How to Minimize Future Terror Attacks
Attackers in Orlando, Brussels, San Bernardino, Paris, and Boston share a stark commonality with each other and with other terrorists: They already had come to the attention of law enforcement or intelligence agencies before they killed. In each instance, authorities decided that despite radical leanings and prior offenses the suspects would not commit acts of mass violence, and so discontinued investigations or did not share information across jurisdictions.
Omar Mateen of recent Orlando infamy had been on the U.S. terrorist watch list and was interviewed by the FBI about his extremist connections. Ethno-nationalist Anders Breivik, whose hatred for Muslim immigrants spurred him to attack in July 2011, had come to the attention of Norway’s security agency one year earlier after having purchased an explosives primer. No precautionary actions were taken in either case. These and other instances suggest that a major means of preventing attacks is to better monitor persons who have already triggered warning signals by displaying the motives and acquiring the means to perform terror acts.
Certain people -- police, military, and other government officers, journalists, scholars, and aid workers -- have legitimate reasons to routinely visit extremist websites and interact virtually or in person with proselytizers and practitioners of violence. Curious members of the public and people with relatives in conflict-ridden areas seek similar information. In many countries, including the United States, this is not illegal.
But most law-abiding persons have no reason for prolonged contact with virtual and physical sites, ideologues, and combatants who disseminate hate and deploy violence. When they do get involved deeply, the consequences can be dire, particularly if authorities’ vigilance lags or warning fatigue sets in. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who organized the November 2015 terrorism wave in Paris, was known to French intelligence as having been recruited to serve the Islamic State in Syria, yet he slipped back into the European Union due to poor data-sharing between nations.
When individuals who spend time online at fanatical sites post statements championing hateful violence, attempt to visit militants’ training facilities and territories, or actually travel to those locations, there is reasonable cause to regard them as potential threats. Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube channel with links to Salafist videos and participation in Dagestani Islamist gatherings should have kept him under ongoing FBI surveillance. Merely interviewing and placing him on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a U.S. database of known and suspected terrorists, did not give law enforcement officers the information needed to thwart the Boston Marathon terror of April 2013. Dylann Roof, who shot and killed African-Americans at a Charleston church in June 2015, had an online presence replete with white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology. But data lapses resulted in his not being tagged by the FBI’s background check system when purchasing the weapons he used for his act of terrorism.
Likewise, if fuller data had been gathered of his online activities, intervention could have occurred with Syed Rizwan Farook to avert the San Bernardino shootings of December 2015. His spouse Tashfeen Malik, who was radicalized abroad, should have been investigated more thoroughly and should not have been admitted into the United States --not only due to Farook’s activities, but also her own radical, and very public, positions. Ultra-nationalist Gregoire Moutaux was known to French authorities for publicly expressing hatred of Jews and Muslims. Yet that terrorist would have engaged in mass murder at the Euro 2016 soccer tournament if his plot had not been foiled by Ukrainian security personnel. The United States had al-Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki and the Taliban’s Baitullah Mehsud under electronic surveillance. But their communications with Faisal Shahzad, and his own extremist rants via email, were not correlated by American intelligence officers until after his car bomb failed to detonate at Times Square in May 2010.
Monitor for Motives and Means
Law enforcement in the United States and other countries may not have the necessary personnel to investigate every potential suspect. Legal systems also provide checks and balances. Large-scale data caching by the National Security Agency has not led to documented success in foiling terrorist attacks. Mass profiling by country of origin and religion would not only transgress basic rights, it would also alienate the United States and European Union from communities and even nations it needs to act as partners.
Yet much can be accomplished within the law using extant resources. Algorithms can scan in real time for suspicious communications and travel, unusual cash withdrawals, purchases of weapons, and other actions. Only activities that suggest acquisition of means to conduct terrorism, such as Mateen’s and Breivik’s repeated purchases of weapons, by individuals already behaving radically need be flagged for in-person inquiries. To preserve individual rights and ensure due process, monitoring certainly must be authorized by judges.
Most persons whose activities appear to be suspicious will not go on to attempt, conspire, or provide material support or resources to a terrorist organization. But some of them will. Four years before attacking the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015, Said Kouachi trained with jihadists in Yemen. His brother, Cherif Kouachi, had done time in a French jail for recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Yet French authorities stopped keeping tabs on them. Two of the Brussels attackers in March 2016 were known to EU authorities as fighters for the Islamic State, another was awaiting trial for assisting a terror cell, and two others had criminal records. Yet, unfettered by law enforcement, they were free to carry out their strikes. The November 2015 Colorado Springs abortion clinic gunman Robert Dear, Jr., spurred by Christian extremism, had a violent criminal record but was not sequestered before his terrorist act.
Recent outbursts of terror by lone wolves and small cohorts have shown that religion is not a good predictor of potential perpetrators. Far better indicators are extremism-inspired motivesor previous violent actions and criminal records coupled with procurement of weapons. Once someone is clearly documented as having been radicalized -- especially through their own words and deeds -- they must be considered a threat until proven otherwise, irrespective of the inspiration for their extremism. They must be monitored and they should not be permitted to acquire weapons.
Such individuals may well be protected by free speech, but the sites and the people they are engaging with have established track records of murder directed at communities and nations. They are being indoctrinated, and at times urged, trained, or directed by groups that are often proscribed not only by the United States and European Union, but even by the United Nations. They should be accorded full legal rights but cannot be allowed to instigate, acquire the means for, or carry out acts of terror.