Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Countering Violent Islamic Extremism: A Community Responsibility

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Countering Violent Islamic Extremism: A Community Responsibility

Article excerpt

The disruption of terrorist plots in 2006 in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, as well as the July 2005 attacks in London, generated significant attention to the concept of homegrown radicalization. But, this term does not define the real focus of concern-violent Islamic extremism. Before finding an effective solution to this problem, law enforcement first must understand and define it. (1) What is Islamic extremism? Do radical beliefs always lead to terrorist activity? The exploitation of religion by Islamic extremists to use violence both overseas and at home is one of the gravest dangers facing the United States. Al Qaeda represents the most pressing manifestation of this problem, and the FBI still assesses attacks directed by core al Qaeda leadership as the primary terrorist threat to the United States. Al Qaeda's influence has proliferated; its ideology and influence has spread beyond the Middle East and South Asia. It now has subsidiaries in Iraq, North Africa, and Greater Syria. (2) However, as the March 11, 2004, attacks in Madrid demonstrated, direct al Qaeda connections are not a precondition for successful Islamic terrorist operations. The fact that every terrorist attack, even when al Qaeda does not claim credit, creates a debate as to whether al Qaeda in some way directed the operation signifies that al Qaeda has become a "brand" as much as an organization.


Public opinion surveys of Muslims in the Middle East and the West suggest the difficulty of countering the message of violent extremists to those inclined to hate the United States and the West for perceived oppression against Muslims. (3) A survey conducted in the United Kingdom in the spring of 2006 indicated that a small but significant minority supported the July 2005 attacks there. (4) It also revealed that a majority of Muslims in the Middle East still believe that the 9/11 attacks were a Mossad plot, (5) even after Usama Bin Ladin publicly claimed credit. More recent findings have suggested that negative and suspicious attitudes toward the United States persist. (6) Because of this entrenched mind-set, support for violent Islamic extremism will remain a continuous problem.

The speed with which radicalization to violence can occur and the increasing youth of those drawn to the cause pose additional challenges. Both British and Canadian authorities reported that people involved in the plotting in those countries apparently had not previously been interested in religion but changed and became willing to carry out terrorist operations within a year. In the summer of 2006, the "Toronto 18" plot, a terrorist operation that sought to bomb several prominent buildings in the Canadian cities of Toronto and Ottawa, included five participants younger than 18. The timeframe needed to develop a plot can be disturbingly short, and the tendency to dismiss youthful enthusiasm as empty bravado may prove extremely dangerous.

Law enforcement leaders must be able to identify individuals with the most potential to effect immediate harm, thereby controlling the operating environment and designating time to address the larger issues underlying violent Islamic extremism. Expressing dislike for the United States or lauding Usama Bin Ladin does not make an individual a terrorist. Such an approach would create a scenario simply too large to address effectively even without First Amendment concerns about using these behaviors as indicators. But, law enforcement agencies and intelligence services around the world wrestle with the problem of predicting people's behavior. To address the threat that violent extremists pose, the FBI developed a 2-pronged approach: 1) identify early indicators of those who demonstrate the potential for violence and 2) engage in extensive outreach to Muslim communities to dispel misconceptions that may foster extremism.


Conversion to Islam is not radicalization. …

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