Homegrown Failure: Why the Domestic Terror Threat Is Overblown

July 17, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in Nato Review on July 17, 2012.

Homegrown terrorism is not becoming more common and dangerous in the United States, contrary to warnings issued regularly from Washington. American jihadists attempting local attacks are predictably incompetent, making them even less dangerous than their rarity suggests.

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Robert Mueller, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are among legions of experts and officials who have recently warned of a rise in homegrown terrorism, meaning terrorist acts or plots carried out by American citizens or long‐​term residents, often without guidance from foreign organisations.

But homegrown American terrorism is not new.

Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley in 1901, was a native‐​born American who got no foreign help. The same goes for John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray. The deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, was largely the work of New York‐​born Gulf War vet, Timothy McVeigh.

As Brian Michael Jenkins of RAND notes, there is far less homegrown terrorism today than in the 1970s, when the Weather Underground, the Jewish Defense League, anti‐​Castro Cuban exile groups, and the Puerto Rican Nationalists of the FALN were setting off bombs on U.S. soil.

There was an increase in homegrown terrorism arrests in the late 2000s, with the decade’s high coming in 2009. That year saw the decade’s deadliest act of homegrown terrorism when Nidal Hasan killed thirteen people at Ft. Hood. Homegrown terrorism has declined since. According a report published earlier this year by Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, arrests of homegrown terrorists fell from 47 in 2009 to 20 in 2011. No more successful plots have occurred.

There are reasons to doubt that the recent increase in homegrown terrorism arrests reflected an increase in actual terrorism. One reason is random variation. Because a run of aces may be due to chance, it does not make the next gamble a good one. Similarly, a spate of homegrown terrorism does not necessarily indicate a continuing trend.

Second, as Jenkins notes, a sizeable minority of those arrested for terrorism in the late 2000s were U.S. nationals trying to help the al‐​Shabaab group in Somalia, either by recruiting, fundraising or joining its ranks. That counts as terrorism because the U.S. government categorizes al‐​Shabaab as a terrorist organisation and criminalises support for it. But it is an insurgent organisation chiefly interested in Somalia politics that has not attempted terrorism in the United States. With Ethiopian forces occupying parts of Somalia from 2006–2009, many in the Somali diaspora saw support for al‐​Shabaab as a defense of their homeland. Those that aid or join it are not necessarily interested in terrorism, let alone terrorism against Americans.

Third, U.S. authorities began to search harder for terrorists at home. After the September 11, the FBI received a massive boost in counterterrorism funding and shifted a small army of agents from crime‐​fighting to counterterrorism. Many joined new Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Ambitious prosecutors increasingly looked for terrorists to indict. Most states stood up intelligence fusion centers, which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) soon fed with threat intelligence.

The intensification of the search was bound to produce more arrests, even without more terrorism, just as the Inquisition was sure to find more witches. Of course, unlike the witches, only a minority of those found by this search are innocent. But many seem like suggestible idiots unlikely to have produced workable plots without the help of FBI informants or undercover agents taught to induce criminal conduct without engaging in entrapment.

Take Rezwan Ferdaus, the 26‐​year‐​old who lived with his parents outside of Boston before his arrest last fall. He allegedly planned to fly small remote‐​controlled airplanes carrying a few pounds of explosives into the Pentagon and Capitol dome, assuming they would easily collapse. A second attack would somehow destroy the bridges at the Pentagon complex, before a six‐​man team armed with AK‐​47s attacked the survivors. Happily, Ferdaus had no accomplices, aside from those provided by the FBI, no money for the planes, other than what the FBI loaned him, and no explosives, beyond the fake sort that the FBI provides.

The officials and pundits most worried about homegrown terrorists claim that Americans are lucky to have enemies like Ferdaus. They say the same of Faizal Shahzad, whose car bomb failed to explode in Times Square, Nazibullah Zazi, who could not make a working bomb despite the training he got on the subject in Pakistan, and the many other incompetents that have lately attempted terrorism in the United States.

Homegrown American jihadists cannot acquire the funds and training needed for terroristic expertise. Most would quickly kill themselves once they achieved it despite their serial failure, U.S. leaders describe homegrown terrorists as cunning and their threat as great. Napolitano says they are especially dangerous because they can come from “any direction, and with little or no warning.” Mueller warns that they “understand our culture, our security protocols, and our vulnerabilities. They use the Internet, social media, and marketing skills to influence like‐​minded individuals.”

The failure of U.S.-born jihadists, however, reflects more than luck. There are at least two good reasons for it. The first is al Qaeda’s ideology. By supporting the murder of most people, including most Muslims, al Qaeda ensures that it remains wildly unpopular in most places. Their ideology is especially noxious to those living in coherent, liberal societies like the United States. Americans drawn to al Qaeda are likely to be a troubled and disaffected lot, lacking traits that most organisations value in recruits.

A more important reason source of failure is organisational weakness. Mass violence has historically been the product of bureaucratic, hierarchical organisations that belong to states or insurgencies resembling them. Only bureaucratic organisations who have the tools to train and motivate many to act on the orders of a few, which is historically how mass violence with small arms occurred. As agents of states or other organisations that monopolise violence, bureaucratic organisations alone have got the physical security, expertise and capital need to manufacture mass killing weapons like artillery, strike aircraft, and nuclear weapons.

Because they are generally clandestine, terrorist groups usually lack these attributes. They struggle to gain and transfer deadly knowledge, amass wealth, build the physical plants needed to make sophisticated weapons or mass enough manpower to sustain attacks on populations. Those flaws are especially evident in al Qaeda, which has always been more a loosely linked set of radicals than an organisation that commands adherents.

Homegrown American jihadists, who generally lack guidance even from al Qaeda’s withering core, are about the least organised terrorists imaginable. They cannot acquire the funds and training needed for terroristic expertise. Most would quickly kill themselves once they achieved it.

Contrary to much recent analysis, the internet does not solve these problems. As Anne Stenersen of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment has shown, online guides to bomb‐​making, poison manufacture and other tools of mayhem provide unreliable information. Authorities can monitor such sites or set up their own to mislead or trap malfeasants.

Moreover, internet‐​based instruction does not provide the sort of rapid interaction between trainer and trainee that characterises most successful training in complex tasks. The internet is an even more useless for mastering acts of violence that require teamwork. There is a reason why organisations that effectively coordinate activity, whether it is the Marines Corps or Real Madrid, avoid virtual training.

If DHS is right that homegrown terrorists are now a bigger threat than the international variety, we should celebrate. Even if American‐​born jihadists grow more numerous and skilled, which now seems unlikely, they will remain far less deadly than the terrorist supervillains we have been taught to expect. They will never compare to big risks to American longevity like heart disease and depression.

The other good news is that the two best ways to combat this overrated danger are cheap. One is community policing, where police form relationships with local groups, including criminals, to generate tips that lead to other criminals, including terrorists.

According to a report by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, this method brought the most recent arrests of homegrown terrorists. It is nearly free, given that police do much of the relevant work in the course of their normal work. The other promising antidote to homegrown terrorism is foreign policy restraint. Most homegrown terrorists credibly claim that U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, motivated them to violence. The end of the war in Iraq has probably shrunk their number. A U.S. exit from Afghanistan and disengagement from Middle‐​Eastern politics would shrink it further, while allowing vast defense savings.

Unfortunately, DHS has almost nothing to do with those matters. Towns, states and the Department of Justice handle most policing, while State and Defense do foreign policy. Rather than admit its general irrelevance to a threat it is funded to combat, DHS will likely continue counterterrorism policies with costs that outweigh their benefit. That may prove to be the most costly consequence of homegrown terrorism in the United States.

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