The US failure to battle home-grown terrorism

Understanding the demand for extremist propaganda or why some people buy it should be the right approach.

Patches on the sleeve of a militiaman is seen at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon [REUTERS]
A 'clash-of-civilisations' mentality has increasingly focused on Muslims and Islamic extremism despite the fact that more people in the US have died from far right-wing attacks, writes Zafar [AP]

Threats from home-grown terrorism continue to challenge the outcomes of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) paper almost half a year later. Incidents such as the San Bernardino shooting have reignited socially divisive responses similar to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But to strengthen United States’ security posture, its administration needs to shift from unsustainable reactive responses to more proactive approaches in identifying, countering, and preventing home-grown terrorism.

Identifying home-grown terrorists

National security efforts rest on the assumption that home-grown terrorists can be detected. This is not necessarily a fallacy. Promoting acts of violent extremism on social media, for instance, would be a valid indication of threats.

But the tactics to observe such behaviour disproportionately rely on racial profiling and perpetuate a “clash of civilisations” mentality that has increasingly focused on Muslims and Islamic extremism despite the fact that more people in the US have died from far right-wing attacks.

Responding to the identity of the San Bernardino attackers in a New York Times article, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center noted: “What’s really troubling is that they appeared to be a well-integrated and stable couple with a baby and a job.”

It is unrealistic to assume that extremist violence can be forever eradicated. But the current strategy zeroes in on Muslim communities and links 'countering violent extremism' programmes with law enforcement agencies.


What is all the more troubling is the assumption that normative values such as marriage, children, and a job would deter certain ideologies from taking root. Such conceptions create a false threshold of risk for extremism and/or recruitment.

A better way to examine and understand home-grown extremism is as a “generational revolt”. Olivier Roy’s recent article pragmatically characterises the “opportunism” of Islamic extremism among second-generation immigrants in France.

He argues, as I have elsewhere, that second-generation youth often struggle to reconcile disparate cultures and subcultures. They negotiate nebulous boundaries, seeking belonging and relevance, and often end up frustrated by or falling short of societal and family expectations.

Roy points out that many extremists have past lives steeped in partying, sex, alcohol and drugs. Consider Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who was no stranger to strip clubs in the Philippines.

But, according to Roy, they choose Salafism, “an Islam possessing of norms that allow them to reconstruct the self all by themselves. Because they want nothing of the culture of their parents or of the Western culture that has become a symbol of their self-hatred.”

This view of extremism focuses on the formative nature of household dynamics, cultural environment, and the psycho-social impact on personhood rather than politically or religiously motivated ideologies. It more accurately situates home-grown extremism as an explosive mix of very human experiences and frustrations that lack outlets for self-expression.

Breaking the brand

When extremism becomes an outlet, fighting a propaganda war is futile. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) recruitment of foreign fighters online has spurred US counterterrorism officials to revise their approach.

Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, stated that the US government “can work with the private sector to get additional messengers with alternative voices out there. Frankly, we’ve got to do a better job of approaching this in a way that allows us to – the phrase has been used – break the brand of ISIL’s message.”

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One suggestion, supported by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, has been increased Internet controls. At a news conference in December, the director of the FBI, James B Comey, conceded that Internet controls could not sufficiently encompass recruitment via the Internet and social media.

Simply because extremists stop “tweeting” does not necessarily mean they stop talking. Shutting down internet technologies just shifts the conversation to another space – one that can actually be counterproductive in the government’s attempts to keep a pulse on online recruitment.

A useful approach to “breaking the brand” is to look at extremist narratives as products that are packaged, marketed and sold to consumers. It is easy for the producers, such as ISIL or al-Qaeda, to redefine their brand and target it to their consumers because they know what their consumers want.

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Much of the current strategy focuses on discrediting extremist narratives in the media with the objective of decreasing their impact. All it does is limit the market share of jihadist messaging. Understanding the demand or why some people buy such propaganda is a more proactive approach.

There is no need to confound blatant sociopathy and narcissism with, for example, an aberrant interpretation of Islam. Most foreign fighters are between 18 and 29 (PDF), and extremist propaganda caters to a demand among them that is much more intrinsic than any religious or political ideology.

Preventing the problem

It is unrealistic to assume that extremist violence can be for ever eradicated. But the current strategy zeroes in on Muslim communities and links CVE programmes with law enforcement agencies.

Muslim leaders in cities such as Boston and Minneapolis that are running pilot CVE programmes have criticised the initiatives as opportunities for police monitoring and intelligence gathering rather than integration.

In Minneapolis, for example, grants for CVE programmes have introduced allegations of opportunistic crisis conflation among members of the Somali diaspora who want to secure government funding for their organisations.


For “Community Resilience Programmes” to be truly effective, they cannot be based on reactive ad hoc community mobilisations when a crisis emerges. Education is the best mechanism for social and structural integration across diverse populations. Education is also the key commonality among the cohort of home-grown extremist recruits in the US – most have been or will go through the US school system.

This is an opportunity for the US government to exponentially augment programmes for the children in mandatory school-sponsored community service initiatives. It is lamentable to have to spend millions of dollars on counterterrorism, when the government can cauterise the problem by investing that money, up front, in an overhaul of the education system.

Police brutality, racism, bigotry, and extremism are all rooted in insular mentalities and ignorance. And when they are chalked up to inherent violent tendencies among certain populations, it further fuels the animosity, segregation, and dehumanisation that characterises the US’, if not the world’s, political landscape at present.

Morwari Zafar is an international security consultant and a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Oxford.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.