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Chapter II: The Ideology Of Violent Islamist Extremism And The Growth Of Homegrown Radicalization

America's enemy today, just as it was seven years ago when the 9/11 Commission released its report, is not simply terrorism or a particular terrorist organization such as al Qaeda or its affiliates. The enemy is in fact the ideology of violent Islamist extremism — the ideology that inspired the attacks of 9/11 as well as a myriad of attacks large and small around the world prior to and after 9/11. As the 9111 Commission report stated, we are not fighting "'terrorism,' some generic evil," and "our strategy must match our means to two ends: dismantling the al Qaeda network and prevailing in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to Islamist terrorism."4

Despite the remarkable work of America's military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies in preventing individual terrorist attacks, the ideology that inspired 9/11 and other attacks and plots around the world continues to motivate individuals to commit terrorism. The threat is exemplified by Omar Hammami, an American from a typical upbringing in Alabama who now fights for the violent Islamist extremist group al-Shabaab in Somalia and recruits Westerners to its cause in English over the internet. As Hammami said, "they can't blame it on poverty or any of that stuff ... They will have to realize that it's an ideology and it's a way of life that makes people change."5

A. The Ideological Principles, Radicalization Process. And Recruitment Narrative Of Violent Islamist Extremism.

The core principles of violent Islamist extremism are essentially as follows: A global state or caliphate — should be created in which the most radical interpretation of Shari 'oh (Islamic religious law) will be enforced by the government. Adherents to violent Islamist extremism should prioritize the global Islamist community — the ummah — ahead of the community and country in which they live. To accomplish these goals, violence is justified, including against the West generally, military personnel, and civilians. Muslims who oppose these principles and reject its perversion of the Islamic faith are also considered by violent Islamist extremists to be the enemy.

The process by which an individual transitions to a violent Islamist extremist is known as radicalization. Research into radicalization has continued to evolve as it becomes more prevalent, but experts have generally identified four phases of such radicalization.6 Pre-radicalization is the period before the individuals begin their journey to violent Islamist extremism. They possess or acquire psychological or other precursors that underlie the individuals' eventual openness to this ideology. During Self-Identification, individuals experience a crisis or have a grievance — whether social, economic, political, or personal — that triggers a "cognitive" opening that compels them to search for answers to their grievances.7 During Indoctrination, individuals adopt violent Islamist extremist ideology and begin to see the world as a struggle against the West. Finally, they reach the Violence stage in which they accept their individual duty to commit violence, seek training, and plan attacks.8

Individuals often enter the radicalization process after being exposed to a common recruitment narrative. The narrative's main thrust is that the West, led by the United States, is engaged in a war against Islam.9 Purveyors of the narrative are particularly effective in tying the narrative to personal, local, or regional grievances — in other words, in convincing aggrieved individuals that their grievances result from the West being at war with Islam and that these individuals must rise up to defend Islam via terrorist activity.

B. The Internet's Criticality For Radicalization To Violent Islamist Extremism, And The Diversification Of The Homegrown Terrorist Threat.

In the past, face-to-face interactions were essential for violent Islamist extremist groups to identify followers and to facilitate the radicalization process. However, face-to-face interactions have begun to be replaced by the Internet as the primary means by which violent Islamist extremism has spread globally. Al Qaeda and other violent Islamist extremists recognized the potency of the Internet after 9/11 when they created a relatively structured, online media campaign that targeted western audiences. Over time, violent Islamist extremists have continued to evolve and improve their ability to use the Web to broadcast the ideology. Their violent propaganda has spread from password protected forums to include "mainstream" sites. The Committee's 2008 staff report concluded that the threat of homegrown terrorism inspired by violent Islamist extremist ideology would increase due to the focused online efforts of that ideology's adherents and how individuals were using the Internet to access this propaganda.10 Indeed, the incidence of homegrown terrorism has increased significantly in the past two years as compared to the years since 9/11. From May 2009 to November 2010, there were 22 different homegrown plots, contrasted with 21 such plots from September 2001 to May 2009.11

The homegrown terrorist threat also has become "diversified" in two ways, which has helped cause the number of attacks to reach its current peak over the last two years.12

First, the need for interaction between individual terrorists and outside groups is evolving. Individual plotters are identifying with an increasingly varied number of foreign terrorist organizations or may no longer need to be tied directly to outside groups. The threat can come from al-Qaeda (in September 2009, Najibullah Zazi was allegedly under al-Qaeda's direction when planning suicide attacks on New York City transit systems);13 al-Qaeda affiliates (in 2008 and 2009, at least 20 young men from the United States joined al-Shabaab in Somalia including Shirwa Ahmed, the first known American suicide bomber); al-Qaeda's ideological allies (in May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen who had received training from Tehrik-i­Taliban Pakistan,14 attempted to set off a vehicle-based explosive device in Times Square); homegrown groups (in July 2009, seven individuals allegedly attempted to receive training overseas and plan attacks on the homeland, including a small-arms assault on the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia);15 and individual homegrown terrorists or "lone wolves" (in June 2009, Carlos Bledsoe, a self-described follower of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),16 allegedly kilted one soldier and wounded a second outside of a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas).

As the Committee warned in its 2008 report, lone wolf terrorists present a unique problem for law enforcement and intelligence agencies.17 These lone actors, inspired by violent Islamist extremist ideology, plan attacks without specific guidance from foreign terrorist organizations. Because much of their radicalization process is isolated from others, lone wolves are less likely to come to the attention of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.18 From September 11th until the Fort Hood attack occurred, the only attack on the homeland that resulted in deaths was perpetrated by a lone actor Carlos Bledsoe.

Second, the threat is diverse because there continues to exist no single profile of violent Islamist extremists, especially in the United States where individuals from various backgrounds have gravitated to violent Islamist extremism.19 Nor is there a general time frame over which the process of radicalization to violent Islamist extremism occurs, although the internet has almost certainly accelerated the radicalization process over the past couple of years.20 Indeed, as a result of the internet and other variables, the time frame between the beginning of radicalization and the onset of terrorist activity has decreased substantially, further exacerbating the challenge to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to detect and disrupt attacks.

C. The Role Of "Virtual Spiritual Sanctioners" Exemplified By Anwar al-Aulaqi.

Proceeding in the radicalization process from the level of Self-Identification to the levels of Indoctrination and Violence has been made easier by "virtual spiritual sanctioners."21 These individuals provide a false sense of religious justification for an act of terrorism over the internet. Though many individuals around the globe have become purveyors of violent Islamist extremism, a foremost example of a "virtual spiritual sanctioner" is Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen now operating from Yemen.22 In 2008, then-Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Charlie Allen stated publicly, "Another example of al Qaeda reach into the Homeland is U.S. citizen, al Qaeda supporter, and former spiritual leader to three of the September 11th hijackers Anwar al-Aulaqi — who targets U.S. Muslims with radical online lectures encouraging terrorist attacks from his new home in Yemen.">23

Al-Aulaqi's role as an online provocateur of homegrown terrorism has been well known to the U.S. Government, including the FBI:

  • Over four years prior24 to the Fort Hood attack, Mahmud Brent, a man who admitted to attending a Lashkar-e-Taiba training camp in Pakistan was found with "audiotapes of lectures by Anwar Al-Awlaki."25
  • Nearly three years prior26 to the Fort Hood attack, six individuals planned to attack Fort Dix, New Jersey, and to kill "as many soldiers as possible."27 The FBI arrested the group in May 2007. According to expert testimony at the trial, al-Aulaqi's lecture explaining Constants on the Path to Jihad was a cornerstone of their radicalization to violent Islamist extremism.28
  • Nearly a year and a half29 prior to the Fort Hood attack, U.S. citizen Barry Bujol was allegedly seeking al-Aulaqi's advice and counsel on how to join a terrorist organization. In June 2009, the FBI arrested him for attempting to provide material support to AQAP. Bujol had emailed al-Aulaqi requesting assistance on "jihad" and wanting to help the "mujahideen," and in response al-Aulaqi sent his 44 Ways of Supporting Jihad. Bujol believed that al-Aulaqi's email would attest to his bona fides to AQAP.30
  • A year and three months31 prior to the Fort Hood attack, Hysen Sherifi, one of seven men in North Carolina charged in a plot to attack the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, allegedly told an informant that he was going "to send [the informant] more books on Islam and jihad and that one of the books was '44 Ways to Help the Mujihadin' by Anwar Aleki [sic]." 32
  • Four months prior to the Fort Hood attack,33 in a case investigated by the FBI's Washington Field Office, U.S. citizen Zachary Chesser reached out to al-Aulaqi through al-Aulaqi's Web site for spiritual guidance and solicited al-Aulaqi's recommendations on his desire to join al-Shabaab in Somalia. In charging documents against Chesser, the FBI noted that "various Islamic terrorists were in contact with Aulaqi before engaging in terrorist acts." Chesser explained to investigators that "Aulaqi inspires people to pursue jihad."34 He watched online videos and listened to digitized lectures "almost obsessively" including those by his favorite spiritual leader, al-Aulaqi. Al-Aulaqi responded to two of Chesser's messages.

Al-Aulaqi's role as a virtual spiritual sanctioner in U.S. terrorism cases has continued since the Fort Hood attack.35 Furthermore, al-Aulaqi has taken an operational role in terrorist plots including, but not limited to, the Christmas Day attack by Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab.36

4 - National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 9/11 Commission Report (2004), at 363. The 9/11 Commission used the term "Islamist terrorism" — what this report calls "violent Islamist extremism" — to describe the most radical manifestation of Islamism or Islamist ideology.

5 - "The Jihadist Next Door", The New York Times (January 31, 2010).

6 - This framework is adapted from a publicly available description of the radicalization process by the New York Police Department's ("NYPD") Intelligence Division. New York Police Department, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat (2007).

7 - Id.

8 - Mitchell D. Silber, Director of Intelligence Analysis, New York City Police Department, Statement before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (November 19, 2009).

9 - The importance of the narrative in the recruitment and radicalization of homegrown violent Islamist extremists cannot be understated. An American recruit to violent Islamist extremism is unlikely to have read or fully understood the ideological writings of Sayid Qutb, Yousef al-Ayyiri, or Abdullah Azzain, but the narrative is easier for such an individual to comprehend. The narrative provides a way to explain contemporary events through the lens of the ideology and to motivate potential adherents to take action.

10 - Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Majority and Minority Staff Report, Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat, (May 8, 2008).

11 - American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat, Appendix A. Many of these plots are recounted elsewhere in this report, particularly the list of cases in which Anwar al-Aulaqi's literature played a role. Cases not mentioned elsewhere in this report include the apprehension of Hosam Smadi (plot to blow up a Dallas skyscraper, 2009) and Michael Finton (alleged plot to blow up a Federal building in Illinois, 2009). Since 9/11, only two plots resulted in American casualties domestically (the attack by Carlos Betdsoe and the Fort Hood attack).

12 - Michael Leiter, Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Statement before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (September 22, 2010).

13 - U.S. v. Medunjanin, Naseer, El Shukrijumah, Rehman, Lnu, Superseding Indictment (July 7, 2010).

14 - U.S. v. Shahzad, Sentencing Memorandum (September 29, 2010).

15 - U.S. v. Boyd, Indictment (July 22, 2009).

16 - Carlos Bledsoe, Letter to Judge Herbert Wright (January 14, 2010).

17 - Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Majority and Minority Staff Report, Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Threat, (May 8, 2008).

18 - Id.

19 - Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, Assessing the Terrorist Threat (Bipartisan Policy Center, September 10, 2010).

20 - Garry Reid, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, Statement before the Senate Armed Service Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities (March 10, 2010).

21 - Mitchell D. Silber, Director of Intelligence Analysis, New York City Police Department, Statement before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (November 19, 2009).

22 - Other examples of virtual spiritual sanctioners include the Jamaican citizen Abdullah el-Faisal, Australian Feiz Mohammad, and American Samir Khan.

23 - Charles E. Allen, Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis /Chief Intelligence Officer, Keynote Address at GEOINT Conference (October 28, 2008), available at

24 - U.S. v. Mahmud Faquq Brent, Sentencing Memorandum (July 23, 2007). The al-Aulaqi audiotapes were found in a FBI search of Brent's residence on August 4, 2005. In addition, the sentencing memorandum cites the 9/11 Commission that describes al-Aulaqi as the "spiritual advisor to two of the September 11 hijackers."

25 - Id.

26 - Evan F. Kohlmann, Expert Report II, U.S. v. Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer et al. (September 2008). The recorded conversations between Shaul Duka and another individual regarding al-Aulaqi took place on March 9, 2007.

27 - Department of Justice, Five Radical Islamists Charged with Planning Attack on Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey (May 8, 2007).

28 - Evan F. Kohlmann, Expert Report 11, U.S. v. Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer et al. (September 2008).

29 - U.S. v, Barry Bujol, Application for Search Warrant (May 28, 2010), Affidavit of TFO Sean McCarroll, FBI JTTF. According to the search warrant, Bujol began his communication with al-Aulaqi in "mid-2008."

30 - Id.

31 - U.S. v. Hysen Sherifi, et al., Application for Search Warrant (July 27, 2009). According to the search warrant, the conversation between Sherifi and the informant occurred on February 7, 2009.

32 - Id. The search warrant continues, "Sherifi translated the book and put it on a website and he told [the informant] that translating is one of the 44 ways to help the Mujihadin."

33 - US. v. Zachary Chesser, Application for Search Warrant (July 21, 2010), Affidavit of FBI Special Agent Mary Brandt Kinder. According to the FBI Affidavit, "a court-ordered search of Chesser's email account , revealed that on July 13, 2009, Chesser contacted Anwar Awlaki directly through Awlaki's email address."

34 - Id.

35 - U.S. v, Alessa, Almonte, Criminal Complaint (June 4, 2010), U.S v. Shaker Masri, Criminal Complaint (August 3, 2010), U.S. v. Paul Rockwood, Sentencing Memorandum, (August 16, 2010), U.S. v. Abdel Shehadeh, Complaint in Support of Arrest Warrant (October 21, 2010), U.S. v. Farooque Ahmed, Search and Seizure (October 26, 2010), U.S. v. Antonio Martinez, Criminal Complaint (December 8, 2010).

36 - Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Department of Homeland Security, Statement before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (September 22, 2010); Michael Leiter, Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Statement before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (September 22, 2010).

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