There’s a larger number of extremists in the country—I’d guess it’s above 1,000; it’s obviously very hard to know exactly—who are, with varying degrees of intensity, sympathizers of ISIL or of jihadist ideology but who are not under active investigation. Many of the terrorist attacks in the United States over the past year or so - including Orlando and San Bernardino - have been committed by people in this category, by extremists who were on the FBI’s radar, but whom the bureau chose not to investigate.
Generally speaking, these are people who espouse a radical ideology—behavior that is protected by the First Amendment—and who might have interacted with like-minded people. But if there’s no indication of criminal activity, if those relationships don’t transcend into anything operational, the FBI has to let the case go. There are legal guidelines for making the decision about whether or not to investigate, but it also involves a fair amount of personal judgment. The FBI just doesn’t have enough resources to track every suspicious character.
The extremist threat in the U.S. is not necessarily less serious than it is in Europe; it’s just different - It’s true that the sheer size of the problem is smaller in the United States than it is in Europe. Obviously, all European countries are different; but generally speaking, in Europe there are more militants, more and bigger jihadi clusters and more active pipelines than there are in America.
This means that those who are attracted to militant ideology in Europe have it much easier when they want to mobilize. If you’re an aspiring jihadi living in Paris, Brussels or London, it’s very easy to get in touch with people—let’s call them facilitators, or gatekeepers—who can connect you with groups like ISIL or Al Qaeda (these days, it’s mostly ISIL). This robust network shows in the numbers: 5,000 to 6,000 Europeans have gone to Syria. The main problem Europe faces at the moment is that some of these jihadists, after being trained and indoctrinated, come back and carry out attacks.
If you live in the states, it’s much more difficult to run into those militant circles, for a variety of reasons: There’s geography—we’re far from the Middle East and our cities are spread out; there’s the fact that we do not have the militant scene that exists in Europe; there’s also the fact that the FBI is very aggressive.
This means that people who are attracted by jihadist ideology in the United States have a hard time finding facilitators, and they typically take the search online, to Facebook or Twitter. In some ways, this dynamic makes the FBI’s job easier. Many American jihadists are forced to expose themselves on Facebook and other Internet sites. There was a case of a couple in rural Mississippi that wanted to go to Syria. Where are you going to find a recruiter in rural Mississippi? So, they went on Facebook, drawing attention to themselves, and an undercover FBI agent discovered them.
But there’s a flip side. In Europe, jihadists travel to Syria. Most of them stay there, fight there and die there. Here in the U.S., people who embrace the ideology stay in the country. (Only around 150 Americans have traveled or planned to travel to fight in Syria.) In the U.S., jihadists also have easy access to automatic weapons, and they decide to carry out their attacks domestically—in San Bernardino, Chattanooga, Orlando. This is why America has seen quite a high number of domestic attacks compared with European countries. I think only France has had the same number.
Another downside to the way radicalization works in the United States is that people who work alone or in small groups can be harder to find. It’s easier to detect large clusters or networks like those in Europe. But if it’s just one random guy in front of his computer without many connections, even if he is posting on Facebook, he can be harder to notice.
It’s wrong to assume that this all happens online - It’s a bit of a myth that radicalization is all happening online. Obviously, everybody is online. Every jihadist in the states who has been arrested has had an online presence, and the same goes for Europe. There’s no denying that the Internet is a big part of radicalization—from acquiring the ideology to the operations.
But sometimes I think the narrative is that if Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist, we’d have no radicalization and no ISIL. Someone get’s arrested, everyone Googles the name of the person, and they find the Facebook and Twitter profiles, and they say, ‘Oh, online radicalization!’ Well, that’s the most visible part—the low hanging fruit. Everybody has an online and an offline life, and it’s important to pay attention to both.
There are a few cases in the states in which the radicalization has happened purely online—where jihadists never interacted with other like-minded extremists in the physical space. They were literally sitting in their parents’ basement 24/7 on their computers.
But more often, radicalization tends to take place within small groups of people who interact with each other physically—whether that’s going to the same mosque, or same seminars, or meeting in their apartments.
There was one guy in Texas who was arrested for terror-related activities. On the surface, it seemed like a quintessential lone wolf case; he had been online constantly. But we talked to the FBI agent who handled the case, we dug a bit and we found out that he was actually part of a cluster of seven or eight people who all embraced the same ideology and convened jihadist study groups. For a variety of reasons, he was the only one who got charged.
How does this apply to Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter? There are many details we still don’t know about his case, but I will say this: Each individual is surrounded by his own mood music, so to speak. In the case of the Orlando shooter, there was a father with radical views. There’s the fact that he went to a seminar taught by a radical Islamist preacher. Apparently, the shooter was also close to this other guy who was the first American suicide bomber in Syria. This is all very preliminary, and we can’t determine anything for sure until the facts are clear, but obviously there’s an online and an offline life here—and both contributed to the radicalization.
You can’t blame lack of integration alone - I’ve been studying this issue for 15 years. I’ve heard the same mantra time and again, after the Madrid bombings in 2004 and the London bombings in 2005, after Paris and Brussels: American Muslim are well integrated; European Muslims are not. So, European Muslims radicalize; American Muslims do not.
I think it’s a deeply flawed argument, because it assumes that radicalization is a direct byproduct of poor integration. There’s a lot of evidence that disproves that. Integration is certainly a factor, but it’s just one of many, many other factors.
In the United States, for example, most of the individuals who radicalize tend to be quite well integrated. San Bernardino. Orlando. Chattanooga. Had you evaluated these radicals the day before they carried out their attacks, you would have said, “They’re success stories. Models of integration. The American integration model works.”
By the way, it does indeed work. American Muslims are very well integrated. But this shows that radicalization is not necessarily a byproduct of integration alone. There’s no linear relationship.
Even if you look at European cases, you can see that it’s not always a matter of integration. The two countries (among the large ones) that have the smallest number of jihadists fighting in the Middle East are Spain and Italy. And yet both are countries in which integration of Muslim communities is terrible. As a rule, integration is much better in northern European countries. Yet radicalization is a bigger problem in northern Europe than southern Europe.
Extremists are an incredibly heterogeneous group - If you looking at the profiles of 100 or so people who have been arrested for terror-related crimes over the past two years, one of the main things you’ll see is that there’s absolutely no method to the madness. It’s men and women; it’s teenagers and men in their 40s; people with graduate degrees and high school dropouts. There’s people who have families and good jobs, and then people who are lost souls. They have all kinds of ethnic backgrounds and geographical origin. Some live in small towns, others in big cities.
And their pathways to radicalization vary widely, too. There are people who are by themselves as they radicalize. And there are people who are in small groups.
It’s absolutely impossible to draw a common profile. And that obviously makes the problem very hard to tackle, because there’s no single indicator.
Extremism is not always all about ISIL, or religion at all - We often get stuck talking about specific organizations—is this person linked to ISIL, to Al Qaeda, al-Shabaab or some other group? That information is important from an operational point of view. And some extremists really care about which group they belong to. But most of the time these people are interested in the ideas that are common to all these groups. At the end of the day, whether it’s one group or another matters very little. They just want to fight jihad.
A couple of months ago, a bunch of guys from New York were planning to bomb a synagogue, and one guy tells the other that they should put up a claim of responsibility. We should claim we’re Al Qaeda, he suggests. And the other guy essentially goes, "No, let’s do ISIS. It’s cooler!"
The danger here is that this ideology transcends individual groups. Say we defeat ISIL, so what? What comes next? The ideology is still there, and when the next incarnation of ISIL comes along, people will be infatuated with that. ISIL is just the flavor of the day.
Just like group identity, religion isn’t always central to radicalization either. There are some like the two brothers in Chicago, who by age 11 had memorized the Quran by heart. But then you have the two guys who bough Islam For Dummies before setting out for Syria. In many cases, these are extremists with a lot of contradictions. You might have someone who embraces jihadist ideology and lives a lifestyle highly incompatible with that ideology.
The FBI has two options - It’s very difficult to know all the procedures the FBI has in place—or in this specific case to know what the agents did, and why they decided that Mateen did not constitute a threat. But generally speaking, the last thing I can say is that the FBI is not paying attention. Terrorism is priority No. 1 for the FBI. That’s undeniable.
The big question for the FBI is what to do with the people in limbo, in the pre-criminal space. What do you do with a guy that you know is radicalized but has not committed any crime?
You monitor, that goes without saying, but resources are limited. So there’s two other options—a hard and a soft approach.
Option one: You push the extremist into committing a crime in a sting operation. It works something like this: An undercover agent approaches an individual and says, “I’m a recruiter for ISIL. I have explosives. I have the guns. Let’s travel together to Syria.” The FBI doesn’t do this to just anyone—it targets people it thinks are eventually going to move into violence. The theory is that if violence is going to happen anyway, the FBI might as well be the ones controlling it. It’s like a controlled explosion.
Setting aside the civil liberties concerns, this type of sting operation is very effective. The majority of people arrested for ISIL-related activities in the United States have been from sting operations. These ops are also the envy of every European law enforcement agency, which don’t have them because they aren’t legal in Europe.
The second approach is the opposite: You try to deradicalize the extremist by sending a mentor, an imam, a relative, or a former radical to convince him that his line of thinking is flawed, that his theological interpretations are flawed, that there are repercussions to what he’s doing. It works in some cases; it doesn’t work in many others.
They already do this in the UK a lot. The FBI is just starting to experiment with it, but the effort has been left to various field offices throughout the country, which are carrying this out in an improvised way. There aren’t really official legal guidelines or enough resources to do it on a big scale. There’s also some cultural pushback to this more social approach within the bureau.
It’s a tool that is useful; It’s hardly the silver bullet. The bottom line is that this is all very difficult work. There will always be someone who falls through the cracks.
Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, Washington DC, and ISPI Visiting Fellow.