Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Can the U.S. Stop Homegrown Terrorism?


In last week's wide-ranging counterterrorism speech, President Obama outlined his plan to curtail the use of drones and close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility as the past decade of wars comes to an end. Terrorists have successfully used these policies to recruit and radicalize across the world, including in the United States. Although the U.S. has not suffered a large-scale terrorist attack from abroad since 9/11 in part due to the suppression of core Al-Qaeda, self-radicalization in the United States is fast becoming the primary threat to our national security. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden calls homegrown attacks by people legally in the U.S. the "new normal."

At a news conference after the Boston Bombing, the president said that "one of the dangers that we now face are self-radicalized individuals who are already here in the United States," and acknowledged that these threats "are in some ways more difficult to prevent." What is required is a community-based approach to identify those individuals, often alienated immigrants and bigots, who are prone to self-radicalization messages, and intervene in the grey area between the First Amendment right to radical beliefs and the crime of violent behaviors.

With an increasingly active online presence, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are turning to homegrown terrorism to advance its aims, a change in strategy requiring an equally important adjustment in U.S. counterterrorism policy. One need only look to attacks from years past to understand the gravity of the threat: Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Tex.; Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber; and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston. What remains to be seen is whether there is any way for authorities to stop homegrown terrorism attacks without overreaching and infringing on civil liberties. Radicalization is an individual or small group phenomenon, not a community-level problem, and the best solution requires a community-based approach.

The radicalized individuals are harder than ever to spot because Al-Qaeda provides all the information needed for a smaller-scale attack online. "I strongly recommend all of the brothers and sisters coming from the West to consider attacking America in its own backyard," wrote Samir Khan, an American who joined Al-Qaeda and was killed in 2011. Investigators believe that messages such as Khan's were the basis for the Boston bombing. With resources such as Khan'sonline magazine Inspire, it is no longer necessary to travel to training camps to gain the tools needed to terrorize. 

As the New York Times puts it: "the Tsarnaev brothers appear to have been radicalized and instructed in explosives not at a training camp but at home on the internet," where former CIA psychiatrist Jerrod Post explains Al-Qaeda has "made a particular effort to recruit lonely people who are looking for a cause." Post points to Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 at Fort Hood in 2009, as an other example of a homegrown attack fuelled by terrorist resources on the internet.

The community-based solution requires action from the both private citizens, especially those citizens in the Muslim community and business owners, and the government. The vast majority of people with extremist views do not turn violent. It is important, though, that citizens try to curtail these extreme views and when necessary notify authorities of individuals they deem may be risks so that the moment the individuals turn to action, law enforcement can intervene. Reagan's Asst. Secretary of Defense Perle explains, "The American-Muslim community, which is predominantly, overwhelmingly decent and well-integrated into this country, needs to stand up and oppose those ... propagating this radical vision."

Business owners whose stores carry the items needed to make explosives are taking note too. In 2011, Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo was arrested after a clerk alerted authorities that Abdo tried to buy explosive powder for his pressure cooker at the same gun shop near Fort Hood that Major Hasan had used. William Weinmar, vice president at Phantom Fireworks, explains that his company is taking steps to get NYPD training for its sales personnel in order to identify red flags.

With all the progress that can be made at the community level, government reform is proving more difficult. One major obstacle is Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who assigns collective community responsibility after every incident involving a Muslim. He said that "police" must "build up as many sources as they can, and they have to realize that the threat is coming from the Muslim community." 

Instead of profiling by race, ethnicity, or religion, the government must aim to further its research into the behaviors that spark both radical Islamist attacks as well as attacks from other radical groups. Rep. Jane Hartman (D-Calif.) twice introduced the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act calling for a commission of experts "intended to study the problem of radicalization and how certain beliefs incite someone to commit violence, as well as to ensure that profiling would be based not on race or religion but behavior." Although Rep. Hartman has since retired, initiatives such as hers are critical in giving our communities the non-kinetic tools and knowledge necessary to confront the homegrown terror threat.

As the United States slowly disengages from the wars in the Middle East, it will continue to employ to the best of its abilities the tools necessary to protect the United States from any attack from abroad. The domestic threat, however, requires a different approach, one that calls on the government to give communities the resources to properly identify threats before they turn violent.