Small Wars Journal

Political Violence Prevention: Profiling Domestic Terrorists

Thu, 06/06/2013 - 3:30am

The events of September 11th 2001, a terrorist attack against “soft” targets, caused the U.S. intelligence community to seek and develop efforts to detect terrorist operations and plots as far in advance as possible in order to prevent them from taking place (Storm, Hollywood, Pope, Weintraub, Daye, and Gemeinhardt 2010). In light of this it is more important than ever to be able to identify potential terrorists. Dr. Sabina Burton who is writing a book on the profiles of domestic terrorists states, “A domestic terrorist can appear almost normal and is camouflaged by their environment, but the process of becoming a violent extremist is a series of steps that leave footprints we should be able to track” (UV 2004). A national standard from which to identify individuals who have left these footprints and are on the path to becoming violent would be invaluable to law enforcement, especially at the local level. Without a set standard each local law enforcement agency interprets who may or may not be a threat and what is worth reporting or investigating differently as they have different experiences and expectations about domestic terrorists and terrorism. Domestic terrorists can be identified prior to committing any terrorist attacks through a profiling systems based upon identifying factors that influence committing acts of terrorism.

The five factors of age, immigration, martial status, group affiliation, and physiological makeup were identified from the previous work of another author as possessing the potential to identify individuals before they conduct an act of domestic terrorism. Religion itself was not considered a reliable gauge of potential terrorisms-aspects considered likely were limited in scope to contain the amount bias could affect the outcome.

(Vaisman-Tzachor 2006).

Using the age factor to determine the likelihood of terrorist action is plausible. For terrorist perpetrators the median age is 23 for a high risk and 28 for some risk (Vaisman-Tzachor 2006). This indicates that terrorism perpetrators from 1999-2009 in the United States have tended to be in the late adolescent to young adult age range. Being in that age range would therefore increase the likelihood of the individual to conduct terrorist actions. “Surviving older terrorists become senior leaders and usually attempt to "graduate" into politics, thereby seeking greater legitimacy” (Vaisman-Tzachor 2006). If no longer focused on conducting terrorist actions it follows that the older terrorists would be less likely to perpetrate terrorist actions. The work by Vaisman-Tzachor was the only source located to place a numerical value on terrorist perpetrator age; all other sources that measured age did so qualitatively. The age factor can be used to assist in helping to identify terrorists but is limited to directly identifying the terrorist who carry out any plans-at best indirectly implicating other terrorists involved through any identifiable associations or links to the perpetrator.

The immigration factor applies to a much narrower group of individuals. People in this group who have committed acts of terrorism inside the U.S. have nearly all had an immigration status that was transitional or illegal such as visa overstay violations or illegal immigration (Vaisman-Tzachor 2006). It is unknown if an individual in this factor would come to America with the ultimate goal of committing acts of terrorism or if their immigration status is the cause or result of economic suffering. Economic suffering is also directly linked with the support for political violence (Burgoon 2006). While limited in scope the immigration factor is plausible.

 The factor of marital status and the likelihood of perpetrating terrorism negatively correlate. A reoccurring trend in terrorism perpetrators were that they possessed fewer social and emotional ties to their communities and did not have families of their own-being unmarried (Vaisman-Tzachor 2006). The more developed and committed relationships the individual is in the less likely they are to be involved in conducting terrorist actions. The marital status factor is specific in scope and is plausible, though still unsupported directly by any of the other referenced materials.

 The factor of religious, ethnic, or political affiliation positively correlates the extent of an individual’s involvement with any Muslim or Arab entities to the likelihood of their involvement in terrorism. However, of the domestic terrorism cases in the U.S. from 1999-2009 less than one half had links to Al Qaeda and its Allied Movements (Storm, Hollywood, Pope, Weintraub, Daye, and Gemeinhardt 2010). The other groups that must be considered relevant are Animal Rights & Environmental Groups, White Supremacist Groups, and other Anti-Government Extremists as they are also significant sources of domestic terrorism in America (Bjelopera 2013). For example in 1968 none of the identifiable terrorist groups operating in the U.S. were religious (Aziz 2011). It is a common misperception among the American public that Arabs or Muslims are the only extremists who engage in domestic terrorism and we must ensure this heuristic does not permeate any intelligence process.

 It is important to point out that these groups are not mainstream groups like the Catholic Church, or the Democratic Party, but are loosely affiliated with some type of major group or ideology, existing on the fringes. Terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Jose Padilla, and John Walker Lynd were members of such fringe groups before they conducted any acts of terrorism (Vaisman-Tzachor 2006). These fringe groups are significant because they can provide a sense of purpose and acceptance by other individuals who hold similar views. Being surrounded by individuals of similar viewpoints that provide a “complicit surrounding” can turn people towards the path of extremism. A “complicit surrounding” is an insular group whose distinct characteristics influence the individual on a path towards political violence (Aziz 2011). The group characteristics influence individuals by isolating members from opinions and beliefs that conflict with the group’s standards. As information or beliefs that differ from the standard disappear the group standard becomes the accepted norm-not subject to internal examination, review, or critical thinking. It in effect becomes a heuristic the group accepts as truth. Tracking the membership history of such groups could also assist in identifying “Lone Wolf” terrorists, or those who are not within the command structure of an established group, but may identify with their cause (Storm, Hollywood, Pope, Weintraub, Daye, and Gemeinhardt 2010).  Lone Wolfs represent a significant portion of U.S. domestic terrorist as over 40% of cases from 1999-2009 were planned or conducted by this type of terrorist and their plots reach execution nearly twice as often as terrorist plots conducted by groups (Storm, Hollywood, Pope, Weintraub, Daye, and Gemeinhardt 2010). This high rate of execution can be attributed to the fact that Lone Wolf attacks are difficult to detect because they involve fewer people. The factor of religious, ethnic, or political affiliation is plausible after it has been adjusted to include all major extremist groups and may provide indicators to prevent Lone Wolf attacks.

Psychological makeup can provide an indicator of potential terrorist perpetrators. The closer an individual is to pathological narcissism or the Cluster B of personality disorders the more likely they are to become a terrorist perpetrator (Vaisman-Tzachor 2006). This widely accepted disorder is developed throughout life and can be identified by tracing ones history. Ultimately it manifests in a grandiose sense of self and entitlement which collaborates with the development of strong ideological, nationalistic, and/or religious convictions (Vaisman-Tzachor 2006).  A narcissistically organized individual is usually starved emotionally and as a result they pursue social affiliation and approval of their groups (Vaisman-Tzachor 2006). This contributes to the terrorist age factor as young males with this personality disorder are more vulnerable to recruitment tactics that emphasize their specialness. A young male might be recruited based on a pitch that a group desperately needs him and his special skills, even though he has no skills or experience. A narcissistic disorder also increases the likelihood of perpetrating a terrorist action under the factors of marital status and religious, ethnic, or political affiliation. Narcissistic individuals have difficulty in adult interpersonal relationships and therefore are less likely to be married or have meaningful ties to their community. In fringe groups a narcissists' affiliation goes beyond what a normal person would experience manifesting as stronger bonds and with the social group contributing to the exclusion of alternate views and the acceptance of the group’s ideology. The psychological makeup factor is plausible and is the most significant of the five factors.

The five factors used to identify potential terrorist perpetrators are plausible. However to be considered plausible some of the factors had to be placed in the correct context. The factor of religious, ethnic, or political affiliation had to be adjusted to apply to relevant groups, not just muslin or Arab groups. This was supported by quantitative data on the total number of terrorist plots from 1999-2009. Still this has the potential to change based upon the criteria used to define which data of terrorist actions to include. The goals of all included cases were acts of violence intended to cause casualties or catastrophic damage to critical infrastructure. As such 135 animal rights and environmental group attacks were discarded because they were smaller in scale and did not target critical infrastructure such as dams, bridges, power plants, etc. (Storm, Hollywood, Pope, Weintraub, Daye, and Gemeinhardt 2010, 4). Being nearly 200% of the attacks counted, small scale animal and environmental incidents could greatly change the results if included.

The five factors, though plausible, are not the most feasible or the most effective historical method in preventing terrorist attacks. In 80% of the foiled plots, initial clues were identified by law enforcement and from public reporting (Storm, Hollywood, Pope, Weintraub, Daye, and Gemeinhardt 2010, 12). In these cases law enforcement would not need to profile any of the individuals involved as the initial clue is sufficient to identify the plan or to begin an investigation. These clues did not involve estimating an individual’s potential terror but on more tangible elements such as criminal activities, suspicious documents, suspicious activity, and paramilitary training (Storm, Hollywood, Pope, Weintraub, Daye, and Gemeinhardt 2010, 1). If tangible evidence is present it reduces the need for profiling. Because of the reduced need the five factors would likely fall under the remaining 20% of foiled terrorist plots and there is no easy way to determine how many of those may or may not have used or benefited from profiling. There is also no way to definitively answer how many more terrorist operations would be foiled if the five factors were incorporated into a standard-but it can be speculated that the number would increase.

The area in which profiling could be useful is in identifying Lone Wolf terrorist attacks as they are executed nearly twice as often as other attacks. This is under the assumption that Love Wolf attacks are more successful because the clues that alert the general public and law enforcement are less apparent or non-existent. It would also involve an intelligence agency to track the individual over an extended period of time. An agency that is not concerned with arresting or detaining would be free from the pressures of cased based intelligence enabling them instead to pursue preemptive intelligence where the profiling may be useful (Chalk & Rosenau 2004).

In order to prevent domestic terrorist attacks resources should be allocated into improving existing efforts that have proven to be effective as well as into the development and implication of concepts that improve weak areas of domestic terrorist threat detection such as a profiling system. Of the prevented terrorist plots, 40% were prevented from public tips (Storm, Hollywood, Pope, Weintraub, Daye, and Gemeinhardt 2010, 1). Therefore effort should be made to improve or maintain relationships with local communities and avoid actions which may alienate them. Future research should include classified data to increase accuracy in measuring effectiveness of other domestic counter-terrorism measures. A thorough report detailing domestic terrorism incidents will assist policy makers in correctly allocating counter-terrorism resources (Bjelopera 2013, 62). A comprehensive national profiling system is plausible but will only be effective in instances where there are insufficient tips to begin an investigation or operation, where it does not harm relationships with the general public-as they are a major source of information for preventing domestic terrorism, and where it includes all relevant data from classified sources.


Aziz, Z. Huq. 2011. The signaling function of religious speech in domestic counterterrorism. Texas Law Review 89, no. 4: 833-900, (Accessed February 10, 2013).

Bjelopera, P. Jerome. 2013. The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, (accessed January 16, 2013).

Burgoon, Brian. 2006. On welfare and terror: Social Welfare Policies And Political-Economic Roots Of Terrorism. The Journal of Conflict Resolution 50, no. 2: 176-203, (accessed January 16, 2013).

Chalk, Peter Rosenau, William. 2004. Confronting the Enemy Within: Security Intelligence, the Police, and Counterterrorism in Four Democracies. RAND Corporation, (Accessed February 10, 2013).

Cookson, Clive. 2004. Eco-Terrorists Main Domestic Threat, Says FBI: The Bureau Warns The Biotechnology Industry That Animal Extremists Are Becoming Increasingly Violent. Financial Times, Jun 11. (Accessed February 10, 2013).

Domestic terrorists' motives vary, says homeland security authority. 2011. US Fed News Service, Including US State News, Jul 08. (Accessed February 10, 2013).

Keller, Michele. 2002. Domestic and international terrorists have religious extremism in common. National NOW Times 34, no. 2: 4-5, (Accessed February 10, 2013).

Michael, A. Gips. 2004. Whither domestic terrorists? Security Management 48, no. 3: 12-14, (Accessed February 10, 2013).

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Reuben Vaisman-Tzachor. 2006. Psychological profiles of TERRORISTS. Forensic Examiner 15, no. 2: 6-17, (Accessed February 10, 2013).

Richardson, Valerie, Jennifer Harper, Richard Tomkins, and Tim Lemke. 2002. FBI targets domestic terrorists. Insight on the News, Apr 22, 30. (Accessed February 10, 2013).

Storm, Kevin, John Hollywood, Mark Pope, Garth Weintraub, Crystal Daye, andDon Gemeinhardt. 2010. Building on Clues: Examining Successes and Failures in Detecting U.S. Terrorist Plots, 1999-2009. RTI International. (Accessed February 10, 2013).

UW-Platteville's burton profiles domestic terrorists in book. 2011. Targeted News Service, Oct 04. (Accessed February 10, 2013).

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About the Author(s)

Captain Tim Sorrick holds a Bachelor of Science degree in General Engineering from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. He is currently serving on active duty in the United States Army having completed one deployment to Iraq and one tour to South Korea.


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Sat, 12/07/2013 - 8:47pm

Try behavioral profiling. Not anything else.

Usat Mud

Wed, 06/12/2013 - 12:22am

I had hoped you would have learned your lesson from the vastly negative critique of your last anti-American Big Brother loving hitpiece, "Full Spectrum Operations in the Homeland."

Evidently not.

A national, presumably Federal, system of PROFILING members of the American public? You dangle a cute carrot by stressing immigration status as a category, but perked up ears aren't buying it for a second.

And how, precisely, would you propose such information be USED? Consciously convenient to leave that out, isn't it? Perhaps such people, who have committed no crime whatsoever, shall simply be subjected to surveillance? Or perhaps more? If they're dangerous enough to warrant their own arm of the surveillance state, surely the argument can be made for more.... proactive...measures? And surely a government who can't be trusted to properly tax audit opposition groups can be trusted with the power to administrate such a profiling system in only the most apolitical and "fair" means?

You tread on disgusting and dangerous ground. Shame on the lot of you for publishing this unconstitutional tripe. It DOES have efficacy and it will NOT be forgotten.


Thu, 06/06/2013 - 5:30pm

An interesting article. I can understand the desire to have a template or profile for intelligence and LE personnel to use when making assessments of person(s) NOT in custody. How prior to arrest can 'a psychological make-up' be obtained? Which you refer to as 'the most significant of the five factors'.

I doubt that many LE / intell staff preparing such assessments or tasking sources would know what to do.

The biggest weakness is that the 'tipping point' in the process of radicalization is not included. It is well known that many people are angry, very few engage in acts of violence.

Bureaucratically it would be difficult for anyone in the process to simply say no this person does not fit the 'template' and stop collection, targeting etc.