Almost a year ago, two bombs erupted at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three people, injuring 264 others, and reminding America that the threat from domestic terrorism is ever-present. The Boston bombing was a watershed moment in the ongoing saga of US homeland security. It was proof positive that the theater of the war on terror is no longer on foreign soil. Even as sporting events today receive closer security scrutiny, we face a diverse threat from homegrown violent extremism that can rear its deadly head any time, any place.
As it happens, when the bombs exploded at the marathon, I was sitting at my desk completing the manuscript of my first book, Homegrown Violent Extremism, in which I called another terrorist attack "inevitable" and stated definitively that this attack would come from domestic extremists. I was shocked by the attack in Boston, but sadly, I was not surprised. Everyone in the counterterrorism community knew this day would come, eventually.
In the days after the attack, we learned that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, brothers who had lived in the United States since their early childhood, detonated the bombs. Regardless of the country from which they immigrated, they had grown up here, embraced their hateful ideology here, and learned how to execute a terror attack here. They were, by definition, homegrown violent extremists. What I told reporters covering the attack, and what I later testified to the Congressional Committee on Homeland Security in the first hearing held on this tragic event, is that the Tsarnaevs' actions were a sign of things to come. We face a domestic threat that is as diverse as the fabric of America itself, and it is hidden in plain sight.
The recognition that homegrown extremists present a growing and deadly threat is gaining wider notice, which is critical for our homeland security efforts. The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) released a report, "Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment," six months after the Boston bombing, in which the "Threat at Home" was the lead issue. It explained that the kind of attack we saw from the Tsarnaevs is indicative of the wider threat America faces. Homegrown extremists may be more likely to attack individually (the much-feared Lone Wolf) or in pairs and not necessarily as a part of larger cells with ties to transnational terrorist groups or nation states. And while the BPC report looked specifically at the "jihadist threat" (what I call the "Muslim Identity ideology" in my book), we know that homegrown terrorists can be motivated by a diverse collection of ideologies.
- Since 2001, politically motivated right-wing extremists have killed 29 people, according to figures from the New America Foundation, while jihadist militants have killed 20 people. This is factual evidence that the Muslim Identity threat, while continuing to capture headlines, is not the dominant, most lethal threat.
- On November 1, 2013, Paul Ciancia murdered Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee Gerardo Hernandez (the first TSA officer killed in the line of duty) and injured several others in an attack at LAX. Ciancia specifically targeted TSA officers, driven by a radical, anti-government ideology that posits a secret group of international elites intend to control the planet by forming a one-world government (i.e., a "New World Order").
- The FBI recently thwarted a plot by three Georgia men who had discussed on Facebook plans to attack the US electric grid, as well as symbols of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), TSA and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Their plan was to trigger a government overreaction (i.e., declaring martial law) that would prompt all US militias to declare war on the federal government.
The example of the Georgia militia members reveals one way the Internet is contributing to homegrown violent extremism. Beyond a place where extremists can collaborate to plot death and destruction, the Internet can facilitate radicalization, giving any individual access to hateful, radical ideologies which, given numerous factors, can lead to domestic terrorism.
In the United States, determining how to stem access to radical material in the digital world is a formidable challenge. In the US democracy – where hate speech is protected by law – monitoring and disrupting extremist websites and associated messaging remains difficult, if not unconstitutional. James Laffrey of Michigan boasts a website with plans to create a white supremacist political party called Whites Will Win. He has garnered attention for openly calling for the "assassination" of Jewish people by their "white" neighbors. He has openly advocated violence, including murder, but his speech, although reprehensible, is protected by the First Amendment .
Even extremist literature that begins abroad is difficult to stop within America's borders. Approaching the anniversary of the Boston attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri (al Qaeda's successor to Osama bin Laden) is reaching out to Americans with a new online magazine, Resurgence. Back in May 2007, Zawahiri attempted to recruit African Americans by twisting speeches by Malcolm X to link the idea of global jihad with the struggle of racial oppression. This is a tactic seen again in Resurgence, and it is another avenue through which homegrown violent extremism may emerge.
Terrorists have no political party, but that doesn't mean homeland security and counterterrorism are immune to politics. The public discussions we have, the topics on which the media focus, and the priorities of leaders in local, state, and particularly the federal government all dictate what we, as a nation, deem to be the most significant security threats. We cannot hope to identify and thwart today's homegrown extremism when we continue to base our security approaches on an attack that happened more than a decade ago (i.e., 9/11). It is time for us to accept the idea that terrorist threats do not just arrive from "over there." They are right here.
As we recognize the solemn anniversary of the Boston attacks, we would do well to remember not just the people impacted by the explosions but the homegrown extremists who learned from it, were motivated by it, and today are planning the next attack.[divider]
- "Counterterrorism expert: 'Boston Marathon bombing is a game changer'" (Elsevier Connect, April 17, 2013)
- "Counterrorism expert on testifying before Congress on the Boston bombings" (Elsevier Connect, May 13, 2013)
Elsevier Connect Contributor
Dr. Erroll Southers is an internationally renowned counterterrorism expert author of Homegrown Violent Extremism, published by Elsevier in 2013. At the University of Southern California (USC), he is Associate Director of Research Transition for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Center for Risk & Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE). Last year, he received a Doctor of Policy, Planning and Development degree from USC's Sol Price School of Public Policy, where he is an adjunct professor. He is also Managing Director of Counter-Terrorism and Infrastructure Protection for TAL Global Corporation, a consultancy used by governments and firms around the world.