Terrorism Trends

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The Weekly Standard
Aug. 19, 2009

Old and new.

A cluster of recent events has put homegrown terrorism on the country’s radar for the second time in two months. We have seen alleged members of a jihadist cell arrested in North Carolina, a Minnesota-based Somali man plead guilty to aiding Islamic militants in Somalia, and the revelation that a Long Island man gave al-Qaeda information about New York subways and trains. This follows the events of late May and early June, when a shooting at an Arkansas military recruiting center followed the disruption of a bomb plot in the Bronx.

Attorney General Eric Holder told ABC News on July 29 that he is increasingly concerned by Americans who are radicalized and turn to terrorism. “The whole notion of radicalization is something that didn’t loom as large a few months ago … as it does now,” he said. “And that’s the shifting nature of threats that keeps you up at night.”

Holder is correct that homegrown terrorism is a significant problem. But the idea that it was not on the radar until recent months suggests, more than anything, that Holder had not immersed himself in the issue until recently.

My policy institute recently released a study I co-authored, Terrorism in the West 2008, which examines terrorism events and legal developments in Western countries over the course of last year. Terrorism is neither a new phenomenon nor a scourge that will disappear soon. Though recent incidents have involved Islamic extremists, terrorism is not the exclusive domain of a single religion or ideology. Here, I will highlight a few trends that are relevant to those trying to comprehend the terrorism threat in the United States.

First, there is a trend toward transnational terrorist groups developing their capacities in the West in order to build strength and resiliency. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Hezbollah, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and other transnational groups are all active in Western countries.

When transnational terror groups operate in the West to build their capacities and resilience, they often do not intend to carry out attacks on Western soil. Rather, Western countries can be used as bases to raise funds, obtain equipment, and propagandize. The LTTE experienced a dramatic military defeat in Sri Lanka this year, and if it is able to make a comeback, its Western networks will likely be part of that story.

Second, the connections between transnational crime and terrorism have deepened. This linkage is not new: the USSR had been a major terrorist sponsor during the Cold War, and after its collapse these groups were forced to look elsewhere financially. Many turned to criminal activities.

There are two strategic aspects of terrorist involvement in criminal activity. First, it allows terrorists to gain financially while damaging the societies they target. Second, law enforcement can derive some advantage from the crime-terrorism nexus by shutting down terrorists through targeting their criminal activities. This echoes the strategy used to fight the mob in the early to mid-twentieth century, as typified by Al Capone’s prosecution. Though Capone’s offenses included murder, bribery, and running illegal breweries, he was charged with tax evasion.

After 9/11, then-attorney general John Ashcroft publicly advocated an Al Capone/mob model for prosecuting suspected terrorists, charging them for their full range of offenses (rather than just terrorist activities). Consistent with this, prosecutors have often employed “undercharging,” charging defendants with lesser crimes than terrorism offenses. Last year in Australia, Jack Thomas was convicted of possessing a falsified passport after prosecutors failed to convict him on terrorism charges. Similarly, U.S. prosecutors won convictions against three former Care International officers for concealing material facts from the United States and defrauding the government, despite the organization’s suspected involvement in jihadist activity.

Third, debate about how to balance security and civil liberties is especially acute on the question of when speech crosses the line to illegally supporting terrorism. In 2008 several individuals were arrested or convicted for propagandizing on behalf of terror groups. In Germany, two men were arrested for operating a jihadist web site. In Spain, three men were arrested for “promoting radical ideology among the Muslim community,” while a married U.K. couple was charged with distributing propaganda.

A significant British appellate court case involved five young Muslim students who were convicted in late 2007 “for downloading and sharing extremist terrorism-related material.” In overturning the convictions, the court held that for possession of this material to constitute an offense, there had to be a reasonable suspicion that it was connected to an actual terrorist act. The solicitor for one of the accused expressed concern that prior to this judgment, young Muslims “could have been prosecuted for simply looking at any material on the basis that it might be connected in some way to terrorist purposes.”

But free speech is threatened not only by overzealous prosecutions, but also by terrorism. This has been evident for years: the possibility of an attack against author Salman Rushdie was one of the concerns that drove him underground following Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa condemning him to death for his novel The Satanic Verses. In 2008, three men were arrested in Britain after plotting attacks against the publisher of the controversial novel The Jewel of Medina. (The novel was a historical romance following the life of Muhammad’s young wife Aisha.) Moving forward, the threat of violence may put pressure on people’s ability to engage in free expression on certain issues.

Fourth, we are now seeing more Western suicide bombers. Suicide bombings are of both symbolic and strategic importance to terrorist organizations. In 2008, two Western countries–Germany and the U.S.–saw their own citizens die as a suicide bombers for the first time. There were also suicide plots in Belgium, Spain, and the U.K.

Fifth, Islamic terrorism poses a unique challenge. While terrorism is not the exclusive domain of any religion or ideology, Islam-inspired terrorism has generated the greatest public concern. This is not unfair: Islamic terrorism is a serious threat due to a mix of motivations and capabilities. Put simply, at present only the Islamic terrorist movement possesses both the desire to do major damage to Western interests and the capacity to do so.

One advantage that Islamic terrorists have is territorial safe havens. The 9-11 Commission concluded that physical sanctuaries are critical to groups’ ability to carry out catastrophic acts of terror. Following the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda found new safe havens, notably in Pakistan and Somalia. Terrorist activity with links to both countries was heavy in 2008–in Germany, Norway, Sweden, the U.S., and elsewhere.

Unless there are significant changes, a number of future plots will likely be connected to Pakistan and Somalia. Plots with connections to these countries may be more ambitious due to the advantages that safe havens afford.

Finally, one unfortunate emerging trend may be the normalization of terrorism as a form of protest. Following bombings last year of gas pipelines operated by Canadian company EnCana, one observer noted that such attacks are “almost like the price of doing business.” Do some segments of Western society increasingly think that violence is a justifiable response to views or actions with which they strongly disagree?

The classical liberal principles upon which Western society was built favor debate, discussion, and mediation as a means of settling disagreements. What happens when taking a position or action unpopular with some group becomes dangerous?

If terrorism is being normalized as a form of protest, one question we must confront is whether such acts will grow deadlier over time. While acts of “ecotage” may be “the price of doing business” today, will these acts evolve to targeting people? In late 2008, a crude bomb was left outside the offices of Shell Ireland to protest a gas pipeline project in Co Mayo, an attack that a company spokesman described as “a sinister development and very serious escalation.”

Al-Qaeda’s militant activities grew to an attack on American soil that killed almost 3,000 people, and less than two years later the group obtained a fatwa for terrorism against the United States using weapons of mass destruction. Will other groups similarly escalate their use of violence?

The growing threat of homegrown terrorism was clear before recent events. Properly safeguarding the United States will involve comprehending the broad contours of the phenomenon, and also improving anti-terror policing tactics, just as terrorists advance their own methods.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the director of the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He co-authored the report Terrorism in the West 2008 with Joshua D. Goodman and Laura Grossman.


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