The Danger Signs of Terror

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The National Post
November 24, 2009

In the wake of U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan’s shooting rampage at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, experts are debating the process by which people are radicalized into accepting militant Islamic beliefs. Looming large in this debate is the spectre of “profiling,” which some commentators reject as Islamophobic. To focus on Muslims, they argue, is to suggest that all Muslims are suspect.

Hasan seems to have been motivated by jihadist ideology. Beyond reports that he shouted ” Allahu Akbar!” before opening fire, he reportedly told a colleague at Fort Hood that Muslims should rise up against “aggressors” such as America. Hasan had exchanged numerous e-mails with extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a known al-Qaeda supporter based in Yemen, and a fellow Muslim officer told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that Hasan’s eyes “lit up” when discussing his respect for Awlaki.

Information such as this led a Fort Hood officer who had converted to Islam, and who prayed with Hasan the morning of the attack, to conclude “with great sadness” that Hasan “was motivated by religious radicalism.”

The Hasan case does not represent the typical situation in which profiling might be used: at an airport security line or a subway bag check, for example. Rather, he came to authorities’ attention in December 2008 due to a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) investigation into another subject with whom he was communicating, possibly Awlaki. A recent FBI press release explained that after Hasan came across the JTTF’s radar, they “assessed that the content of those communications was consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist,” and thus “concluded that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning.”

Did the JTTF reach the right conclusion given the information it had at the time? Or did it miss an opportunity to prevent the massacre? While these questions cannot be answered at this time, they point to the kind of profile that was relevant in this situation: not one that fixates on the fact that Hasan was Muslim, but one that seeks to comprehend what kind of ideas and other manifestations suggest a person represents a terrorist risk.

There have been published attempts at tackling this question. In 2007, the NYPD released Radicalization in the West, a report by Mitchell Silber and Arvin Bhatt, which identifies four phases through which the authors believe homegrown terrorists progress. After the first phase, “pre-radicalization,” the study turns to “self-identification,” wherein individuals begin exploring fundamentalist Islam “while slowly migrating away from their former identity.”

The study’s third phase is “indoctrination,” where the individuals’ newly adopted Salafibeliefs intensify. (The term Salafiis used to describe the fundamentalist religious practices imputed to the first three generations of Muslims who followed the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.) A person going through this stage “wholly adopts jihadi-Salafiideology and concludes, without question, that the conditions and circumstances exist where action is required to support and further the Salafist cause. That action is militant jihad.” The final phase, “jihadization,” is when individuals act on that belief, beginning to prepare for a terrorist act. Silber and Bhatt compare this process to a funnel: Though many people begin the radicalization process, few reach the point where they would carry out an attack.

Similarly, this year my associate Laura Grossman and I released a study, titled Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K. (FDD Press), that explores external manifestations of radicalization in 117 homegrown jihadi terrorists from the United States and Great Britain. The manifestations we examined include adopting a legalistic interpretation of Islam, coming to trust only select and ideologically rigid religious authorities, perceiving Islam and the West as irreconcilably opposed, manifesting a low tolerance for perceived theological deviance, and attempting to impose one’s religious beliefs on others. We found that these steps occurred frequently enough among the sample to be significant.

The prevalence of these factors suggests the importance of religio-political ideology as individuals radicalize — an ideology that cannot be described as Islam itself, but rather a rigid and non-mainstream understanding of that faith.

Studying these factors helps make sense of Westerners who have been drawn to Islamist terrorism. One of America’s most famous homegrown terrorists is al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, who soon after his conversion to Islam joined a “discussion group” filled with men who possessed a highly legalistic understanding of the faith. Gadahn followed the intricate rules he was taught, and came to see his California mosque’s moderate leadership as offering a diluted, inauthentic version of Islam. At one point, he punched the mosque’s president in the face during a confrontation.

As he radicalized, Gadahn came to see Islam and the West as irreconcilably opposed. He isolated himself from family members and all things Western, later expressing the idea of a schism between Islam and the West in his first al-Qaeda video.

The behavioural changes highlighted by our study interacted to push Gadahn toward supporting terrorism. They may end up having explanatory value in Nidal Hasan’s case as well.

Unfortunately, attempts to engage in serious study of the radicalization process have met with chilly receptions. The NYPD study in particular generated enormous controversy. While that study is by no means above criticism, many critiques suggested that any exploration of this difficult area should be off-limits.

The same kind of arguments have surfaced in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings. If commentators really believe it is inappropriate to explore how terrorists have radicalized, that is their prerogative. But let’s be honest about the kind of profiling that is relevant here. From my perch, it seems that understanding how terrorists are made can be used as a tool to protect rights rather than violate them — to avoid the kind of generalized suspicion that the opponents of profiling rightly fear.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice-president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a PhD candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin, 2007). “Constructing a terrorist” is brought to our readers in conjunction with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. For more information, please visit

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