Small Wars Journal

NYPD Intelligence Division: The Homegrown Threat

Wed, 08/15/2007 - 6:32pm
Recently released report from the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division - Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat by Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt.


If the post-September 11th world has taught us anything, it is that the tools for conducting serious terrorist attacks are becoming easier to acquire. Therefore intention becomes an increasingly important factor in the formation of terrorist cells. This study is an attempt to look at how that intention forms, hardens and leads to an attack or attempted attack using real world case studies.

While the threat from overseas remains, many of the terrorist attacks or thwarted plots against cities in Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States have been conceptualized and planned by local residents/citizens who sought to attack their country of residence. The majority of these individuals began as "unremarkable" -they had "unremarkable" jobs, had lived "unremarkable" lives and had little, if any criminal history. The recently thwarted plot by homegrown jihadists, in May 2007, against Fort Dix in New Jersey, only underscores the seriousness of this emerging threat.

Understanding this trend and the radicalization process in the West that drives "unremarkable" people to become terrorists is vital for developing effective counter-strategies. This realization has special importance for the NYPD and the City of New York. As one of the country's iconic symbols and the target of numerous terrorist plots since the 1990's, New York City continues to be the one of the top targets of terrorists worldwide. Consequently, the NYPD places a priority on understanding what drives and defines the radicalization process.

The aim of this report is to assist policymakers and law enforcement officials, both in Washington and throughout the country, by providing a thorough understanding of the kind of threat we face domestically. It also seeks to contribute to the debate among intelligence and law enforcement agencies on how best to counter this emerging threat by better understanding what constitutes the radicalization process.

The NYPD's understanding of the threat from Islamic-based terrorism to New York City has evolved since September 11, 2001. While the threat from overseas remains, terrorist attacks or thwarted plots against cities in Europe, Australia and Canada since 2001 fit a different paradigm. Rather than being directed from al-Qaeda abroad, these plots have been conceptualized and planned by "unremarkable" local residents/citizens who sought to attack their country of residence, utilizing al-Qaeda as their inspiration and ideological reference point.

Some of these cases include:

Madrid's March 2004 attack

Amsterdam's Hofstad Group

London's July 2005 attack

Australia's Operation Pendennis (which thwarted an attack(s) in November 2005)

The Toronto 18 Case (which thwarted an attack in June 2006)

Where once we would have defined the initial indicator of the threat at the point where a terrorist or group of terrorists would actually plan an attack, we have now shifted our focus to a much earlier point—a point where we believe the potential terrorist or group of terrorists begin and progress through a process of radicalization. The culmination of this process is a terrorist attack.

Understanding this trend and the radicalization process in the West that drives "unremarkable" people to become terrorists is vital for developing effective counter-strategies and has special importance for the NYPD and the City of New York. As one of the country's iconic symbols and the target of numerous terrorist plots since the 1990's, New York City continues to be among the top targets of terrorists worldwide.

In order to test whether the same framework for understanding radicalization abroad applied within the United States, we analyzed three U.S. homegrown terrorism cases and two New York City based cases:

Lackawana, New York

Portland, Oregon

Northern Virginia

New York City - Herald Square Subway

New York City - The Al Muhajiroun Two

The same radicalization framework was applied to a study of the origins of the Hamburg cluster of individuals, who led the September 11 hijackers. This assessment, almost six years after 2001, provides some new insights, previously not fully-grasped by the law enforcement and intelligence community, into the origins of this devastating attack.



Jihadist or jihadi-Salafi ideology is the driver that motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out "autonomous jihad" via acts of terrorism against their host countries. It guides movements, identifies the issues, drives recruitment and is the basis for action.

This ideology has served as the inspiration for numerous homegrown groups including the Madrid March 2004 bombers, Amsterdam's Hofstad Group, London's July 2005 bombers, the Australians arrested as part of Operation Pendennis in late 2005 and the Toronto 18 arrested in June 2006.


An assessment of the various reported models of radicalization leads to the conclusion that the radicalization process is composed of four distinct phases:

Stage 1: Pre-Radicalization

Stage 2: Self-Identification

Stage 3: Indoctrination

Stage 4: Jihadization

Each of these phases is unique and has specific signatures.

All individuals who begin this process do not necessarily pass through all the stages.

Many stop or abandon this process at different points.

Although this model is sequential, individuals do not always follow a perfectly linear progression.

Individuals who do pass through this entire process are quite likely to be involved in the planning or implementation of a terrorist act.

Phases of Radicalization

1. Pre-Radicalization. Pre-Radicalization is the point of origin for individuals before they begin this progression. It is their life situation before they were exposed to and adopted jihadi-Salafi Islam as their own ideology.

The majority of the individuals involved in these plots began as "unremarkable" ­they had "ordinary" jobs, had lived "ordinary" lives and had little, if any criminal history.

2. Self-Identification. Self-Identification is the phase where individuals, influenced by both internal and external factors, begin to explore Salafi Islam, gradually gravitate away from their old identity and begin to associate themselves with like-minded individuals and adopt this ideology as their own. The catalyst for this "religious seeking" is a cognitive opening, or crisis, which shakes one's certitude in previously held beliefs and opens an individual to be receptive to new worldviews.

There can be many types of triggers that can serve as the catalyst including:

Economic (losing a job, blocked mobility)

Social (alienation, discrimination, racism -- real or perceived)

Political (international conflicts involving Muslims)

Personal (death in the close family)

3. Indoctrination. Indoctrination is the phase in which an individual progressively intensifies his beliefs, wholly adopts jihadi-Salafi ideology and concludes, without question, that the conditions and circumstances exist where action is required to support and further the cause. That action is militant jihad. This phase is typically facilitated and driven by a "spiritual sanctioner".

While the initial self-identification process may be an individual act, as noted above, association with like-minded people is an important factor as the process deepens. By the indoctrination phase this self-selecting group becomes increasingly important as radical views are encouraged and reinforced.

4. Jihadization. Jihadization is the phase in which members of the cluster accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen. Ultimately, the group will begin operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack. These "acts in furtherance" will include planning, preparation and execution.

While the other phases of radicalization may take place gradually, over two to three years, this jihadization component can be a very rapid process, taking only a few months, or even weeks to run its course.


Al-Qaeda has provided the inspiration for homegrown radicalization and terrorism; direct command and control by al-Qaeda has been the exception, rather than the rule among the case studies reviewed in this study.

The four stages of the radicalization process, each with its distinct set of indicators and signatures, are clearly evident in each of the nearly one dozen terrorist-related case studies reviewed in this report.

In spite of the differences in both circumstances and environment in each of the cases, there is a remarkable consistency in the behaviors and trajectory of each of the plots across all the stages.

This consistency provides a tool for predictability.

The transnational phenomenon of radicalization in the West is largely a function of the people and the environment in which they live. Much different from the Israeli-Palestinian equation, the transformation of a Western-based individual to a terrorist is not triggered by oppression, suffering, revenge, or desperation.

Rather, it is a phenomenon that occurs because the individual is looking for an identity and a cause and unfortunately, often finds them in the extremist Islam.

There is no useful profile to assist law enforcement or intelligence to predict who will follow this trajectory of radicalization. Rather, the individuals who take this course begin as "unremarkable" from various walks of life.

Europe's failure to integrate the 2nd and 3rd generation of its immigrants into society, both economically and socially, has left many young Muslims torn between the secular West and their religious heritage. This inner conflict makes them especially vulnerable to extremism—the radical views, philosophy, and rhetoric that is highly advertised and becoming more and more fashionable among young Muslims in the West

Muslims in the U.S. are more resistant, but not immune to the radical message.

Despite the economic opportunities in the United States, the powerful gravitational pull of individuals' religious roots and identity sometimes supersedes the assimilating nature of American society which includes pursuit of a professional career, financial stability and material comforts.

The jihadist ideology combines the extreme and minority interpretation [jihadi-Salafi] of Islam with an activist-like commitment or responsibility to solve global political grievances through violence. Ultimately, the jihadist envisions a world in which jihadi-Salafi Islam is dominant and is the basis of government. This ideology is proliferating in Western democracies at a logarithmic rate. The Internet, certain Salafi-based NGO's (non-governmental organizations), extremist sermons /study groups, Salafi literature, jihadi videotapes, extremist -sponsored trips to radical madrassas and militant training camps abroad have served as "extremist incubators" for young, susceptible Muslims --especially ones living in diaspora communities in the West.

The Internet is a driver and enabler for the process of radicalization.

In the Self-Identification phase, the Internet provides the wandering mind of the conflicted young Muslim or potential convert with direct access to unfiltered radical and extremist ideology.

It also serves as an anonymous virtual meeting place—a place where virtual groups of like-minded and conflicted individuals can meet, form virtual relationships and discuss and share the jihadi-Salafi message they have encountered.

During the Indoctrination phase, when individuals adopt this virulent ideology, they begin interpreting the world from this newly-formed context. Cloaked with a veil of objectivity, the Internet allows the aspiring jihadist to view the world and global conflicts through this extremist lens, further reinforcing the objectives and political arguments of the jihadi-Salafi agenda.

In the Jihadization phase, when an individual commits to jihad, the Internet serves as an enabler—providing broad access to an array of information on targets, their vulnerabilities and the design of weapons.

Individuals generally appear to begin the radicalization process on their own. Invariably, as they progress through the stages of radicalization they seek like-minded individuals. This leads to the creation of groups or clusters. These clusters appear almost essential to progressing to the Jihadization stage—the critical stage that leads to a terrorist act.

"Group think" is one of the most powerful catalysts for leading a group to actually committing a terrorist act. It acts as a force-multiplier for radical thought while creating a competitive environment amongst the group members for being the most radical.

Although there are many groups or clusters of individuals that are on the path of radicalization, each group needs certain archetypes to evolve from just being a "bunch of guys" to an operational terrorist cell. All eleven case studies had:

A "spiritual sanctioner" who provides the justification for jihad—a justification that is especially essential for the suicide terrorist. In some cases the sanctioner was the nucleus around which the cluster formed.

An "operational leader" who is essential as the group decides to conduct a terrorist act--organizing, controlling and keeping the group focused and its motivation high.

The full radicalization of a Western individual, or groups of individuals, does not always result in the committing of a terrorist act in the West. Many fully-radicalized individuals have first looked to conduct jihad by becoming mujahedeen and fighting in conflicts overseas.

The image of the heroic, holy warrior or "mujahedeen" has been widely marketed on the Internet as well as in jihadi tapes and videos. This image continues to resonate among young, especially Muslim, men 15-35 years-old—men who are most vulnerable to visions of honor, bravery and sacrifice for what is perceived as a noble cause.

Among those individuals who travel abroad in search of jihad, some end up as mujahedeen and fight in foreign lands; some are re-directed to commit acts in the West, often in their country of origin, while others give up and return home because they can't endure the training or have a change of heart.

For those groups of homegrown radicalized individuals who do not seek jihad abroad, the dedication and commitment of their leader to jihad is often the main factor in determining whether the group will commit a terrorist act or not.

Although the 9/11 attack, with its overseas origins, is more of an exception in terms of how terrorist plots have been launched since the destruction of the Twin Towers, it has probably been the most important factor in proliferating the process of radicalization, especially in the West. More importantly, 9/11 established the current trend of committing an act in the name of global jihad as a natural culmination of full radicalization and the ultimate responsibility for the fully radicalized jihadist.

Prior to 9/11, the entire radicalization process moved at a much slower rate. There was no direct link to jihad, other than to become a mujahedeen. Aspiring jihadists would travel to Afghanistan without any idea that they could become actual terrorists. Now, there is no longer any illusion as to what the adoption of jihadi-Salafi ideology means.

The radicalization process is accelerating in terms of how long it takes and the individuals are continuing to get younger. Moreover, with the higher risks associated with heading down this pathway, individuals will seek to conceal their actions earlier, making intelligence and law enforcement's job even more difficult.

It is useful to think of the radicalization process in terms of a funnel. Entering the process does not mean one will progress through all four stages and become a terrorist. However, it also does not mean that if one doesn't become a terrorist, he or she is no longer a threat. Individuals who have been radicalized but are not jihadists may serve as mentors and agents of influence to those who might become the terrorists of tomorrow.

The subtle and non-criminal nature of the behaviors involved in the process of radicalization makes it difficult to identify or even monitor from a law enforcement standpoint. Taken in isolation, individual behaviors can be seen as innocuous; however, when seen as part of the continuum of the radicalization process, their significance becomes more important. Considering the sequencing of these behaviors and the need to identify those entering this process at the earliest possible stage makes intelligence the critical tool in helping to thwart an attack or even prevent the planning of future plots.


Read the entire report here.

Discuss at Small Wars Council


John-Michael (not verified)

Thu, 08/16/2007 - 2:23pm

great report
I would recommend printing the entire report (90pgs).