Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 25, 2015

Security Mom Podcasts: Michael Chertoff on risk communication and Jessica Stern on radicalization

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Media,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on June 25, 2015

These are a little bit old, but interesting enough to share nonetheless.

Juliette Kayyem’s podcast “Security Mom” in the not-so-distant-past (a few weeks ago), focused on crisis communication with former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and radicalization/ISIS recruitment with terrorism expert Jessica Stern.

The Chertoff conversation I found especially interesting.  It took what seems like an old issue, the color coded homeland security threat level system, and turns it into a serious discussion of risk communication.  You can find it here:


From the show’s website, here is a bit of the transcript with Chertoff explaining his issues with the color scheme:

Green was a theoretical baseline of world in which there’s no terrorism. That’s not gonna happen. So then you had yellow and orange. Yellow being kind of some level of threat, orange being a heightened threat. And then you had red. And the problem is it was very difficult to define to define what red was. Did red mean an attack is literally gonna happen like tomorrow? Did it mean an attack already happened? Once you’re at red, how do you come down from red? So, we realized pretty quickly that essentially you’re really dealing with two states. Yellow is your base. And orange is your elevated. And then we tried to be focused on, again, particular regions or particular types of threats.

In an other episode, Juliette talks with Jessica Stern about radicalization, in general, and ISIS in particular. It is a wide ranging conversation, but I’ll share one of her conclusions regarding the threat that ISIS poses to Americans here at home that gets back to risk communication from the Chertoff discussion:

For a police officer, for the FBI, for the president, for people working in government — this should be keeping them up at night. But for a person sitting at home in Brighton or Cambridge —  for any given individual, you’re more likely to die from a beesting than you are in a terror strike. You’re probably more likely to die in your bathtub.

You can listen to it herehttp://wgbhnews.org/post/inside-minds-isis-members

Or by clicking on this link:

Stern ISIS MIX 1

December 30, 2008

Homeland Security Threat Assessment Cites WMD, Radicalization

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jonah Czerwinski on December 30, 2008

A new Homeland Security Threat Assessment obtained by The Associated Press, marked FOUO, considers loss of life, economic and psychological consequences, and likelihood of potential attack vectors over the next five years.

During the period of 2008-2013, terrorists will try to conduct a biological terror attack, resulting in overwhelmed regional health care systems and deep economic impacts caused by widespread workforce illnesses and deaths. Interestingly, the assessment suggests that biological agents stolen from labs or other storage facilities within the U.S. remain among the highest threats. Al-Qaida continues to focus on attacks that would generate significant economic losses, casualties, and political turmoil. Hizbollah is cited as also interested in fomenting attacks within the U.S.

Eileen Sullivan’s reporting on this new threat assessment explains that instability in the Middle East and Africa, border security, and expanding cyber terrorism capabilities drive the terrorism threat to the U.S. over the next five years.

Recall the post here about Peter Bergen’s op-ed in the New York Times, In that piece, Bergen offers four reasons why the threat posed to the American homeland is far lower now, such that it justifies a title like “Safe At Home.” This latest threat assessment explains, however, that terrorists will continue to try to evade U.S. border security measures and place operatives inside the mainland to carry out attacks, possibly posing as refugees, asylum seekers, or travelers from visa waiver program members.

I’m not sure how accurate the threat assessment is, but I’m pretty confident that this only adds to the post rebutting his article. Indeed, according to Sullivan, the assessment predicts that the number of radical Islamists within the U.S. will increase over the next five years due partly to the ease of online recruiting means. Sullivan cites that intelligence officials foresee “a wave of young, self-identified Muslim ‘terrorist wannabes’ who aspire to carry out violent acts.”

August 16, 2007

NYPD Intel Unit Releases Study on Terror Radicalization in U.S.

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jonah Czerwinski on August 16, 2007

The NYPD released a study created by their Intelligence Division that analyzes the nature and evolution of terrorism radicalization and recruitment.  Entitled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, the report presents a “conceptual framework for understanding the process of radicalization in the West,” which is based on an analysis of five U.S.-based incidents: 

Lackawana, New York
Portland, Oregon

Northern Virginia

New York City –
Herald Square Subway
New York City – The Al Muhajiroun Two (see page 66 of the report)

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly introduces this new study by explaining that “understanding this [terrorist recruitment] trend and the radicalization process in the West that drives it is vital for developing effective counterstrategies.”  This is why, Kelly continues, the “NYPD places a priority on understanding what drives and defines the radicalization process.” 

The NYPD suggests that a prime differentiator in the cases of the five incidents studied is that the perpetrators are “unremarkable.”  The authors of the report, Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt of the NYPD Intelligence Division, apply the term about a dozen times in the report to suggest a new evolution of the terrorist threat in the U.S.: It could be anybody.

By this the report intends to explain that the traditional antecedents to an attack – perpetrators with criminal records, a presence on watchlists, observable anti-American behavior, travel to certain overseas locations – no longer necessarily present themselves even when a terrorist plan has become operational.  The report explains that the process of radicalization and recruitment can be characterized as follows: 


Each of the four stages is treated with detail.  In addition to a serious, if somewhat academic, definition of radicalization, the report provides an in-depth threat assessment from the perspective of the NYPD as informed by such well known experts as RAND’s Brian Jenkins.  In the end, the treatment given by this report may do well to highlight the interconnected nature of this threat across national boundaries and thereby give better impetus to a collaborative approach with allies and friends.  This is something the NYPD is known for doing well.  Another byproduct could be a more intentional assessment of drivers, which we called “root causes” years ago before the use of that phrase fell out of popular favor. 

This vitally important subject is covered in other posts here with links to related content from across the policy community.

August 25, 2006

Radicalization in Europe: Globalization and Its Discontents

Filed under: Aviation Security,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Dan Prieto on August 25, 2006

Had the recent bomb plot against U.S.-bound flights from the U.K succeeded, it would have been the most spectacular terrorist attack since 9/11. It also would have been a brazen taunt to U.S. authorities: No matter what you do to protect airplanes, they are still not safe. Thwarting this latest attack was a huge law enforcement and intelligence success. But five years after 9/11, the plot also confirms that we have moved into a new stage in the war on terrorism, one that will require more tools than the military, law enforcement, intelligence, and homeland security solutions that have dominated our efforts to-date.

Islamic extremists’ fascination with airplanes has not abated, despite the nearly $20 billion we’ve spent since 9/11 to make them harder targets. Airplanes are ready-made for human casualties. They fit the bill for spectacular theater. And, Al Qaeda also places a premium on inflicting significant economic damage.

The often overlooked aspect of terrorists’ aviation fascination is that intercontinental air travel is a shining symbol of globalization. While many view the forces or modernization, mobility, and interdependence as forces of positive change, reaction against those forces feeds Bin Laden’s radicalism as well as the growing disaffection of segments of Europe’s indigenous Muslim youth, the young men behind the London transit bombings and this latest plot. In the reactionary worldview, globalization is an engine of western imperialism and injustice.

Arguably though, Bin Laden himself is a product of the globalizing trend, the son of a wealthy Saudi businessman and educated in engineering and business. Similarly, many of the 9/11 bombers were western-educated with technical and law degrees. As with the London transit bombings, many of these most-recent plotters were second-generation Pakistanis born and raised in UK. The westernized children are more radical than their first-generation immigrant parents. No irony is lost on the fact that the intended bombing paraphernalia included i-Pods and Gatorade bottles – two other icons of global capitalism.

The susceptibility of indigenous Muslim communities in Europe to terrorist radicalization is a vexing problem that will last for more than a generation. How do you prevent the alienation of young men from societies into which they were born? How do you counter or defuse the deep antipathy toward the U.S. that results from our foreign policy in the Arabic and Muslim world? How do you increase intelligence and law enforcement scrutiny of Muslims in Europe without fueling radicalism or alienating the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Muslim citizens?

Solutions will require patience and perseverance from societies that want security now. They will also require a greater engagement by “white” Europe of a “brown” Europe that it has traditionally tolerated but which it has never integrated. Policies must obviously include improving education, increasing economic opportunities, and bettering relations with police. At the same time, Muslims themselves must do more to turn their own against extremism. This is harder said than done, though: European Muslims who have cooperated with their governments have often lost credibility in their communities.

America’s war on terrorism has resorted to military solutions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Away from the hot wars, the counter-terrorism fight is banking on law enforcement, intelligence, and technology for its success: detect and prevent plots before they happen. As terrorist cells increasingly reflect autonomous and home-grown risks, however, it is unrealistic to think that detection and prevention will always succeed.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the United States and its allies must develop a strategy to defuse the threat of a “Eurabian” fifth column, extremists within European immigrant communities bent on attacking their own countrymen.

The military, intelligence, technology, and aggressive police work are the right tools against the symptoms of terrorism, but do little to address terrorism’s root causes. While tough-on-terror politicians scoff at “softer” tools, education, outreach, and better economic opportunities are the right counterweight to radicalizing influences. If we are serious about waging and winning the long war on terrorism we must bring every possible tool to bear. Our political leaders need to realize that while hammers are essential, all problems are not nails.

Daniel B. Prieto is Senior Fellow and Director of the Homeland Security Center at the Reform Institute. Previously, he was Research Director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

November 20, 2015

Clinton at CFR

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration,Radicalization,Refugee Crisis,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 20, 2015

Yesterday Hillary Clinton gave a speech and answered questions at the Council on Foreign Relations.  A transcript and video is available at the CFR website.

Here’s how she set up her remarks:

ISIS is demonstrating new ambition, reach, and capabilities. We have to break the group’s momentum, and then its back. Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS but to defeat and destroy ISIS.

But we have learned that we can score victories over terrorist leaders and networks only to face metastasizing threats down the road. So we also have to play and win the long game. We should pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, one that embeds our mission against ISIS within a broader struggle against radical jihadism that is bigger than any one group, whether it’s al-Qaida or ISIS or some other network.

An immediate war against an urgent enemy and a generational struggle against an ideology with deep roots will not be easily torn out. It will require sustained commitment in every pillar of American power. This is a worldwide fight, and America must lead it.

Our strategy should have three main elements: one, defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East; two, disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilities the flow of fighters, financing arms, and propaganda around the world; three, harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.

Mrs. Clinton proceeds with detailed, balanced, and well-argued analysis and recommendations.  Even one well-known conservative commented, “Candidate Clinton laid out a supple and sophisticated approach.”  It is worth reading — or at least listening — carefully.

While she did not give major attention to the issue of the US receiving Syrian refugees, given the political climate the presidential candidate’s comments could even be characterized as courageous. Below is part of what she said:

Since Paris, no homeland security challenge is being more hotly debated than how to handle Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States. Our highest priority, of course, must always be protecting the American people. So, yes, we do need to be vigilant in screening and vetting any refugees from Syria, guided by the best judgment of our security professionals in close coordination with our allies and partners. And Congress needs to make sure the necessary resources are provided for comprehensive background checks, drawing on the best intelligence we can get. And we should be taking a close look at the safeguards and the visa programs as well.

But we cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations. Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee—that is just not who we are. We are better than that. And remember, many of these refugees are fleeing the same terrorists who threaten us. It would be a cruel irony indeed if ISIS can force families from their homes, and then also prevent them from ever finding new ones. We should be doing more to ease this humanitarian crisis, not less. We should lead the international community in organizing a donor conference and supporting countries like Jordan, who are sheltering the majority of refugees fleeing Syria.

And we can get this right. America’s open, free, tolerant society is described by some as a vulnerability in the struggle against terrorism, but I actually believe it’s one of our strengths. It reduces the appeal of radicalism and enhances the richness and resilience of our communities.


A personal addendum: I have always wondered — worried, really — what I might have done (or perhaps not done) if I had been in Germany when the Nazis began their fear campaign against the Jews (and others), or if I could have encouraged the United States to accept more European refugees in the late 1930s, or if I had been in California when Americans placed fellow citizens of Japanese descent in our own concentration camps.  Right and wrong is so much easier retrospectively.

The House of Representatives has already voted to reject the victims of tyranny, hatred and war.  This is not surprising.  It reflects popular fear and the House was designed to mirror such sentiment.  We are certainly no better than our grandparents. I hope the Senate will act with wider and wiser consideration. But it will, apparently, be a close vote.  Courage and conscience are not major voting blocks.

In regard to receiving refugees, fear and concern ought not be dismissed.  But these are not our only or best options. American neglect and rejection of victims did not help avoid World War II and may have even encouraged those intent on the massacre of innocents.  The victimization of our own citizens was simply unnecessary and profoundly wrong.  In the current context, much of the ISIS strategy depends on the US and rest of the West rejecting the refugees and intimidating our Muslim citizens.

A world in which the stranger, widow and orphan are rejected is a place where none of us are safe.

November 14, 2015

Immigrant Terror Threats: Imported Time Bombs in an Age of Poses

Filed under: Immigration,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Nick Catrantzos on November 14, 2015

Certain vulnerabilities are emerging in the wake of the attacks on Paris.

1. IMMEDIATE: Inability to vet hence screen assassins mixed among incoming refugees. A universal precept in safeguarding the people and assets of any organization is to begin by denying access to known or likely enemies. Thus the bank shies away from hiring convicted embezzlers, the liquor store from alcoholics, and the daycare center from child molesters. Before an organization can vet such people to make some intelligent decision about who gets in, it must begin with the most rudimentary of first steps: establish the person’s identity. This, sadly, is not possible when incoming droves hail from war-torn, hostile countries that are not about to do anything but impede attempts to trace a given individual’s pedigree and criminal record. Thus we have no way of vetting people like this, and our adversaries know it. The temptation to infiltrate adversaries agents into such migrant waves must be irresistible. It is such a windfall for those who would destroy us, that to not exploit such an opportunity would be jihadi malpractice.

2. EVENTUAL: The tendency of a succeeding generation to succumb to radicalization. A Western country can do everything right in extending humanitarian relief across its borders to welcome oppressed refugees, supplying them opportunities and civil liberties never before available, only to find the gratitude of the first wave of immigrant families turn into a tsunami of resentment for succeeding generations. Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon better portrayed than in The Islamist, Ed Husain’s 2009 story of how he grew up in a diaspora community in Britain only to be radicalized in a process that began with a longing for a mother country he first saw through the rosy, airbrushed accounts of disgruntled relatives other than his parents. His parents, after all, having emigrated to find a better life, wanted to assimilate, to regard themselves British citizens. But as a youngster, Husain felt estranged, neither fish nor fowl, as he didn’t look or feel British on the one hand and didn’t have a strong Muslim identity on the other. Into this vacuum came recruiters capitalizing on alienation and holding out the allure of a welcoming cultural identity, a sense of purpose, a call to battle for a radical vision of an imagined greatness ideally experienced in snapshots and trickle charges of brief visits to an exotic mother land and to secret meetings of radicals at home. The pattern is revealing: it isn’t the first or true refugees who turn on their host; they are grateful. It’s the succeeding generations, the ones born in relative safety and comfort, the ones who have the luxury of growing up resentful, wanting more and, hence, malleable in the hands of radicals who dangle before them dreams of greatness attained via the express route of jihad rather than the long road of hard work and gradual ascendancy.

3. SYSTEMIC: The unchecked erosion of cohesive elements of the host society under the banner of tolerance to the point of enabling the rise of saboteurs from within. This phenomenon stands out with the demonization of the melting pot. There was a time, remembered more vividly perhaps by first generation children of immigrants whose parents fled countries in tatters in the wake of occupation and civil war, when assimilation wasn’t a dirty word. It was an objective to be pursued with pride and a sense of achievement. The émigrés landing successfully in the New World had to earn their keep and were only too happy to do so. They learned the language and conformed to the laws and customs of the new land providing them opportunities denied them back home. Only now, they were in a new and better home, and they knew it. Thus they thought themselves Americans or Canadians, and they insisted that their children take on the traditions and culture of their new home, sometimes even if this meant diluting the ties to the Old World. When law or custom of the new country conflicted with those of the old country, then the default choice was to go with the new land. After all, this was the source of opportunity, the current home, the place which gave the immigrants the chance they most desired and thus, by extension, the place that deserved their allegiance in return. Sure, it was fine to respect old ways, language, and tradition, but the old folks weren’t kidding themselves. “I enjoy the music and the food and the occasional festivals,” my mother’s kid brother once told me, “but I see myself as an American more than a Greek. This is my country and I put it first.” This was from a man who, like my parents, was in Greece during the Second World War, when the population starved in record numbers as the Nazis and their Italian allies plundered it. Uncle John didn’t remember that part; he was in a Nazi concentration camp at the time, having been rounded up as a low-level courier while a kid working for the Resistance.

Today, the melting pot of yesteryear is regarded an insult, an offense to sustaining cultural identity. Instead, to the extent any kind of nod to assimilation is even considered, the preferred metaphor is the salad bowl. This allows theoretical mixing without loss of identity. Instead of blending in a melting pot, people are supposed to remain distinct “chunks” that tumble in the bowl, coated by some light but not too sticky vinaigrette, such as the shared watching of situation comedies and reality TV shows, instead of shared traditions or, heaven forbid, open profession of allegiance to country or national traditions. Mix together minimally but remain distinct. That’s the mantra. It preserves whatever one wants held inviolate in one’s particular “chunk.” And this distinctness also proves handy in clutching resentments.

We make it worse. By bending over backwards today to open borders unconditionally to people without demanding of them both assimilation and self sufficiency, we load a pistol of cultural castration, cock it, aim it at our own national body parts, and then, perhaps, in a fleeting moment of hesitant misgiving cry out, “Don’t move!”

No Easy Answers

Diagnosing a malady does not necessarily mean offering a cure in the same breath. Doesn’t proper diagnosis at least uncover enough about root causes to suggest that there are things the patient should stop doing in order to prevent the situation from getting worse? If so, then some remedies based on the foregoing analysis would begin with a tenet traceable to both the Hippocratic Oath and emergency management circles: Don’t make it worse.

Places to Start

To counter the immediate problem of vetting incoming hordes, prudence would suggest taking a more cautious view to opening floodgates to people whose only qualification is a hard luck story. People value what they earn, and this applies to immigrants as much as to students or workers of any kind. If citizenship and its rights are to be valued, the country conferring them must treat them as valuable, not as candy to be tossed to win smiles and demonstrate humanitarian impulses in front of cameras. It would make sense to demand of immigrants that they meet some conditions as a ticket for admission. These include fluency in a national language, conversance with the laws and history of their new home country, and a pledge to both abide by the host country’s laws and traditions even when those are in conflict with those of the emigre’s country of origin. Otherwise, why import any avowed malcontent?

To counter the eventual and systemic problems, there needs to be serious recalibrating of institutions to promote and transmit some unifying vision of what it means to be a good citizen without demonizing patriotism. It is fine to maintain a fondness for and recognition of ancestral traditions and culture, but if one is leaving a place for greener pastures, there must be a recognition that the laws of the host country take precedence and deserve respect. For Muslims, this means no, you can’t run your community by Sharia law in defiance of the laws of the land. For others, you can’t insist on having government forms in your native language or fly any flag other than that of your host. Nor can you have your own schools or distinct enclaves designed to self-segregate. If you want to be here, blend. If you don’t, then rethink coming over in the first place.

Too often an otherwise advanced society, losing sight of its cohesive elements, can embark on self-defeating measures, such as a misguided, unchecked immigration policy under the banner of humanitarian relief. It takes level thinking and a weighing of consequences to realize that a nation’s first duty is to protect its citizens and that impetuous opening of floodgates to near term or nascent saboteurs is no way to perform this duty.

April 18, 2015

Categorical confusion: “The musical note and knife are sharp”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 18, 2015

Early Thursday morning S.T. More (a provocative name, seeming to subtly signal St. Thomas More) asked an authentic question.  S/he wondered about my take on self-radicalization.  You can see the original exchange here.

Real questions are wonderful things.  Generous, beautiful, sometimes magical.  Certainly this question has been very good to me.

It prompted additional thinking and reading, especially Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind and some Aristotle.

Aristotle gave us a comparatively brief text now known as Categories.  Here Aristotle works through how we can accurately compare and contrast, how we can express meaningful characteristics, how we can think more accurately.  Aristotle compares the sharpness of music with that of a knife as an example of confusing substance for quality.

I was drawn to Ryle because of his ground-breaking work on category-mistakes, going well beyond Aristotle.  It occurred to me that with McVeigh, Breivik, the Tsarnaev’s, and others — including several in positions of great authority — we can perceive a recurring pattern of category mistakes.  It is a tendency that constantly challenges me. Anyone who is attracted to analogies will be regularly tempted to false analogies, often false because of some form of category-mistake.

Here is the note Dzhokhar Tsarnaev scrawled on the interior wall of the boat while hiding from search teams.  Many of the unintelligible (UI) words are the result of bullets fired during his capture.

I’m jealous of my brother who ha[s] [re]ceived the reward of jannutul Firdaus (inshallah) before me. I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions. I ask Allah to make me a shahied (iA) to allow me to return to him and be among all the righteous people in the highest levels of heaven. He who Allah guides no one can misguide. A[llah Ak]bar!

The US Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that. As a [UI] I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all. Well at least that’s how muhhammad (pbuh) wanted it to be [for]ever, the ummah is beginning to rise/[UI] has awoken the mujahideen, know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that. We are promised victory and we will surely get it. Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [UI] it is allowed. All credit goes [UI]. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop. 

Where to begin…

Since this is just a blog, let’s try a simple exegesis:

Killing innocent people is evil

YOU are killing (“our”) innocent people

YOU must be punished, I will do so to deter YOU from further killing of innocent people. I will continue to punish YOU until YOU stop.

Fair enough?  Coherent with the original text?

If so, in these expressions, what are the characteristics of YOU?

Certainly you is other than the writer. An anticipated reader? The police?  Others?  Others as in those who do not kill innocents?  Well, give him credit, Dzhokhar recognizes he no longer belongs in the category of those who do not kill innocents.  Others as in non-Muslims?  Perhaps.  But clearly he recognizes non-Muslims can be innocent.  The text seems to be flailing about for some other category or set of categories.

In which category does the writer belong, innocent or evil? Within the claims of  the text, apparently both.  In which category does “you” belong?  Again, apparently both.  These are not yet useful categories.

This can — probably should — be continued.  But not here.

Here I will merely contrast the confusing categories that challenged Mr. Tsarnaev with the clarity that informed decisions made at the Cologne Cathedral on Friday. The memorial service at the cathedral was for those who died in the March 24 plane crash.  The memorial service was offered as a way to support those who had survived.  All those fitting the category descriptions were included.

Categorical clarity is possible.  There are several tools available to help.  One of the first steps will often involve sweeping away the dark cloud of self-righteousness.

April 16, 2015

Ordinary boys, extraordinary rage

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 16, 2015

Four Boys

Timothy McVeigh (far left) was the principal actor in the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  He killed 168 and injured over 680.  The almost twenty-seven year old was assisted by Terry Nichols, but it seems unlikely the bombing would have happened without McVeigh.

A native of western New York state, McVeigh had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in the First Gulf War. After discharge he held several part-time jobs and bought and sold on the gun-show circuit.  He was often described as soft-spoken and affable.

A best selling biography of McVeigh — American Terrorist — was written with his cooperation.  Just before McVeigh’s 2001 execution one of the biography’s co-authors answered the following question posed by a BBC correspondent:

NEWSHOST:  A lot of people have asked me in conversations how does someone go from being a veteran in the US Army to becoming someone who can carry out the greatest act of terrorism on American soil?

DAN HERBECK:  Part of it started when he was a boy and he was picked on by bullies in his school. Part of it was when his parents had a difficult divorce and he was very hurt by that and part of it was when he was taught to kill in the US Army. And then a big part of it was that he really fights for gun rights and he believes that everyone should have the right to own guns and when he felt the US Government was trying to take that away from him he snapped and he decided he was going to take action against our government.

The book offers a more complicated answer, but quite late in his book tour, the co-author is willing to deploy this reduction.

Anders Brevik (second from the left), was in his early thirties when he bombed government offices in Oslo.  While McVeigh’s murder of children in a day care center was unintended “collateral damage,” Breivik  quite purposefully gunned down over sixty young people on Utøya Island.

There is a new biography of the Norwegian terrorist, the English language title is One of Us.  Reviewing the book for The Guardian, Ian Buruma wrote, “It is a ghastly story of family dysfunction, professional and sexual failure, grotesque narcissism and the temptation of apocalyptic delusions.” With modest adjustments the same diagnosis can be found in most biographies of McVeigh, including a long Washington Post profile published in 1995 titled, “An Ordinary Boy’s Extraordinary Rage.”  Breivik was raised by a single parent, bullied in school, mildly maladroit. Like McVeigh. But while their back-stories are troublesome, nothing seems extraordinary. Each of them: just one of us.

A biography of the Tsarnaev brothers has been published to coincide with the survivor’s verdict and sentencing.  The Brothers was featured on the front-page of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, assessed by none other than Janet Napolitano.

The author, Marsha Gessen, mostly avoids the Freudian frames of the previous biographers.  Yes, the brothers were born into an increasingly dysfunctional family. Certainly there was a share of professional failure, especially for the father and older brother. Yes, there was cultural and personal narcissism.  But Gessen is reluctant to see any of these as explaining the apocalyptic delusions or violent rage that exploded on Boylston Street.

Last week the author of the Tsarnaev book was a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  An excerpt from the transcript:

GROSS: The defense is saying that Dzhokhar (above, far right) was following his brother, Tamerlan (above, second from the right), but unlike his brother, Dzhokhar was not a self-radicalized terrorist. What does the expression self-radicalized mean?

GESSEN: Nobody knows. Nobody knows what self-radicalized means, and that’s one of the weird things about the way that we talk about terrorism. We talk about radicalization as though it were a thing, as though you could sort of track it and identify it, and that’s not the case. And then we’ve added this other layer, which is self-radicalization. Originally, radicalization was supposed to mean that there was an organization that sort of took you through the stages, and then when it turned out that some people just came to terrorism by themselves, this new thing called self-radicalization showed up. No one knows what it means.

Well, some claim to know.  And I have seen some reasonable claims.  But Gessen’s critique is a helpful rejoinder to quickly applying a convenient label that mostly obscures all that we do not know.

Whatever their origins and experience, the four boys seem to have arrived at a similar nexus where rather than accept what can not be known, they sought certainty in a baptism of blood.


Despite mixed reviews, I have ordered Gessen’s biography. It has not yet been delivered.  So my imagination has full-rein.  The title suggests to me  The Brothers Karamasov, where Dostoyevsky has the father of the three brothers being warned:

Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea — he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility. (Book XI, translated by Volokhonsky)

What are the lies I use in self-construction?  What offenses do I construe to give me pleasure?

Nothing out-of-the-ordinary, I assure myself.

February 19, 2015

Bending the narrative

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 19, 2015

Here is what I consider the center-of-gravity in the argument made by the President in closing yesterday’s White House summit. His full remarks are available from the White House website.


… We are here today because of a very specific challenge  — and that’s countering violent extremism, something that is not just a matter of military affairs.  By “violent extremism,” we don’t just mean the terrorists who are killing innocent people.  We also mean the ideologies, the infrastructure of extremists –the propagandists, the recruiters, the funders who radicalize and recruit or incite people to violence.  We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized.  Around the world, and here in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths, by people of different faiths — which is, of course, a betrayal of all our faiths.  It’s not unique to one group, or to one geography, or one period of time.

But we are here at this summit because of the urgent threat from groups like al Qaeda and ISIL.  And this week we are focused on prevention — preventing these groups from radicalizing, recruiting or inspiring others to violence in the first place.  I’ve called upon governments to come to the United Nations this fall with concrete steps that we can take together.  And today, what I want to do is suggest several areas where I believe we can concentrate our efforts.

First, we have to confront squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence.  Leading up to this summit, there’s been a fair amount of debate in the press and among pundits about the words we use to describe and frame this challenge.  So I want to be very clear about how I see it.

Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy.  They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam.  That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the “Islamic State.”  And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam.  That’s how they recruit.  That’s how they try to radicalize young people.  We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie.  Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek.  They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists.  And we are not at war with Islam.  We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.

Now, just as those of us outside Muslim communities need to reject the terrorist narrative that the West and Islam are in conflict, or modern life and Islam are in conflict, I also believe that Muslim communities have a responsibility as well.  Al Qaeda and ISIL do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts.  They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith, that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that there is some sort of clash of civilizations.

Of course, the terrorists do not speak for over a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology.  They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism.  No religion is responsible for terrorism.  People are responsible for violence and terrorism.

And to their credit, there are respected Muslim clerics and scholars not just here in the United States but around the world who push back on this twisted interpretation of their faith.  They want to make very clear what Islam stands for.  And we’re joined by some of these leaders today.  These religious leaders and scholars preach that Islam calls for peace and for justice, and tolerance toward others; that terrorism is prohibited; that the Koran says whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.  Those are the voices that represent over a billion people around the world.

But if we are going to effectively isolate terrorists, if we’re going to address the challenge of their efforts to recruit our young people, if we’re going to lift up the voices of tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim community, then we’ve got to acknowledge that their job is made harder by a broader narrative that does exist in many Muslim communities around the world that suggests the West is at odds with Islam in some fashion.

The reality — which, again, many Muslim leaders have spoken to — is that there’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances  — sometimes that’s accurate — does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values.

So those beliefs exist.  In some communities around the world they are widespread.  And so it makes individuals — especially young people who already may be disaffected or alienated — more ripe for radicalization.  And so we’ve got to be able to talk honestly about those issues.  We’ve got to be much more clear about how we’re rejecting certain ideas.

So just as leaders like myself reject the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam, Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there’s an inherent clash in civilizations.  Everybody has to speak up very clearly that no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents doesn’t defend Islam or Muslims, it damages Islam and Muslims.

And when all of us, together, are doing our part to reject the narratives of violent extremists, when all of us are doing our part to be very clear about the fact that there are certain universal precepts and values that need to be respected in this interconnected world, that’s the beginnings of a partnership.

As we go forward, we need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion — and we especially need to do it online.  We also need to lift up the voices of those who know the hypocrisy of groups like ISIL firsthand, including former extremists.  Their words speak to us today.  And I know in some of the discussions these voices have been raised: “I witnessed horrible crimes committed by ISIS.”  “It’s not a revolution or jihad…it’s a slaughter…I was shocked by what I did.”  “This isn’t what we came for, to kill other Muslims.”  “I’m 28 — is this the only future I’m able to imagine?”  That’s the voice of so many who were temporarily radicalized and then saw the truth.  And they’ve warned other young people not to make the same mistakes as they did.  “Do not run after illusions.”  “Do not be deceived.”  “Do not give up your life for nothing.”  We need to lift up those voices.

And in all this work, the greatest resource are communities themselves, especially like those young people who are here today.  We are joined by talented young men and women who are pioneering new innovations, and new social media tools, and new ways to reach young people.  We’re joined by leaders from the private sector, including high-tech companies, who want to support your efforts.  And I want to challenge all of us to build new partnerships that unleash the talents and creativity of young people — young Muslims — not just to expose the lies of extremists but to empower youth to service, and to lift up people’s lives here in America and around the world.  And that can be a calling for your generation.


January 22, 2015

“Countering violent extremism”

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,State and Local HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 22, 2015

Wednesday the French Prime Minister and other ministers announced several “exceptional” counter-terrorism measures. (Complete remarks in French) (Summary in English) (Reporting by The Guardian)

  • Increased protective services, especially of Jewish and Muslim places of worship.
  • Increased staffing of intelligence functions and a new legal framework for domestic intelligence operations.
  • Increased investments to counter radicalization, especially in prisons, via the Internet and in the community.
  • Increased measures to target and track specific individuals convicted or “accused” of terrorism.
  • Increased efforts, in coordination with the European Union and its member states, to implement effective border controls for the Schengen area.

The summary of the ministerial briefing provided by the French embassy in Washington DC notes, “a file containing the names of all individuals convicted or accused of terrorist acts will be created. These individuals must provide proof of their address at regular intervals and provide notification of any change of address or trips abroad. Failure to comply with these provisions will constitute an offence.” Please note convicted or accused.

Also highlighted at the ministerial briefing — though not actually discussed in any detail — was a government report released on Monday: “Une école qui porte haut les valeurs de la République” (A school that promotes the values of the Republic).

This begins to suggest “soft power” tools the French government will attempt to strengthen to counter radicalization.  The “School of the Republic” concept goes back to the 1789 Revolution and is especially associated with the Third Republic (1870-1940).  The focus has always been on unifying France around core Republican values.

According to the report, included in the priorities for a school that “carries the banner” for the Republic are (my translation):

  • First, secularism with new content related to moral and civic education, but also lay teaching about religions; with a massive effort of continuing education for teachers and operational support to teams in difficulty.
  • Second, reducing educational inequalities: to strengthen the sense of belonging to the Republic by all students, this will require new measures in favor of diversity and social mobility.
  • Finally, the mobilization of all national education partners, and primarily the parents of students: measures to develop school democracy, learning a culture of commitment…

Neither the process nor the principles articulated in the report are exportable to the United States.  But it is interesting to see the explicit connection made between counter-terrorism  — or more accurately, anti-terrorism — and public education.


Related — at least in my fevered brain — is the rather extraordinary dust-up emerging over the “summit” to be hosted by the White House on February 18.  This is part of the ongoing Countering Violent Extremism effort by DHS, State, and “The Interagency”.

In the White House statement on the upcoming session (almost the only detail available so far), it is explained:

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts rely heavily on well-informed and resilient local communities.  Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have taken the lead in building pilot frameworks integrating a range of social service providers, including education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders, with law enforcement agencies to address violent extremism as part of the broader mandate of community safety and crime prevention.  The summit will highlight best practices and emerging efforts from these communities. At the same time, our partners around the world are actively implementing programs to prevent violent extremism and foreign terrorist fighter recruitment.  The summit will include representatives from a number of partner nations, focusing on the themes of community engagement, religious leader engagement, and the role of the private sector and tech community. 

The too often contorted  lingo — and bureaucratic behavior — around CVE has been a fair target from the beginning.  It was not surprising when Victor Davis Hanson at the National Review took aim at the summit.  Or when his NR colleague Rich Lowry did so in Politico’s magazine (I can’t quickly find an online link).  But in yesterday’s  New York Times, Thomas Friedman piled on big time.

Some of the critiques are constructive.  Failing to differentiate between nearer-term counter-terrorism and longer-term anti-terrorism is not constructive.  Both are needed.  Well-conceived, the measures of each are complementary.  But in conception and practice they are two very different undertakings.

January 15, 2015

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 15, 2015

New York Post cover

The Kouachi brothers’ assassination attack on the editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo killed twelve.

The next day with the Kouachi’s on the run, Amedy Coulibaly assassinated a French policewoman and subsequently took hostages at a kosher grocery in Paris.  Four hostages were killed.

The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were well-acquainted with each other.  Based on statements made by the murderers it would seem the Kouachis self-identified with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while Coulibaly, at least most recently, had pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.

The connections between these three men and their relationships with AQAP, IS, or other extremist organizations will take time to carefully trace.  It is not yet clear, for example, if others had any operational control, or even prior knowledge, of the attack.

“Is this a Mumbai or a Boston?” We don’t know yet. (Though some early signals lean toward a more-connected, less free-lance relationship with terrorist nodes.)

All three assailants were well-known to French police and other Western security agencies.  All had criminal records.  All had publicly expressed sympathy with terrorist organizations and ideology. At some point, all had been under surveillance.  So are over 1600 French citizens.  The potential threats far exceed the resources reasonably available to maintain some balance between security and due process.

I am surprised we have not seen more Mumbais and Bostons (or we might say, Bed-Stuys and Utoyas).  These lone-wolf or small wolf-pack attacks are very difficult to prevent. For twisted egos they practically guarantee mass-media validation. Jim Bittermann at CNN commented: Chérif Kouachi was a failed soccer player and a failed rap artist who finally found a way to claim our attention.

As long predicted, one of the blow-backs of the Syrian civil war will almost certainly be some increase in deadly events of this sorts. Several thousand egos are being simultaneously abused and inflamed.  But — none of those killing and finally killed last week were veterans of that conflict. There is even evidence that close encounters with the self-styled Caliphate have disillusioned many Western volunteers.

Intelligence operations, border controls, law enforcement vigilance and prosecutorial attention can help contain these threats.  The mid-December Lindt Cafe hostage taking in Sydney probably could have been prevented under new legislation that took effect on New Years Day.  Coulibaly could have still been in prison for his last offense, but he was released early. There is, however, no full-proof way to prevent these sort of small-scale operations.  Bigger more complicated efforts are much more likely to “leak” in a way we will notice. Even then to recognize the risk we require considerable expertise and just about as much luck.

In calendar year 2002, 1119 people were murdered in France. In 2012 the number had fallen to 665.  Last week was horrific.  Last week’s number was not — sadly — significantly outside historical proportions. On the same day of the Charlie Hebdo attack thirty-seven Yemeni police recruits were killed by what is widely assumed to be an AQAP vehicle bomb.  But this other mass-murder does not surprise us.

Of course it is not just the number of dead that matters.  We are horrified by how the targets were selected and the manner in which they were killed. The French Premier, Manuel Valls, proclaimed, in most English translations, “We are at War.”  But here is the complete quote (and my personal translation).

Nous faisons une guerre, pas une guerre contre une religion, pas une guerre de civilisation, mais pour défendre nos valeurs, qui sont universelles. C’est une guerre contre le terrorisme et l’islamisme radical, contre tout ce qui vise à briser la solidarité, la liberté, la fraternité. 

(We make war, but not a war against a religion, not a war of civilizations, but to defend our values, which are universal. It is a war against terrorism and radical Islam, against everything that aims to shatter solidarity, liberty, fraternity.)

Next month the United States will host a long-planned — but just calendared — international conference on counter-terrorism. The purpose of the February 18 session is to “better understand, identify, and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home in the United States and abroad,’’ the White House said.  Even if we could fully understand the root causes, I’m not persuaded this knowledge would allow us to consistently identify and/or prevent.  Besides, the root causes are complicated, even by-the-textbook complex.

It seems to me that humanity is trying to adapt to a broad-based social revolution that began more or less four centuries ago and has been accelerating, gyrating, imploding and exploding ever since.  Some places and people have adapted reasonably well, others quite badly.

All of the great religions (inherently conserving institutions) have been challenged and changed by this great transformation. Islam has been undergoing its own “reformation” for at least the last century.  The contemporary convulsion in many Muslim states and between strands of Islam can be compared to the collision of a great flood with a great rock.  The flood does not stop.  The rock persists.  The water may swamp the rock or be diverted by the rock or build-up behind the rock until spilling over it.   The rock may even be carried with the flood until it is deposited far downstream.  In any case, big rocks and fast water are a dangerous combination.

We are —  especially if we are weird (western educated industrial rich democratic) — a part of this flooding.   Those less-weird who are threatened by the flooding may view us as the cause of their distress.  There are also some who have attempted to ride the waves of this cascade, nearly drowned, and were barely saved by a last-chance grasp for edges of the rock. These are especially inclined to curse us and attempt to change the course of this flooding. (Shakespeare puts the lines used as today’s title in the mouth of Brutus, friend and assassin of Caesar. A very complicated character.)

Is this war?  Both war and guerre (the French term) are derived from the Old High German werra meaning confusion, perplexing, disarray, strife, and quarrel.  So yes, we all make war.

But I will also share that last Friday a French friend wrote me, “It is just terrorism.”

I thought she might be saying something in English that had a nuanced meaning in French. But when I asked, she wrote, “No, this phrasing has nothing to do with French at all. I said this on purpose but I didn’t have time to explain why. I feel that it is very important to reduce those thugs to what they are, terrorists. This isn’t Islam, this isn’t a cause.  This is nothing. Nothing but sheer terrorism in the name of absolutely nothing. When put in such a context we can make different moral judgments and we can rebound more easily. It doesn’t change the course of anything. It is murder for the sake of murder.”

October 24, 2014

The Homegrown Jihadist Threat Grows

Filed under: Radicalization — by Philip J. Palin on October 24, 2014

In today’s — October 24 — Wall Street Journal, former Senator Joseph Lieberman and former senior Senate staffer, Christian Beckner (this blog’s founder) share the byline in the top-of-the-page op-ed.  They focus particular attention — as each has for many years — on the role of online radicalization.

September 23, 2014

Six master’s degree theses

Filed under: Education,General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on September 23, 2014

Here are the titles – and abstracts – of six master’s degree theses recently completed at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.  The theses will be publicly available in 4 to 6 weeks.  If you’re interested in seeing one or more of them, please email me (my first and last name [at] gmail.com) and I’ll put you in touch with the author.

Farewell To Arms: A Plan For Evaluating The 2001 Authorization For Use Of Military Force And Its Alternatives

On September 14, 2001, Congress passed the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Over the past 13 years, the AUMF has served as the primary legal foundation for the use of force against terrorist organizations and other counterterrorist operations. Since its passage, threats facing the United States have evolved and new groups have emerged. Yet, Congress has failed to reexamine the statute. This thesis examines whether the AUMF serves as the proper foundation for addressing current terrorist threats or whether an alternative legal tool is more appropriate. … [The] thesis … [analyzes] the evolution of terrorist threats, constitutional concerns, the consequences of altering the legal structure upon which national counterterrorism strategies rely, international legality, and precedent. Ultimately, [the] thesis recommends that Congress sunset the AUMF and implement a tailored approach to force authorization – one that balances constitutional protections and security, while providing a foundation for crafting future force authorizations.


Now Is The Time For CVE-2. Updating And Implementing A Revised U.S. National Strategy To Counter Violent Extremism

The United States (U.S.) national strategy countering violent extremism (CVE) has yet to be updated and currently does not provide the necessary national framework to best combat self-radicalization and violent extremism (VE) in the United States. … “What are the necessary and effective components of the national U.S. CVE strategy that best prevent self-radicalization and VE in the United States?” This research examined the concepts and strategies surrounding extremism and self-radicalization in the U.S., the United Kingdom … and Australia. … One .. finding was the identification of overarching elements that, if implemented, would increase the effectiveness and applicability of the U.S. CVE strategy. These elements include: 1) identifying the federal agency in charge of administering the U.S. CVE strategy, 2) developing a more robust and actionable national CVE framework, 3) refocusing the federal government on support and not local engagement of CVE, 4) requiring all CVE related terms be defined in every document, and 5) requiring regular evaluations and updates of the U.S. CVE strategy. ….


Opaque Communities: A Framework For Assessing Potential Homeland Security Threats From Voids On The Map

Opaque communities are groups of two or more families or cohabitation partnerships that are inaccessible to non-members, affiliates, or associates either through explicit or implied restriction of member interaction outside of the group. [These communities] confound homeland security situational awareness and integration efforts, generating … threat perceptions that often escalate into governmental interventions and violent confrontations. Opaque groups’ disinclination to interact with the surrounding public stymies governmental situational awareness capabilities necessary for homeland security functions, prompting stakeholders to embrace a default tendency to perceive threat streams emanating from such groups and employ a respective confrontational posture. Concurrently, authorities have repeatedly attributed member’s individual crimes and discreet instances of illicit behavior to the entire community, creating self-imposed barriers to viable alternative investigative and enforcement options. Governmental failures to communicate with and effectively address past incidents involving opaque communities have led to tactical response disasters. Future inabilities to foster contact with such groups could present grave, unforeseen challenges to homeland security and surrounding community resiliency efforts. This thesis explores whether governmental entities [should] adopt a common set of operational assumptions regarding threats emanating from opaque communities and, if so, whether alternative interactional frameworks for integrating such communities into homeland security efforts are available.


Should We Stay Or Should We Go Now?—The Physical, Economic, Geopolitical, Social And Psychological Factors Of Recovery From Catastrophic Disaster

“Should we continue to build there?” is a question asked after other past disasters; it is especially more poignant as local, state and federal governments deal with pre-disaster mitigation funding and post-disaster emergency management funding issues. The goal of this research [was] to develop a way of answering that question through a better understanding of the social, economic, and cultural problems, and opportunities of rebuilding. As a result, shortcomings in the assumptions of existing response and recovery plans can be identified, and current community planning can consider future catastrophic events. Through pre-identification of physical, social, and political limitations other communities have faced, pro-active land use, response and recovery planning decisions could be implemented that increase the chance that communities can successfully emerge from disaster. This study investigates examples of past catastrophic disasters and the positive and negative experiences as those communities struggled to return to normalcy. The end result of the research is an assessment that identifies the economic, geopolitical, and social factors of recovery following a catastrophic disaster. ….

Immigration Adjudication Reform: The Case For Automation

A bill that has passed the United States Senate, S. 744, proposes a “Lawful Prospective Immigrant” (LPI) status and a “path to Citizenship” for an estimated 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the Agency that would be responsible for processing applications for LPI status or other immigration benefits authorized by immigration reform legislation or administrative relief programs introduced by the White House. Current Agency receipts of applications for immigration benefits range between 6 and 7 million per year. Depending on the eligibility criteria for new immigration benefits, Agency receipts could triple. The operational impact of these legislative or executive actions on USCIS could bear significant national security risks. This study evaluates whether the implementation of automated tools would mitigate external operational impacts on USCIS. Two existing automated systems are studied. The Secure Flight system, operated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the Automated Continuous Evaluation System (ACES) as utilized in the Joint Reform Effort (JRE) were selected for their complexity, maturity, and similarity to immigration adjudications. This analysis demonstrates that automated tools can improve the quality of immigration adjudications by supporting a comprehensive assessment, including accuracy, timeliness, completeness and validity. Further, automation would improve the Agency’s operational responsiveness when external factors such as policy changes affect workloads. These factors thereby improve national security by supporting the Agency’s mission to uphold the integrity of the immigration system and to prevent and intercept illicit actors from entering or remaining in the United States.


Eyes Of The Storm: Can Fusion Centers Play A Crucial Role During The Response Phase Of Natural Disasters Through Collaborative Relationships With Emergency Operations Centers

Through the maturation of the national network of fusion centers, processes, and capabilities originally designed to detect and thwart terrorist attacks are now applied to disaster responses. The fusion process, which involves the synthesis and analysis of streams of data, can create incident specific intelligence. The sharing of this information can enhance the operating picture that is critical to key decision makers and the discipline of emergency management. This thesis examined three case studies of fusion center disaster responses through a collaborative-based analytical framework. The resulting analysis of the case studies identified the crucial role played by fusion centers in responding to disaster events in a collaborative effort with emergency operations centers. This thesis concludes that fusion centers offer the greatest impact through enabling information sharing throughout the response phase. The specific benefits of the sharing of information directly influence executive briefings and the deployment of resources. This thesis also modeled a collaborative response. The research determined that the depth and breadth of these relationships involving cooperative responses must be proportionate to the incident and include a level of redundancy. Through a system design model, over connectivity through efficiency was shown to increase the likelihood of fracturing cooperative relationships.



September 18, 2014

Johnson testimony: Worldwide threats to the homeland

Yesterday — Constitution Day BTW — the Secretary of Homeland Security testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security.  He was joined in giving testimony by FBI Director James Comey and director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olson. (Video and transcripts here)

Below is most of Secretary Johnson’s opening statement.  I hear a domestically-focused harmonic to the main counterterrorism melody performed by the President at MacDill (see prior post, immediately above).

Counterterrorism is the cornerstone of the DHS mission. And thirteen years after 9/11, it’s still a dangerous world. There’s still a terrorist threat to our homeland.

Today the terrorist threat is different from what it was in 2001. It is more decentralized and more complex. Not only is there core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – which is still active in its efforts to attack the homeland – al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Shabaab in Somalia, the al Nusrah Front in Syria, and the newest affiliate, al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. There are groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which are not official affiliates of al Qaeda, but share its extremist ideology.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, previously known as al Qaeda in Iraq, is now vying to be the preeminent terrorist organization on the world’s stage. At present, we have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.

But that is not, by any means, the end of the story.

ISIL is an extremely dangerous organization. It has the elements of both a terrorist organization and an insurgent army. It kills innocent civilians, and has seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, which it can utilize for safe haven, training, command and control, and from which it can launch attacks. It engages in 30-40 attacks per month, has more than 20,000 fighters, and takes in as much as a million dollars a day from illicit oil sales, ransom payments, and other illicit activities. Its public messaging and social media are as slick and as effective as any I’ve ever seen from a terrorist organization.

Though we know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present, we know that ISIL is prepared to kill innocent Americans they encounter because they are Americans – in a public and depraved manner. We know ISIL views the United States as an enemy, and we know that ISIL’s leaders have themselves said they will soon be in “direct confrontation” with the United States…

From the homeland security perspective, here is what we are doing:

First, to address the threats generally emanating from terrorist groups overseas, we have in recent weeks enhanced aviation security. Much of the terrorist threat continues to center around aviation security. In early July, I directed enhanced screening at 18 overseas airports with direct flights to the U.S. Several weeks later, we added six more airports to the list. Three weeks ago we added another airport, and additional screening of carry-on luggage. The United Kingdom and other countries have followed with similar enhancements to their aviation security. We continually evaluate whether more is necessary, without unnecessarily burdening the traveling public.

Longer term, as this committee has heard me say before, we are pursuing “pre-clearance” at overseas airports with flights to the U.S. This means inspection by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer and enhanced aviation security before a passenger gets on the plane to the U.S. We now have pre-clearance at airports in Ireland, the UAE, Canada and the Caribbean. I regard it as a homeland security imperative to build more. To use a football metaphor, I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than our 1-yard line. I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders.

Second, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, NCTC and other intelligence agencies are making enhanced and concerted efforts to track Syrian foreign fighters who come from or seek to enter this country. The reality is that more than 15,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria over the last three years, including approximately two thousand Westerners. We estimate that more than 100 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join the fight there one way or another. We are concerned that not only may these foreign fighters join ISIL or other violent extremist groups in Syria, they may also be recruited by these violent extremist groups to leave Syria and conduct external attacks. The FBI has arrested a number of individuals who have tried to travel from the U.S. to Syria to support terrorist activities there.

Third, we are working with European and other governments to build better information sharing to track Syrian foreign fighters. Whenever I get together with my European counterparts, this topic is almost always item number one on the agenda. The importance of this issue is also reflected by the fact it will be a singular topic of discussion at a U.N. Security Council summit that the President will chair in two weeks. In the history of the U.N., this is only the second time a U.S. President has personally chaired a Security Council summit.

We are increasing efforts to track those who enter and leave Syria, and may later seek to travel to the United States from a country for which the United States does not require a visa from its citizens. There are in fact a number of Visa Waiver Program countries that also have large numbers of citizens who are Syrian foreign fighters. Generally, we have strong information-sharing relationships with these countries. But, with their help, we will enhance this capability. We need to ensure that we are doing all we can to identify those who, by their travel patterns, attempt to hide their association with terrorist groups.

We are encouraging more countries to join the United States in using tools like Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record collection, which will help to identify terrorist travel patterns.

Fourth, within the U.S. government, DHS and our interagency partners in law enforcement and the intelligence community, are enhancing our ability to share information with each other about suspicious individuals.

Fifth, we are continually on guard against the potential domestic-based, home-grown terrorist who may be lurking in our own society: the independent actor or “lone wolf” who did not train at a terrorist camp or join the ranks of a terrorist organization overseas, but who is inspired here at home by a group’s social media, literature or violent extremist ideology. In many respects, this is the hardest terrorist threat to detect, and the one I worry most about.

To address the domestic “lone wolf” threat, I have directed that DHS build on our partnerships with state and local law enforcement in a way that enhances community relationships. The local police and fire departments are the first responders to any crisis in our homeland. The local police, more than the federal government, have their finger on the pulse of the local community from which a domestic terrorist may come.

To address the home-grown terrorist who may be lurking in our midst, we must also emphasize the need for help from the public. “If You See Something, Say Something” is more than a slogan. For example, last week we sent a private sector advisory identifying for retail businesses a long list of materials that could be used as explosive precursors, and the types of suspicious behavior that a retailer should look for from someone who buys a lot of these materials.

Within DHS, we have outreach programs with communities who themselves are engaging youth in violence prevention. I have directed that we step up these programs and I personally participate in them. In June I met with a Syrian-American community group in a Chicago suburb. Next week I will meet with a Somali community in Columbus, Ohio. In October, the White House will host a summit on domestic efforts to prevent violent extremism, and address the full lifecycle of radicalization to violence posed by foreign fighter threats. The efforts highlighted at this summit are meant to increase the participation of faith-based organizations, mental health providers, social service providers, and youth-affiliated groups in local efforts to counter violent extremism.

Over the last 13 years, we have vastly improved this Nation’s ability to detect and disrupt terrorist plots overseas before they reach the homeland. Here at home, federal law enforcement does an excellent job, time and again, of identifying, investigating, arresting and prosecuting scores of individuals before they commit terrorist acts. But we continue to face real terrorist enemies and real terrorist threats and we must all remain vigilant.

Community-based, regionally — even globally — engaged, collaborative efforts to prevent, protect, prepare, mitigate, and respond.  Recovery and resilience are implied, but — as usual —  given a bit less attention.

December 18, 2013

The Boston Globe on the “Fall of the House of Tsarnaev”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on December 18, 2013

A few Boston Globe reporters have collaborated on a lengthy and perhaps unique look into the background of the alleged  Boston Marathon bombers and their immediate family. The piece, “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev,” suggests that the older brother, Tamerlan, exhibited signs of schizophrenia and that the younger, Dzhokhar (Jahar), had a history of manipulation and brash risk raking.  In addition:

The Globe’s five-month investigation, with reporting in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, and the United States, also:

  • Fundamentally recasts the conventional public understanding of the brothers, showing them to be much more nearly coequals in failure, in growing desperation, and in conspiracy.
  • Establishes that the brothers were heirs to a pattern of violence and dysfunction running back several generations. Their father, Anzor, scarred by brutal assaults in Russia and later in Boston, often awoke screaming and tearful at night. Both parents sought psychiatric care shortly after arriving in the United States but apparently sought no help for Tamerlan even as his mental condition grew more obvious and worrisome.
  • Casts doubt on the claim by Russian security officials that Tamerlan made contact with or was recruited by Islamist radicals during his visit to his family homeland.
  • Raises questions about the Tsarnaevs’ claim that they came to this country as victims of persecution seeking asylum. More likely, they were on the run from elements of the Russian underworld whom Anzor had fallen afoul of. Or they were simply fleeing economic hardship.

What seems unique about this article is the depth of investigation into the background and family history of alleged terrorists that have carried out an attack inside the United States.  Following 9/11 there was a considerable degree of discussion around the social conditions in which terrorists emerge, or what might cause young men and women to enlist in the jihadist cause.  “Draining the swamp” was a popular, if unclear, concept that seemed to offer a menu of options to address what were referred to as “root causes” of terrorism.

Then the Iraq war happened and our incursion into Afghanistan turned out not to be a swift and clear victory.  COIN or counter-insurgency became the new buzzword, soon followed by a concentration on special forces raids and drone strikes.  Understanding the conditions that possibly drive some to terrorist acts drifted to the background.

In my opinion, this article helps bring some of those concepts back into the counter terrorism discussion.  It should not be read as an argument to absolve these brothers of their (alleged) acts, or an attempt to provide support for leniency in Dzhokhar’s upcoming trial due to the facts of a difficult upbringing.  Instead, I hope that it may provide at least a kernel of information that others can learn from to possibly prevent future radicalization.

Again, the article is long but worth your time and can be found at:


July 25, 2013

A missing link in strategy?

Earlier this week I was re-reading the DHS Strategic Plan (2012-2016).  I perceived something — actually its absence —  I had not noticed before.

Community involvement is, of course, a recurring mantra in the Strategic Plan and many other DHS policy, strategy, and operational documents. “Whole Community” is prominent in Mission 5: Ensuring Resilience to Disaster.  Other missions include similar language.  For example Mission 1: Preventing Terrorism and Enhancing Security has a goal to “Increase community participation in efforts to deter terrorists and other malicious actors and mitigate radicalization toward violence.”

A close reading of the Strategic Plan suggests the whole is made up of the following parts:

Private and Non-Profit Sectors
Faith Based organizations
Federal Partners
All Segments of Society

Especially with those catch-all terms it’s not that my “absence” is excluded.  But it is not given explicit attention.  Certainly not priority.

What prominent place in the life of most Americans is not referenced?

The workplace.

Indirectly this is part of the private sector or non-profit-sector or local and state government or whatever other sector in which you work. But these “sectors” are abstractions. The workplace is a concrete — often literally glass, steel, and concrete — place. Yet the only time “workplace” is referenced in the Strategic Plan is with workplace standards for protecting intellectual property and “workplace wellness” programs for DHS employees.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Americans age 25-to-54 spend an average of 8.8 hours per day at work. This is a larger block than any other activity, much larger than any other non-sleeping activity surveyed.

Yet the places where we work are not regularly conceived or engaged as venues where homeland security priorities can be pursued.

There are exceptions. I am aware of a few.  I welcome you highlighting successful exceptions in the comments.

The absence of the workplace from the DHS Strategy reveals a strategic perspective.  It is another example of the disconnect between private and public domains.  Clearly government is a place where homeland security is to be practiced.  There is considerable effort to engage neighborhoods and sometimes schools. These are real places too, but much more public than private in their character.

Is a “community” — whole or not — a real place?  It depends, in my experience, on the community and how an outsider approaches the putative community.

There are offices, distribution centers, power plants, factories and refineries, restaurants, hotels, retail stores and many more real places where each day the vast majority of Americans spend the majority of their waking hours.  Most of these places feature a task-oriented culture with management processes already in place.  Most of these places are self-interested in a reasonable level of safety, continuity, and resilience.

In my personal experience most of these places are wonderful contexts for the practical practice of homeland security.

There is a tendency for modern strategic thinking to be more comfortable with space than place.  See battlespace and cyberspace, even Space Command.  I am often an advocate for differentiating between Theater Command and Incident Command and perceive we give too little attention to the Big Picture.  But it is not, of course, one or the other: it is a continuum.

Real risks, threats, vulnerabilities and consequences usually unfold in real places where people come and go everyday.

Interesting what you can miss even when it’s right in front of you.  I’ve read that strategy a half-dozen times.  Wonder what else is hiding in plain sight?

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