Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 19, 2012

Behavioral indicators of terrorism

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Radicalization,State and Local HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 19, 2012

Wednesday the White House hosted a meeting of 46 senior federal, state and local law enforcement officials.

According to the Associated Press, “The Obama administration is providing senior state and local police officials with its analysis of homegrown terrorism incidents, including common signs law enforcement can use to identify violent extremists… The analysis was conducted by the Homeland Security Department, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center.”

I was not at the meeting.  But following is an overview of what I am told was briefed.

An interagency team and process examined several cases of Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs) that emerged between 2008-2010.  I was not given the precise number of cases, but I have seen reports of  sixty-two cases being considered.  Based on this sample four major “mobilizing patterns” were identified:

Contact with individuals tied to terrorist organizations is one of two indicators that appeared most often in the case studies. This finding is consistent with earlier assessments—based on past cases of domestic and transnational terrorism—that exposure to an extremist with established ties to a terrorist group can be a useful indicator of a radicalized person moving toward violence. More than 90 percent of the subjects examined either communicated directly or had some type of contact with connected extremists as part of their mobilization to violence.

Indicators of ideological commitment also appear frequently in HVE reporting. One of these behaviors—”watching or sharing jihadist videos”—was the second of the two most prevalent indicators noted in the study. Ideological commitment behaviors were observable but at times only in a virtual environment. More than 90 percent of the cases involved HVEs who either watched or shared extremist videos or other propaganda. Just under 90 percent involved HVEs pursuing religious instruction from a person or institution associated with extremist causes.Roughly 80 percent of the cases reflected an individual’s acceptance or approval of violence or martyrdom operations or an intent to engage in them.

Travel or attempted travel in pursuit of a violent agenda was a recurring factor in the HVE cases, also supporting earlier assessments of the importance of foreign travel for violent extremists. Almost 90 percent of  subjects traveled to places with a significant extremist population or to a foreign location explicitly to pursue violence.

Seeking weapons or weapons related training was a common behavior. This more tactically focused aspect of attack planning also entailed online research to acquire technical capabilities, select targets, and plan logistics. Almost 80 percent of subjects pursued weapons training, paramilitary exercises, or the acquisition of related equipment as partof their mobilization. More than half also conducted Internet research to plan their attacks.

According to my sources the law enforcement officials were, “cautioned against adopting a checklist-like mentality incountering the HVE threat. Simplistically interpreting any single indicator as a confirmation of mobilization probably will lead to ineffective and counterproductive efforts to identify and defeat Homegrown Violent Extremists.”

About 5PM Eastern on Wednesday Eileen Sullivan filed an AP story after talking with participants: SEE IT HERE.

While the law enforcement leaders were at the White House, a House Intelligence subcommittee was hearing testimony suggesting big changes in the purpose and role of the DHS intelligence function. According to prepared testimony to me delivered by Philip Mudd,

The growth of our expectations of domestic security, and the evolution of threats away from traditional state actors toward non-state entities — drug cartels, organized crime, and terrorism are prominent examples — suggest that the DHS intelligence mission should be threat agnostic. Though the impetus for creating this new agency, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was clearly terrorism based, the kinds of tools now deployed, from border security to cyber protection, are equally critical in fights against emerging adversaries. The DHS enterprise is more complex than other agencies responsible for America’s security, and itsintelligence mission is correspondingly multifaceted. Its intelligence missions range from providing homeland security-specific intelligence at the federal level; integrating intelligence vertically through DHS elements; and working with state/local/private sector partners to draw their intelligence capabilities into a national picture and provide them with information.

The testimony, based largely on a recently completed study and set of recommendations from the Aspen Homeland Security Group , especially emphasizes the DHS comparative advantage in working with state, local, and private sector entities in the non-classified domain.

In contrast to intelligence agencies that have responsibilities for more traditional areas of national security, DHS’s mandate should allow for collection, dissemination, and analytic work that is focused on more specific homeward-focused areas. First, the intelligence mission could be directed toward areas where DHS has inherent strengths and unique value (e.g., where its personnel and data are centered) that overlap with its legislative mandate. Second, this mission direction should emphasize areas that are not served by other agencies, particularly state/local partners whose needs are not a primary focus for any other federal agency. In all these domains, public and private, DHS customers will require information with limited classification; in contrast to most other federal intelligence entities, DHS should focus on products that start at lower classification levels, especially unclassified and FOUO, and that can be disseminated by means almost unknown in the federal intelligence community (phone trees, Blackberries, etc.).

There is an obvious tension between an intelligence function that is “threat-agnostic” and one that emerges from “where its personnel and data are centered.”  This could, however, be a very healthy tension if a threat-agnostic — capabilities-based — approach to engaging the risk environment can be effectively used to decide where personnel are focused and data is gathered.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 19, 2012 @ 9:23 am

Not quite sure what “Threat Agnostic” means? Does it mean “I know there is a threat but not sure who or why?”

Also linedrawing on domestic INTEL was one reason, in fact I would argue in the top three reasons, DHS was formed. Why because based on the history of 9/11/01 and what has been learned the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties concerns need a long term dedicated expertise that will protect our democracy and founding principles yet also provide protection.

Odd of course that throughout history the DoJ and the FBI and even the CIA and DoD have demonstrated almost complete insensitivity to this line drawing as have much of the Judiciary. So this should be a renewed effort by DHS and if you look at staffing including how the FUSION CENTERS, now a statutory entity, operate they must have this expertise in each FUSION CENTER as well as HQ DHS. The Surveillance Society grows with each passing day yet few focus on its impact. An important WAPO article by a Mr. Turley recently summarized this trend.

And of course the three lawyers who have headed
DHS have shown little concern for its founding mission and goals but are happy to give speeches and have the perks of being in the Cabinet.

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January 19, 2012 @ 11:56 am

[…] Behavioral indicators of terrorism […]

Comment by Alan Wolfe

January 19, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

Yeah! A new acronym to use!! I was getting tired of Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) anyway.

Guess as to “threat-agnostic” – DHS doesn’t care what the threat source is, only that there may be an organized group of some nature who intends to cause mayhem against US interests (whatever they are today).

Interesting to see the sausage made but I still think people are overreacting to the “HVE” threat and that they are mostly looking at Islamic sympathizers. They’re going to ignore/overlook the white militia groups and loners every time.

Comment by mcb

January 19, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

They forget the fifth “mobilizing pattern”:

Being cajoled, coached, and coerced by a confidential informant employed by the FBI who supplies cash, introduces faux compatriots, and delivers alleged destructive devices without which the conspiracy would not leave the radical’s mother’s basement.

Note to Jihadi Wannabes, if someone you just met is even more enthusiastic about your radicalization than you are and promises you cash, helpers, guns, and bombs they are an FBI confidential informant.

Name a case of domestic lone wolf terrorism – oops, an HVE – who did not have FBI sponsored assistance. There are nowhere near 62 cases, and half of the real ones are white supremacists, anti-abortion killers, anti-semites, and tax protesters.

Comment by GI Wilson

January 19, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

Psychiatrist Jerrold Post notes that there is a broad spectrum of terrorists, terrorist groups, and terrorist organizations, each having a different psychology, motivation, behavior, and decision heuristics. Post contends we should not speak of a terrorist psychology in the singular, but rather of terrorist psychologies (Borum, 2004, p. 5; Post, 2001).

The implication is terrorists and terrorist groups are best studied by addressing their own unique characteristics and dynamics. For example, terror groups display particular mindsets. The mindset of terrorists does indicate something of their modus operandi, who they will communicate with and how, who they will try to recruit, how they will relate to other group members and so on (Forster, 2005).

Rex Hudson (1999) calls attention to terrorist mindsets and what examining mindsets and behavior might bring to the table:

“Terrorist group mindsets determine how the group and its individual members view the world and how they lash out against it. Knowing the mindset of a group enables a terrorism analyst to better determine the likely targets of the group and its likely behavior under varying circumstances. It is surprising, therefore, that the concept of the terrorist mindset has not received more attention by terrorism specialists. It may not always be possible to profile the individual leaders of a terrorist group, but the group’s mindset can be profiled if adequate information is available on the group and there is an established record of activities and pronouncements. Even though two groups may both have an Islamic fundamentalist mindset, their individual mindsets will vary because of their different circumstances. One cannot assume to have a basic understanding of the mindset of a terrorist group without having closely studied the group and its leader(s) (p.99).”

When studying the terrorist mindset one must use caution not to confuse mindset with personality.

One’s personality is a distinctive pattern of thought, emotion, and behavior that define one’s way of interacting with the physical and social environment, whereas a mindset is a fixed mental attitude or a fixed state of mind (Hudson, 1999, p. 98.

To date little evidence points to a distinct and definitive terrorist personality profile. This lack of a definitive personality or psychological profile does not necessarily dismiss the potential for predictable behavior or the manifestation of other psychological features (Forster, 2005).

For certain, it is difficult to understand terrorists’ behavior and behavioral indicators without psychological insight because explaining terrorism must begin with an analysis of the intentions and motivations of the terrorist (Reich, 1998, p. 247).

Comment by Terrorists and Acts of Terrorism

January 20, 2012 @ 11:08 am

GI Wilson, very interesting description of terrorists/terrorism and maybe more focus required on identifying a clearer view of personality profiles as we learn more and more about the brain and its functions.

Whther it is MCB, Alan Wolfe and/or William Cumming who I think so highly of in his grasp of such subject….I am concerned about “online activist groups” – cybersecurity issues and how freedom of speech affords those who seek our demise opportunity….

I am very concerned that We as a nation are not as committed to addressing such issues as We should and while it is widely known I have little respect for this “Goldman Sachs” administration and Barry Obama singing Al Green…or We the Champions…the People United….and his campaign slogan” change” and from many of us on “Main Street USA” what he should be signing….”To the Left…to the left…”

….this next election is very important to halting the direct attack on the security afforded each of us by our beloved Republic’s Constitution and its Judeo-Christan core values, assuring that the good folks at NSA who keep a vigilant ear to those seeking our demise, the dedicated people in our fusion centers who daily and nightly help to protect us…that these dedicated Americans are given every tool, trained in every way and as Patriots are very effective in not allowing even government officials from the executive branch through the ranks to degrade us.

We are a proud people. We are most charitable. We are worried about a nation $15 trillion in debt and local first responders underfunded when such an uncertain political and especially econmic landscape stirs so much stress within families….We need more federal funding of first responders who may very well have to address a terrorist act and we will rely on their training.

With reference to home grown terrorism, anyone convicted of homegrown planning or acts of such should be met with swift and harsh laws. While now as Elders here on “Main Street USA” who have grown up with ‘ol Glory within our hearts and many here among us have stood with bullets passing by their helmets as they jumped into their fox hole and we could not imagine anyone attacking from within, if anyone commits any such act against our nation, throw the book at em!

The technology and access to internet must be a continued high priority as We must be assured that those who are really in the know are protecting our nation’s assets and people. These are very precarious days and We await for the ecoonmy here and in Europe to falter as we understand that the global economy is some $55 trillion (federal reserve notes) or more in deficit –

A scary scenario and We thank everyone committed to safeguarding Rights, however standing to the challenge and thwarting those who care little fror our way of Life which we thank God for every day….

Keep charging!

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

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January 23, 2012 @ 11:56 pm

[…] a post last week, Phil brought to our attention a White House meeting where local law enforcement officials were […]

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April 12, 2012 @ 8:21 am

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