Militant groups can radicalize individuals and train them to carry out terrorist acts much more quickly today, in part thanks to the Internet, according to military and counter terrorism experts testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Militant groups and some individuals have “maximized” the use of technologies such as the Internet. Government officials say the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly attempted to blow up an American airliner in Detroit on Christmas Day, points to just how fast groups can radicalize an individual. Mr. Abdulmutallab was identified, contacted, recruited, and trained all within six weeks, according to a Pentagon counterterrorism official. That’s much faster than the two and a half years it took for Osama bin Laden to hatch the plan to attack the US nine years ago. While the two plans vary widely in scope, the faster time frame indicates how adaptive radicalized groups and individuals have become, say experts.
“They have really improved their ability to radicalize people and bring them into the fight, which of course severely hampers our ability to disrupt and get ourselves involved in the process,” said Garry Reid, deputy assistant secretary of Defense, in testimony before a Senate panel Wednesday.
The testimony comes as American officials try to sort out the case of the Philadelphia woman who allegedly tried to recruit radicalized individuals to stage attacks in the US, Europe and South Asia in the hope of helping Muslims. Colleen Renee LaRose, who assumed the name Jihad Jane online, apparently used YouTube and other websites to post her rantings. She has been held since October on charges that she provided material support to terrorists and that she traveled to Sweden to launch an attack against a Swedish cartoonist.
Her case represents some of the challenges posed to counterterrorism experts who say the Internet is making it harder to track radicalization.
The Senate subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities held a hearing Wednesday as US officials were sorting out the case of Ms. LaRose. The anonymity of the Internet, current regulations governing its surveillance and the sheer speed of communications across it make it an easy tool for recruitment.
So-called lone wolves, or individuals who practice “leaderless jihad” – radicalized individuals working alone – are even harder to find. Suspected Fort Hood shooter Major Malik Hasan used e-mail to contact a radical cleric in Yemen, for example, even though government officials were aware of the exchanges. American officials have still not characterized the shootings at Fort Hood, in which 13 people were killed, as an act of terrorism.
American counterterrorism officials have learned how to go after terrorist networks and “sub-networks,” but the individuals and smaller groups are much harder to pinpoint.
“The smaller the group, the more empowered the individuals, the more difficult challenge it is for us to counter extremist ideology,” said Amb. Dan Benjamin, who represents the State Department.
One of the keys is to address radicalization before it becomes a problem.
That means the US must engage in many ways and at all levels to get at the root causes of radicalization. Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney III, deputy commander of US Special Operations Command, Tampa, Fla., said violence stems from the crossroads of migration, extremism and crime. Conducting training that builds the capacity of other nations to weed out their own radicalized elements is key. And the State Department is proposing to spend more money to counter violent extremism.
“If we can stop them upstream when they are becoming radicalized, than obviously we have an easier job of it than when they are downstream and they
are getting into all kinds of dangerous activities,” said Benjamin.