Homegrown terrorism, or domestic terrorism, emphasizes the geographical consistency of the site, the target and the perpetrator of a terrorist attack. Usually, the perpetrator is a long-term resident in the target country and has completed the process of radicalization there. The tragedy that happened in lower Manhattan in October 2017 is a typical case of homegrown terrorism — the perpetrator Sayfullo Saipov came to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010 and had been granted legal permanent residency. Together with the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack, the 2015 Paris attack, the 2016 Nice attack, the 2017 Manchester attack, the 2017 Brussels attack and so on and so forth, the New York attack reminds us of the wave of homegrown terrorist attacks and that homegrown terrorism has been and will surely continue to be the main threat to national security.
How Serious is the Threat?
Although there are few perpetrators in homegrown terrorist attacks (sometimes only one), they always lead to serious consequences. In June 2016, more than 50 people — including the gunman — were killed in Orlando, Florida. At least 86 people were killed in the Nice attack in 2016. In May 2017, 23 people were killed and 119 injured in Manchester. In Southeast Asia, militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups not only attacked tourists from several countries, but also occupied the Philippine city of Marawi for nearly half a year. Homegrown terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah continue to try to form an “Islamic State.” Those homegrown terrorist attacks spread fear among citizens and attract other extremists. The linkages between terrorist attacks and extremist groups have been highly emphasized in some cases, especially self-radicalized terrorist attacks. Such “allegiance” shows off the power of ISIS and helps to attract more followers.
What is more, homegrown terrorists are hard to identify, thus it is difficult for the government to prevent these outrages. Since some of the terrorists, especially the “lone wolves” and those who radicalized themselves, are not directly involved in foreign military training and even have no co-conspirators, such homegrown terrorists are nearly impossible to be detected before their attacks happen. In fact, before the Orlando attack, the FBI had repeatedly suspected that Omar Mateen had been involved in terrorist groups and conducted investigations three times. But these investigations, together with the background checks when Omar Mateen applied to the police academy, did not confirm him as a militant.
As legitimate residents of the host country, homegrown terrorists can easily flee to other countries to hide or accept different degrees of military training. Because of their fluent language proficiency, general features, and cultural and social background, it is easy for them to hide among the masses. For example, the famous “Colleen LaRose” hid in America for a long time because of her American appearance. The country’s police department also lacks effective data to predict who will be radicalized.
Homegrown terrorism poses an increasingly serious threat to Western countries which are seen by militants as members of the “Crusader Alliance.” In Europe, France’s homegrown terrorists not only planned domestic violent attack within the country, but also poured into the Middle East, making France the largest source of foreign terrorist militants in the Middle East among EU countries. The Greek cities of Athens and Thessaloniki experienced several minor homegrown terror attacks targeting government officials and the European embassy in 2016.
In the West, the threat of terrorism is shifting from abroad to domestic. A recent study found that 73 percent of attacks in Europe and North America were carried out by home-grown terrorists over the past three years, with another 14 percent coming from neighboring countries. As for the US, there have been 100 terror attacks since 9/11, 87 of which were homegrown terrorist attacks. Given the history and the complexity of the conflicts between the Islamic world and the Western world, and the Western countries’ involvement in the war on terror, this trend is likely to continue.
In Asia, the Bangladesh government attributed some attacks to homegrown terrorists. There were 14 Singapore citizens who had been self-radicalized since 2015 and one individual was reported to have intended to assassinate Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and make Singapore an “Islamic state.”
Why Attacks Happen So Frequently?
After their huge physical losses, both Al Qaeda and ISIS embraced decentralized structures which feature a high dependence on homegrown terrorism. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden’s hierarchical leadership became fragile. The Syrian Al Qaeda scholar Abu Musab Al-Suril thus promoted that Al-Qaeda should evolve from a central structure to a decentralized and leaderless movement which would be united by a shared ideology. This kind of structure is more sustainable and Bin Laden’s death did not lead to the total collapse of Al Qaeda. This in turn attracted a worldwide “Mujahideen” through a common “jihadist” ideology.
ISIS has made a similar transition. From its highest centralized hierarchical structure in 2014, ISIS quickly changed to become a decentralized and leaderless movement. From Asia to Africa, some regional organizations have shown their allegiance to ISIS; there are also some small independent organizations and “lone wolves” staying active in Europe, North America, Australia, and other places. ISIS has created an “imagined community” — a virtual “caliphate” united by extreme ideologies spread via the Internet and social media. Based on those frequent military strikes, ISIS and Al Qaeda are still likely to regain control of some territories in the Middle East in the future, but now, they have no choice but to focus on homegrown terror attacks.
The “virtual caliphate,” which relies on the use of the Internet and social media, enables potential extremists to see the world from the angle of extreme ideologies.
The terrorist groups’ encouragement in various ways also plays a role. Al Qaeda praised the perpetrator of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, Nidal Hasan, as a “pioneer.” In March 2010, Al Qaeda’s As Sahab media outlet encouraged supporters to choose familiar, symbolic targets, such as economic centers and public figures, to conduct homegrown attacks. In June 2011, Al Qaeda’s video “Do Not Rely on Others, Take the Task Upon Yourself” explicitly emphasized “lone wolf” attacks. A website then released a list of potential targets headed by dignitaries and senior executives of Iraqi war-related companies. Anwar al-awlaki, the founder of Al-Qaeda’s magazine Inspire, was believed to be linked to 66 plots out of a total of 212 terrorism cases in the United States between 2009 and 2016. During the month of Ramadan in 2016, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said: “The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us.” “Lone wolf” attacks are equal to “great martyrdom,” according to ISIS’s propaganda.
It is too easy to become self-radicalized through the Internet and social media. The “virtual caliphate,” which relies on the use of the Internet and social media, enables potential extremists to see the world from the angle of extreme ideologies and further strengthens the greatness of militant and extremist political views, even helping militants to choose their targets and design their attacks, including the weapons to use. Thus, the process of self-radicalization is completed without establishing a direct connection with terrorist groups.
In the case of the 2015 California attack, there were no direct links between Faisal Mohammad and extremist groups. However, Faisal Mohammad did visit ISIS’s and other extremist websites, and downloaded and kept ISIS propaganda. The FBI thus concluded that Faisal Mohammad achieved self-radicalization inspired by ISIS. What is more, before the attacks in Manhattan, the ISIS magazine, Rumiyah, instigated its followers to hit pedestrians with vehicles and attack civilians with knives and guns: “Vehicles are like knives, as they are extremely easy to acquire.” It is possible that Sayfullo Saipov was inspired by the magazine.
What Should Be Done?
Pay attention to de-radicalization and halting the spread of extreme ideology. Al Qaeda and ISIS cannot be totally destroyed by military strikes alone, since these terrorist organizations now rely on a violent extremist ideology rather than the existence of entities. There are serious environmental factors among countries which promote and facilitate the process of individual radicalization and “prepare” a large number of candidates for the “holy war.” Governments should mobilize Islamic scholars to create a counter-narrative from Islamic traditions to discredit ISIS’s propaganda.
Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group is a good example. Eliminating environmental drivers of radicalization needs the joint efforts of the government and society to guarantee national equality, eliminate extreme poverty, eliminate ethnic, religious and cultural discrimination, and emphasize public education and immigration regulation. Moreover, some “fragile” individuals and communities deserve much more attention.
Strengthen surveillance on key groups, including suspected militants returning from overseas and high-risk groups at home. Returned militants are likely to play a key role in recruiting and training homegrown terrorists. Because of the huge losses of ISIS in the Middle East, more and more ISIS militants will go back to their homelands. This is not something new. According to the Soufan Centre, more than a thousand “jihadis” have returned to Britain, France, and Germany. More identification and surveillance of these “jihadis” is necessary. In addition, the role of prison should not be ignored. The prison has been seen as a hotbed of radicalization and violence and the problem is getting worse. Some extremists even regard prisons as “jihadi universities.” Countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have adopted some de-radicalization projects. Although the effectiveness of such programs needs more tests, more de-radicalization and disengagement initiatives are needed. Furthermore, governments must pay more attention to the rehabilitation of current detainees and continue to monitor former “jihadis” who have been released.
Use the Internet and social media as a tool to counter radicalization. The Internet and social media serve as crucial factors in the formation of homegrown terrorists in the period of the virtual “caliphate.” On the one hand, we should strengthen cooperation between governments and Internet companies as well as media companies to control the spread of militant ideology and related propaganda. Place counter-narrative related results first after users search in key words about terrorism. With the help of tech companies, the government will be able to judge which groups or individuals are in danger of radicalization. Police may even disguise as extremists to get more intelligence.
As the nature of terrorism is transnational and trans-boundary, domestic and international cooperation should be conducted. The control and surveillance of self-radicalized terrorists needs joint efforts from the intelligence department, the police, and the community. A smooth cooperation mechanism is needed to avoid cross-functional conflicts. Other homegrown terrorists, including “lone wolves,” usually establish extensive links with international terrorist organizations and follow their instructions. In such cases, countries should actively promote intelligence sharing. For example, in 2016, US and Indian officials exchanged terrorist threat information on intelligence and law enforcement channels. Last but not least, to prevent ISIS and Al Qaeda from being more attractive to potential militants, the international community should cooperate to prevent the re-creation of a physical “Islamic State.”