By David Lepeska
From September 9, 2011, Review, of The National
Just as the attacks of September 11, 2001, proved a watershed event in the fight against international terrorism, the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden by the US on May 1, 2011 may come to mark another. Months after the Arab Spring had begun to eat away at his political stance, bin Laden's death shifted the focus of US counter-terrorism officials away from Al Qaeda and its international affiliates.
"This is the first counter-terrorism strategy that designates the homeland as a primary area of emphasis," John Brennan, President Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser and deputy national security adviser for homeland security, said at the June release of Washington's new plan.
Though the recent bombing of the United Nations compound in Nigeria by Al Qaeda-linked militant group Boko Haram is a reminder of the still-real threat, it is clear that, with bin Laden dead and some 1,200 of his soldiers, lieutenants and commanders killed in recent years by CIA drone strikes, Al Qaeda is on the decline.
Domestic terrorism, meanwhile, is on the rise, particularly in the US and UK. From September 11, 2001 to May 2009, US authorities uncovered 21 plots, according to the Congressional Research Service; in the past two years they have made arrests in connection with at least 33 more. Since 2008, no western country has arrested more people for terrorist-related activity - some 200 a year, although most suspects were subsequently released without charge - than the UK. Little surprise, then, that both countries have reoriented their security policies to focus on domestic radicalisation - how to detect it and how to stop it.
Counter-terrorism is, in essence, about killing bad guys. Counter-radicalisation, which is mainly an attempt to keep the young and disaffected from embracing extremist ideas and violence, is much more complicated. The difference is akin to the gap between rooting out Al Qaeda from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and building a secure and stable Afghanistan in order to eliminate present and future terrorist safe havens.
The former is tangible and easily measured, the latter complex, multi-faceted and difficult to quantify. So how do authorities identify potential violent extremists and break-up terrorist plots before they happen? And how do they know whether such strategies are working? For the most part, they don't.
Spurred by the July 2005 London bombings, Britain put in place the world's first modern-day counter-radicalisation strategy two years later. Called Prevent, it sought to address Muslim grievances, undermine extremist ideology with moderate ideas and support vulnerable individuals and communities - objectives also recommended in Preventing Violent Radicalization in America, a report published by the Bipartisan Policy Center in June.
Yet Muslim groups soon attacked Prevent for sponsoring spying in their communities. Other critics saw a cash cow that provided thousands of pounds in handouts for rap workshops, basketball and cricket clubs and youth singing groups - with little to show for it.
In a review released in June, the British Home Office acknowledged that Prevent had mostly failed and that some of the money had even ended up in the hands of extremist groups. Counter-radicalisation programmes, said the review, were "comparatively new and evidence of impact is correspondingly limited".
Indeed, Prevent was essentially a shot in the dark. "There is really no precedent," said Peter Neumann, author of the Bipartisan Policy Center report and founding director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College in London. "It was very experimental and they changed it this year because by and large it didn't work."
Britain plans to build on one aspect that did work. The Channel programme encourages teachers and community leaders to report potential extremists to the authorities, who then offer guidance or instruction to those at risk.
Some have accused the programme of backing spying, and 7,500 British schools opted out because they perceived an anti-Islamic bent. But of the 1,000 people who have gone through the programme voluntarily in four years, none has ever been arrested in a terrorist case.
"These close, fine-grain initiatives are really important and effective," says Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has analysed counter-radicalisation efforts in the US and UK. "I've yet to see any similar programme in the US."
The US finally dipped its toes into the counter-radicalisation pool last month, with the release of the country's first paper on the subject, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism. The White House report urges authorities to build relationships at the local level, promote immigrant integration and avoid blaming certain communities or confusing strong religiosity with extremist tendencies. Religion, says Huq, "is not playing the role many believe it to be playing". Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that among Muslim Americans who reported they "seldom" went to a mosque, 22 per cent were politically engaged, while nearly 40 per cent of those who attended a religious service at least once a week were politically active.
Though the White House paper gets this one point right, at eight pages it is short on details. After its release, US senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins pointed out that it failed to name a lead agency or individual, provide an action plan or present a means to assess the programme's success.
"It's not a policy paper, it has no concrete plan of action - and that's the disappointment," says Neumann. "I would call it a statement of intent."
Ten years after 9/11 and nearly two years after Nidal Hasan, a US army major inspired by Al Qaeda-affiliated cleric Anwar al-Awliki, killed 13 in a shooting at Fort Hood, the US is still without a coherent strategy to stop people from embracing violent extremism. What's more, efforts to gain co-operation from Muslim communities are undermined by local and national informant programmes.
The FBI has built a nationwide network of up to 15,000 informants, many in Muslim communities, according to a report in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine. Agents use these informants to assist in sting operations.
"FBI agents and informants target not just active jihadists, but tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity," writes Trevor Aaronson. "And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity."
The New York Police Department maintains an extended regional surveillance network within mosques and Muslim community centres and receives support from the CIA. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim advocacy group, has called for an investigation into the legality of the NYPD programme and is not alone in its lack of faith in local authorities.
On average, Muslim Americans are about 25 per cent less confident than other Americans in the FBI, according to a recent Gallup poll. Some 52 per cent believe they are singled out for terrorist surveillance and 43 per cent say they have personally experienced harassment in the past year, according to a Pew poll released last week.
The end result is less co-operation and decreased overall security. "If people believe the police treat them and their community with respect and don't behave on the basis of racial and ethnic priors, they are more likely to co-operate than if they believe they are procedurally unfair," says Huq, referring to the findings of his studies among Muslim communities in New York and London.
At the same time, he adds, "people who engage in discrimination are imposing a cost on society as a whole, and that cost is a loss of security".
Yet the US might learn from British mistakes, embrace less coercive policies and work from the ground up. Dwight Holton, a federal attorney in Oregon, may have created one promising effort last year.
After Holton indicted a 19-year-old Somali-American for attempting to bomb Portland's 2010 Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, he met with a local imam and leaders of a refugee organisation to find out what had inspired the youth. As a result, he learnt the concerns of incoming immigrants and built solid relationships with the local Muslim community.
Neumann urges the US government to help attorneys across the country to launch similar initiatives. The federal government could then share information among these programmes and promote the most effective practices.
"Unlike in Britain and much of Europe, there's no point in uniform federal policies in the US because Muslim-American communities are so diverse, so different," says Neumann, citing Somalis in the US, who tend to be quite poor and may need to be taught English. "The recipes need to be different for different communities."
Both US and UK authorities must be willing to engage a diverse array of community partners in difficult and hard-to-reach environments and address concerns about counter-terrorism and foreign policies, he says. They also need to be able to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and violent Islamist extremists.
Most of the literature says radicalisation can occur in a variety of ways but generally involves: the perception of grievance, such as oppression; the jihadist narrative used online by Al Qaeda and other organisations, that western countries are waging a war against Islam and all Muslims are called to defend the religion; and the presence of a social group, often led by a charismatic leader, to nurture such ideas.
Other specifics, including the role of religiosity and key instigating factors, are more difficult to grasp, but politicians and top officials are working to find more answers.
In July, the House sub-committee on terrorism examined the Bipartisan Policy Group's report, with Neumann as the primary witness.
On Tuesday, the House intelligence committee plans to hold public hearings with its Senate counterpart, the head of the FBI, the national counter-terrorism director and other top intelligence officials to examine the US position on combating the growing domestic threat.
And in Britain, the updated Prevent strategy has shifted its focus to education, identifying 40 universities where students are at risk of exposure to extremist views, to healthcare, hoping to train doctors to identify vulnerable youths, and to the internet.
As such efforts continue, British and American attempts to counter and interrupt the process of radicalisation are likely to improve. Yet considering the complexity of the problem, finding solutions may take some time.
"Counter-radicalisation is about trying to inoculate communities against the appeal of violent extremism," says Neumann. "In order to do that you have to first understand what drives people to this choice, and there's no clear-cut answer to that."