After a pitched battle lasting more than nine months to wrest control of Mosul from ISIS, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently declared “total victory.” The media immediately reminded us of President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on an aircraft carrier in May 2003, where he hailed the end of battlefield operations in Iraq, claiming the end to a war that started with a fixation linking Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks—a war that was sold with the promise that it would take the fight to the terrorists in Iraq to stop them from attacking Americans. Instead, that war that appears to have claimed the lives of well over 100,000 civilian-noncombatant Iraqis and nearly 5,000 U.S. military personnel and it ended up emboldening the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who became the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, which morphed into ISIS in 2011.
Unless underlying grievances and sectarianism are addressed, there are widespread and legitimate concerns that the threat from ISIS will not only linger and re-emerge in Iraq, but also that it will continue to inspire diffuse attacks beyond the battlefields of the Middle East, including in the United States. However that’s not the only threat from violent extremists in America, far from it. Home-grown violent extremist attacks connected to a wide variety of causes are more prevalent than attacks perpetrated by foreign terrorist fighters.
To reduce the risks posed by violent extremists, instead of talking about victory, it is critical that two fundamental questions are addressed:
- What is the actual, rather than the perceived, extent and nature of the threat, beyond simply Islamist violent extremism, including the motivations for violent extremism in all its forms?
- Based on the answer to first question, what can be done to improve efforts to prevent as well as counter that threat?
What is the nature of the threat?
There is a burgeoning literature on the nature of the modern threat to the United States posed by violent extremists. From evidence in case studies and detailed datasets, three important issues have emerged.
First, attacks executed by lone actors are not new in America, but they have become more common. Despite some criticism, the term “lone wolf” (others prefer the term “stray dog”) is often applied by experts as shorthand to describe an individual who acts alone, even though he or she is usually, even if indirectly, influenced by the ideas of others, often online. Despite a 16-fold increase in the number of attacks by lone actors over the past 60 years, the attacks are not becoming more sophisticated, with casualty rates remaining fairly constant. From 2006-2016, 98 percent of all deaths from terrorism in the U.S. have resulted from attacks carried out by lone actors, resulting in 156 deaths. A report by Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaj for the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJS) makes clear that while no single profile of a lone wolf terrorist exists, some trends have emerged from an extensive review: “most of them are unemployed, single white males with a criminal record” and in contrast “to members of terrorist groups, lone wolves are older, less educated and more prone to mental illness. . . .” This leads to the next point.
Second, while there is an ongoing debate about the extent to which ideology drives terrorism, more recent studies of lone actors show that there are other factors besides ideology as motivation for this category of violent extremist. In another study on lone wolf terrorism and mental illness, Ramon Spaaj notes these actors “tend to create their own ideologies that combine personal frustrations and aversion with broader political, social, or religious aims. In this process, many lone wolf terrorists draw on the communities of belief and ideologies of validation generated and transmitted by extremist movements.”
This view reflects a change from the past when groups and networks, rather than individuals, were the primary focus of studies on terrorism. A team of psychologists who studied terrorism in the immediate post 9/11 era, for example, admitted that more data was needed, but at the time asserted that “[m]ental illness is not a critical factor in explaining terrorist behavior . . . most terrorists are not ‛psychopaths.’” Over a decade later there is evidence from studies on mental illness and terrorism involvement that shows much higher rates of schizophrenia. Over forty percent of so-called lone wolf attacks are committed by mentally ill people.
Unlike al-Qaida, ISIS is actively trying to reach mentally unbalanced people to carry out more random acts of violence such as vehicular homicides or stabbings. Brutal attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan—apparently linked to a message from an ISIS spokesman—stoked fears that there is likely to be an increase in ISIS-inspired attacks like those that have been carried out by lone actors as far afield as Melbourne, Australia and Orlando, Florida, where both attacks were committed by mentally unstable individuals. Traditional counterterrorism tools confined to law enforcement and intelligence are not sufficient to address this threat.
Third, it is a mistake to think that the threat from radical Muslims is the extent of the problem. White supremacists and others with far-right political aims, including Sovereign Citizens, are motivating more lone actor attacks in the United States than terrorists who have been motivated by extreme interpretations of Islam. Based on an April 2017 Government Accountability Office study, “of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent).” Other research shows that far-right plots and attacks outnumber Islamist incidents by almost two to one. Yet as a comprehensive study produced by the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point shows, the lack of a universally accepted definition of terrorism and the wide array of aims, methods, and capabilities of groups that comprise the “far-right” make it difficult to make simple comparisons between violent extremists motivated by different religious or ethnic belief sets that promote hatred. However in 2009 the Department of Homeland Security with the FBI produced an intelligence report which concluded that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” Despite the solid evidence that “about 70 percent of the right-wing extremists who have served in the military were indicted or were involved in an incident since the beginning of 2008,” the report was withdrawn by DHS director Janet Napolitano after complaints that it had unpatriotically raised concerns about the possibility of recruitment of “disgruntled military veterans.”
There is another piece of data that is often either missed or overlooked: the residency of the attacker. When attacks are carried out by Islamists, including those said to be inspired by ISIS, reporting sometimes has portrayed the perpetrators as foreign born individuals. Yet, a study by the New America Foundation explains that “[E]very jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident.” An approach that addresses all forms of violent extremism and employs programs to build resilience against it needs to be developed using an evidence base that reflects the actual threat. Despite the current president’s fixation on “violent Islamist extremism,” and “extreme vetting,” an array of other extremist lone actors with much different motivations poses a serious terrorist threat in the United States. If this imbalance is not addressed by focusing on all forms of violent extremism across the political spectrum, including white supremacists, a worrying dynamic will get worse with radical Islamists and far-right extremists ratcheting up the violence against each other, as Amarnath Amarasingam and Jacob Davey explain: the “ideologies of these movements are symbiotic, with both sides playing off a fear of the other to tailor their messages and attract new audiences. Left unchecked, competing outrages and persecution narratives could lead to a cascade of radicalization, in which extremists on each side feed the other’s growth.”
What can be done?
Some experts have offered very sensible ideas to address this threat, such as Dan Byman, for example, who identifies the need for good community relations to minimize motivations for violence and encourage local cooperation with authorities.
Failure to recognize, understand, and address all forms violent extremism, however, remains a serious problem in the United States and it hinders the development of effective strategies to address the actual nature of the threat. As Steve Weine points out: Instead of limiting the focus to Muslim-Americans, we should be using community policing strategies to address the full spectrum of ideologically-inspired violence, including the violent far-right and far-left, as well as non-ideologically inspired violence. The NCJS study quoted earlier concludes that “the ability of law enforcement and intelligence communities to detect and prevent lone wolf terrorism demands a clear understanding of these radicalization processes.” In the United Kingdom, for example, the county of Kent police offers training on radicalization. Within the European Union the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) offers it too. In the United States organizations including the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) have produced materials on radicalization awareness for the police, but a limited understanding of the radicalization process and underdeveloped community policing combined with a lack of resources remains a significant impediment, especially beyond New York City and Los Angeles and in smaller towns in America.
Another issue that is more unique to the United States is the extent to which firearms have been used to commit lone actor terrorist attacks over the last decade. Moreover, 91 percent of individuals on the terrorist watch list passed gun background checks. It would seem logical to make sure that gun laws are stricter or at least implemented and enforced, but that is met with resistance and is not happening. It is also worth noting that in the past year in the UK there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of far-right extremists on its watch lists. In the U.S. there are reports that the government intends to go in the opposite direction and limit its focus to Islamist violent extremists—despite the fact that the numbers of lone actors motivated by the far-right are more prevalent in America.
On the issue of addressing mental health in an effort to prevent acts of violent extremism, more needs to be done to turn research into policy outcomes. Psychologist Dr. Katherine Seifert notes that in this context a “severely mentally ill person that is also at risk for violence needs access to high quality, non-stigmatized behavioral health and ancillary services over their lifespan in order to reduce the risk of them becoming violent and strengthen their ability to live a healthy, pro-social lifestyle.” Professor Barbara McQuade makes the case for more of a “focus on helping individuals with mental illness with early intervention programs before they head down a path toward violence.”
In parts of Australia there has been a major shift in thinking with the admission that the problem of lone wolf terrorism cannot be addressed by law enforcement and intelligence alone. After the terrorist attack in a café in Sydney in 2006 the New South Wales police chief created a Fixated Persons Investigations Unit which brings together a team of detectives and social workers specializing in mental health issues. They apply a “population solution to risk management” which was started in the UK and later in Queensland with similar units focused on addressing fixations that lead to violence committed against public figures. The logic behind identifying and treating people who are fixated is explained by using the analogy of preventing heart attacks by treating the symptoms. “One cannot predict which individual will have a heart attack. However, one can identify factors which make a heart attack more likely, such as smoking, obesity, hypertension and high blood cholesterol levels. One then treats everyone who possesses these risk factors—for instance by smoking cessation therapy, weight loss, anti-hypertensives and cholesterol-lowering drugs. This will prevent heart attacks, without needing to predict which individuals would have had a heart attack if they had not had treatment.” When it comes to addressing lone actors, prevention seems like the only hope as a public policy option. The UK government has launched a pilot program involving the Counter Terrorism Police and the National Health Service to “provide valuable learning on how to help vulnerable people get the health support they need.” There is also more attention in Canada to the links between mental health and violent extremism of all kinds.
There are some examples for prevention efforts in this context that are underway in the United States on the local level, but they are not as widespread as they need to be. The Safety Net Collaborative brings the police, mental health services, and others together in Cambridge, Massachusetts to identify early warning signs and provide preventive support to youth. Community Partnerships with Law Enforcement to Enhance Public Safety (COMPLETE Public Safety) is undertaking efforts to strengthen community policing efforts and there is ample evidence that such practices are working. However, a Duke University study found that reform measures are needed to improve police efforts to address violent extremism.
Programs that engage communities and go beyond the realm of traditional law enforcement by engaging health professionals and other experts should be developed further. However, the utmost care must be taken to ensure that risks are anticipated and minimized. Relying on health workers as an extension of policing and (or worse, intelligence agencies) is risky. Therefore care should be taken not to undermine an essential component of therapeutic services: the trust between health professionals and patients as well their families and the communities in which they live.
Efforts to identify and work with fixated people before they become violent need more attention and research to see if existing prevention initiatives are effective and replicable. At the same time it is vital that counterterrorism is driven by evidence and not muddled by fixations when it comes to threat profiles that overlook the reality presented in the data. Law enforcement and intelligence are critical elements of America’s counterterrorism efforts, but more tools are needed, including the expertise of mental health professionals, if there is any realistic hope of preventing fixated lone actors—those inspired to whatever extent by the hatred of ISIS, white supremacists, and others from committing acts of violent extremism.