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Risk of Homegrown Terrorism Plots Examined

June 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Two New Jersey men are the latest American citizens arrested for alleged involvement with international terrorism groups. Jeffrey Brown examines the ongoing concern over homegrown terror risks with two terrorism experts.

JEFFREY BROWN: We look at this phenomenon now with Jessica Stern, a former National Security Council staffer for President Clinton. She has been a professor at Harvard Law School and has written extensively on terrorism. And Fathali Moghaddam, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, his latest book is called “The New Global Insecurity.”

Jessica Stern, I will start with you.

To what extent is this a growing phenomenon? What do you see happening?

JESSICA STERN, author: Well, actually, I think it is a growing phenomenon.

Since September 11, there have been about 50 incidents in the United States, somebody getting picked up either for an attack in the United States or abroad, about half of them in the United States. But 13 of them occurred in 2009. So, we see a kind of blip. And it is quite distressing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Moghaddam, what — what do we know about what drives these people?

FATHALI MOGHADDAM, professor of psychology, Georgetown University: Well, the most important aspect of this, I think, is the sort of cyber-jihad, the extensive reach of the electronic media which is reaching the young people there. So, that is the first aspect of it to focus on.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Internet.

FATHALI MOGHADDAM: Yes, the Internet — and also the fact that these are mostly younger men. And we know that young men in all cultures are risk-takers. And it’s a matter of which direction the risk-taking takes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, before we get to the Internet, are there common — are there any common traits? Is there — is there such a thing as a common profile?

FATHALI MOGHADDAM: I don’t believe there are characteristics that are going to be easily identified. The one common theme I think we can pick on is identity.

These are all individuals who, in one way or another, lack a strong, robust, healthy identity. And, in most cases, they are seeking their identity through connection with the jihadi network.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Stern, what — what — is there a common thread that you see?

JESSICA STERN: Well, actually, I think that’s exactly right.

One common thread that we see is the use of the Internet. And another is that these are mostly youth who are seeking a kind of identity with dignity. I think that humiliation is a really important factor here. And they’re trying to find a way to join a group that will give them an identity, something like why kids join gangs in other situations and other times.

JEFFREY BROWN: And staying with you, are they then — I mean, should we think of them as committed already, or amateurs or, you know, in the parlance, wannabes? How do you — again, we’re trying to — maybe we’re stereotyping too much here, but how do you think about them generally?

JESSICA STERN: Well, I think that while they may look like not very effective terrorists — and — and quite a few of them have not been very effective — I think their intentions are quite serious.

And it would be possible, even with a quite rudimentary attack, to have a major economic and psychological impact on the United States. The goal of terrorism is psychological. It’s to get us to overreact. And one could imagine quite a few small attacks that would have that kind of impact.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re nodding your head here.

FATHALI MOGHADDAM: Yes, I completely agree.

I think the aim is psychological impact. And that’s why it’s important for the United States to develop collective resilience here. It seems to me that we have become too jumpy. We have reacted in a knee-jerk fashion to these threats. And we need to build up a sort of Dunkirk spirit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which means what?

FATHALI MOGHADDAM: Which means that, collectively — and I don’t mean just mean as individuals, but, collectively, as a society, we need to become more resilient. We need to be able to react better to these kinds of threats, because the fact is, they are not going to decline in the near future, because cyber-terrorism is just one aspect of the new global insecurity. It’s going to increase, rather than decrease, in the next few decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain a little bit more about what you see in cyberspace. Are — this is — I mean, how — well, how does it work? These sites are out — all out there to be found?

FATHALI MOGHADDAM: Yes, they are all out there to be found.

And one of the dilemmas is whether to try to shut down sites or whether it would actually be worse, because they would spring up in new places. At the same time, we have to be careful that we don’t limit our own freedom when we want to limit theirs. The cyber-war that is going on, on the one front, it’s hundreds of thousands of attacks on places like the Pentagon.

But, on the other front, there are many, many attacks in terms of cyber-jihad. So, that is the front we have to take more seriously. I think we’re doing very well in that war, and we don’t want to overreact.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jessica Stern, you have looked at this a lot.

Does the — the Internet allows law enforcement to watch what’s going on? What issues does it raise for law enforcement?

JESSICA STERN: Well, there are pros and cons, both for the terrorists and for law enforcement. It does enable law enforcement authorities and scholars to monitor how terrorists are thinking, how they are recruiting, who they’re trying to go after.

It’s possible to actually converse with them, as a colleague of mine, Jarret Brachman, does. But we cannot do what, for example, the Saudi government does. The Saudi government directly engages youth who are active in jihadi chat rooms. We — we really — our government really can’t do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jessica Stern, staying with you, what kind of efforts are there, if any — and I don’t know how possible this is — to — to reach these young people who might be tempted by foreign terror groups?

JESSICA STERN: Well, one thing to remember is that these are generally young men so far. And the people who are most concerned about young men, for example, joining Al-Shabab in Somalia are their parents.

Their parents are very upset about it. And they will do anything they can to stop them, in most cases. There are a few cases where parent and child were both involved. But, mostly, the elders in the community and the parents are — are very actively involved in trying to put a stop to young men getting on a plane, going to Somalia and joining Al-Shabab.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a quick last thought on that.

FATHALI MOGHADDAM: Well, that’s an excellent point, that the community has to set the norms.

At the same time, I would remind you that we tried to do the same thing with problems like drugs. And we don’t always succeed. That’s why it’s important to build up collective resilience here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Fathali Moghaddam and Jessica Stern, thank you both very much.