How to Look at Homegrown Terrorism

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J. Pat Carter / AP

Jose Padilla

The most sophisticated government analysis of the homegrown terrorism threat to be made public in the United States came out this week, and it didn't come from Washington — not from the FBI, the Director of National Intelligence or the Department of Homeland Security. It came from the New York City Police Department, and with any luck, its release will spur the federal government ostensibly leading the war on terror to show more faith in the general public's ability to digest serious intelligence.

The report, entitled "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," makes several important and underappreciated points.

— There is no useful profile to predict who will become radicalized. Most would-be terrorists are "unremarkable men" living "unremarkable lives." They don't have criminal histories, and they don't always gather at mosques.

— They do, however, follow remarkably similar behavior patterns. Participants in 11 anti-Western terrorism plots analyzed in the report all went through four stages on the path from unremarkable to violent: Pre-radicalization, Self-identification, Indoctrination and Jihadization.

The report isn't perfect. The phrase "Jihadization" is problematic, and has already alienated some of the Muslim-American leaders who should be included in this conversation. Nor is it all new. Some of these points have been made before by respected counterterrorism scholars. But the fact that it came from a government organization, not a think tank, and that it struggles mightily not to dumb down its content, makes it exceptional.

"It's remarkable to me that one of the first public reports on radicalization to get it right came from a police department," says Chris Heffelfinger, a counterterrorism expert with the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. "Our preconception is that it should come from the top, from the White House, [but] I don't think the CIA or any other analytic agency has better stuff than this."

The authors, Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, of the NYPD's intelligence division, spent months traveling the world and systematically analyzing the facts: who has participated in foiled and realized plots against the West? Where did they meet? What motivated them? And how did they go from being regular people, often citizens of Western nations, to radical violent extremists?

"This was a triumph of sensible men working very, very hard to get a good understanding of how this process works and determined, despite the risks, to get it out into the public," says Brian Jenkins, a veteran counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corporation who was also a consultant on the report.

The NYPD has, since 9/11, built up one of the most impressive intelligence organizations in the world. The Department has officers based in the U.K., Israel and Europe, among other places. It also has hundreds of linguists who speak Farsi, Arabic and Urdu. Its intelligence division is led by David Cohen, who spent 35 years at the CIA.

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