NYPD Probes Path of Homegrown Terrorists

A report by the New York Police Department (NYPD) claims to outline the psychological path of homegrown terrorists, informing other agencies of potential danger. But the study alarms some Arab-American and civil rights advocates. An Islamic activist and one of the report's contributors share their views.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: how to put food on the tables of the world's poor. We have two perspectives on that.

But first, since the 9/11 attacks nearly six years ago, the government has emphasized keeping terrorists outside U.S. borders. But what about the threat from within? The New York City Police Department issued a report last week that tries to describe how someone might go from ordinary Joe to homegrown terrorist. They hope the information will help other departments stay ahead of potential dangers.

But the report has alarmed some Arab-American and civil rights advocates. They warned it unfairly profiles all U.S. Muslims as potential terrorists and encourages suspicion when cooperation should be the priority. We'll have that perspective later in the program.

But joining us first to talk about the report is Brian Michael Jenkins. He is with the RAND Corporation, and he contributed to the report. He's on the phone from Denmark. Brian, welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS (The RAND Corporation): Thank you very much, Michel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: Now this is - is this a kind of an unusual report for a law enforcement agency - not something that I would associate particularly with a city agency. So why did the NYPD feel this report was needed?

Mr. JENKINS: I think this report was put out because there was a need to try to understand this radicalization process taking place. You know, and I do want to mention something that you had referred to in your introduction. You said that the report was about religion and radicalization.

MARTIN: Mm hmm.

Mr. JENKINS: And it's not about religion at all. It's not a matter of faith. There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. This report talks about the trajectories of about a hundred young men who made this transition, embracing, really, a violent ideology. So it's not about religion. It's not about Islam. It's about a radical ideology.

MARTIN: I think that's a fair point, and I appreciate your bringing it up. Well, what did the report find about the process of radicalization? And you also have been studying, you know, national security issues - issues around terrorism for many years. Was there anything in the report that you found particularly noteworthy?

Mr. JENKINS: No, I thought it was a fascinating report. And I think it does reflect the fact that we are putting increasing pressure on law enforcement -both the FBI at the federal level and large metropolitan police departments -to try to intervene in the process of radicalization and try to prevent young men from going down this violent path before bombs go off. So a traditional reactive police investigation's approach doesn't really work here.

What we really have to understand is the process of radicalization itself. And that's why New York was - New York Police Department was concerned about this. We found it to be a - the report indicates that it's a multi-phased process. Individuals go through four phases that the report identified: a pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination and ultimately, jihadization.

Now that doesn't mean that the police are going to be able to intervene in those very first stages, because one of the interesting things, remarkable things about the pre-radicalization phase is that there's absolutely nothing remarkable about these young men. There's nothing that would identify them as likely to go down this path. Even at the stage of self-identification, most of the action in this phase takes place on the Internet. It's not until we get into the indoctrination phase that we find like-minded young men coming together who embrace this radical ideology and begin to become convinced that it should be advanced through acts of violence.

MARTIN: Well, the report suggests - and you suggest in your contribution to the Report - that, as you said, that traditional law enforcement methods are really irrelevant to this. So if that's the case, then what approaches would be helpful?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, it's interesting that if we look at some of these recent terrorist plots where they have resulted in terrorist violence or where arrests have been made that have prevented acts of terrorism, we find that in many case, local police have as likely a chance of uncovering the events as do national intelligence agencies. And national intelligence agencies, of course, are going to be looking for the clues that will come from them, you know, people going back and forth across national frontiers or communications that can be intercepted or transfers of large sums of money. In the plots like those - in London, for example, we find none of that.

And so it is just as likely that local police will find out about these through community policing, their relationships with the community, through ordinary criminal investigations which may bring them - as we had a case in California -into contact with something that turned out to be more than ordinary crime, or through dedicated intelligence activity.

MARTIN: Okay. Finally, Mr. Jenkins, we're down to the last couple of seconds here with our conversation. You say at one point that American Muslims seem to be less susceptible to radicalization than perhaps their European brethren. And it is also - you also point out that - and I think that you probably know this, that this report has created quite a negative response among many organizations that serve the urban American and Muslim American communities - are quite offended by this. I wonder if you have any concern that this report is creating a backlash against the very communities that law enforcement needs to support their efforts to address people within the community who might be inclined toward radicalization.

Mr. JENKINS: No, I certainly don't think so and certainly hope not. The - when the report was put out, it was put out with the expectation that it certainly would provoke debate, as it should in our noisy democratic society. That's the way things work. Better that we debate these things in public than we acquiesce to extra judicial measures, which I'm afraid is what we've seen some of them -what we're likely to get unless we do have a public discussion about this. So I think that the public debate is useful here.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you so much. Brian Michael Jenkins is a special advisor to the RAND Corporation. He joined us by phone from Denmark. You can find links to the NYPD report on homegrown terrorism at our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore. Mr. Jenkins, thanks so much again for speaking with us.

Mr. JENKINS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we've just heard from Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, talking about the New York City Police Department report on how someone might become a so-called homegrown terrorist. Here to offer another perspective is Muhammad Nimar. He is research director at the Council of Islamic American Relations, or CAIR. It's an advocacy group for American Muslims. And he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studios. Mr. Nimar, thanks for speaking with us.

Dr. MUHAMMAD NIMAR (Research Director, Council for American-Islamic Relations): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Your initial reaction to the report? I know you've read it thoroughly.

Dr. NIMAR: Well this report, actually, the meat of it is taken without proper credit from one book and one CD by a former instructor at Rhodes College, defining the enemy as jihad (unintelligible), and talking about the so-called model of radicalization. That model is very well known in the sociology literature. It's how a person gets exposed and then accepts and then immerses themselves and then started acting upon the ideas of any social movement, with the...

MARTIN: So you're saying there's nothing new here?

Dr. NIMAR: There's nothing new here. There's nothing new...

MARTIN: So why does the report bother you?

Dr. NIMAR: It bothers me because I think it's a waste of resources. Law enforcement is not supposed to be the arbiter of academic quarrels. And to make such a big fuss about just one book, one audiotape of one person who is not really very well known in this (unintelligible) community of Islam in the West or contemporary Islamic revival is not a way to go. Plus...

MARTIN: Some groups have complained that they feel that this report would encourage, or is a matter of profiling. Do you share that concern?

Dr. NIMAR: Absolutely, because it is peppered with references to how those individual cases, how the people, the suspects, the terrorists, how they are connected to mundane activities in the community.

MARTIN: Okay. But the report also says there is no useful profile to predict who will follow this trajectory of radicalization in part because those who end up being radicalized begin as unremarkable individuals from various walks of life. It seems to be fairly explicit in saying this is not to be used as a profile. There is no profile. Does that not allay your concern?

Dr. NIMAR: Well, I think I agree with him on that. But then they don't take the argument to the fullest extent by saying, okay, so how - what do we do about it? How does then law enforcement - is connected to this social process? I mean, a radical social process cannot end or change unless there is a countervailing social process that takes the community to moderation. That is what needs to be explored. And the report fails miserably in this...

MARTIN: Is your...

Dr. NIMAR: ...in the sense that it's - in some cases, it refers to the whole community, the Muslim community as tolerating the existence of extremists and -which enables radicalization. It talks about very mainstream things like quitting cigarettes, like going to a Halal needs store as some of the signatures to radicalization. That is...

MARTIN: Becoming more observant.

Dr. NIMAR: Exactly. That is something that a lot of Muslims would feel very offended by.

MARTIN: Well, but is your concern that the report - that if it's saying things out loud that should be perhaps discussed behind closed doors, is that partly your concern - because clearly, I think that the Muslim community also has an interest in rooting out those who would harm the country in which they live.

Dr. NIMAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I think that Muslim Americans have been very outspoken about their concern within their own community. So is your concern that this report exists at all, or that this report is being debated publicly in a way which you feel would lead people to have negative impressions of the entire community?

Dr. NIMAR: No, I think...

MARTIN: Or that it's just useless?

Dr. NIMAR: I think this report stops short of saying things that are of practical use to the law enforcement community. And that is the major problem with it. Brian Jenkins' read on the report, actually, and the post reading of the report kind of spins the report in a different way that doesn't seem to be squaring with the - what the original writer - authors did.

MARTIN: Okay. Wait a minute, Mr. Nimar, we only have a couple of seconds left, and I apologize because this is a very important discussion. But what do you think would be helpful?

Dr. NIMAR: It would be helpful to try to reach out to the mainstream Muslim community. It would be helpful to recognize that criticizing U.S. government is not a signature of radicalization. Sympathizing with the plight of oppressed Muslims overseas is not a signature to radicalization. When you talk about Islamophobia and anti-Americanism in a balanced fashion, when you ask the community to cooperate with the police in a very open-minded fashion, that that is what helps us go through this process.

MARTIN: All right. Mr. Mohammed Nimar is research director at the Council of Islamic-American Relations. It's an advocacy group for Muslim Americans. He's also author of the book, "Islamophobia and Anti-Americanism: Causes and Remedies." He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. Mr. Nimar, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Dr. NIMAR: Thank you.

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