In this third part of his series, Isaac Kfir discusses how the existing counterterrorism risk assessment model fails to detect lone-actors and how this might be addressed.
In 2019, security services face three inter-related problems.
Firstly, al-Qaeda and ISIL are seen as less likely to commit acts of terrorism in western countries, as they focus on propagating their ideology and winning over franchisees. Secondly, lone-actors using low-cost equipment against high-impact targets are most likely to be perpetrators of terrorist attacks. Thirdly, security services must devise plans to prevent attacks using available resources or otherwise come up with new ways of raising funds.
Over the last three years, Australia has faced more lone-actor terrorist attacks – from the likes of Tamim Khaja, Abdullah Chaarani, Ahmed Mohamed, and Hamza Abbas – than ones organised by extremist groups.
Lone-actors pose a unique challenge to the security services, as these are individuals who have no clear ties to violent extremist groups or preachers. As a matter of fact, they might not even be in contact with established terrorist groups. Such tendencies align with Abu Musab al-Suri’s teachings – outlined in his magnum opus The Global Islamic Resistance Call – that promote the idea of a leaderless jihad.
According to US officials, Tashfeen Malik, one of the San Bernardino shooters, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on social media only a day before the attack. There was nothing in Malik’s modus operandi to suggest that she would organise a shooting spree in which she and her husband killed 14 people. Malik represents an example of bottom-up recruitment, and the same could be said of Momena Shoma and others.
In determining whether an individual is at risk of becoming a violent extremist, security services undertake a risk assessment. This effectively involves identifying a set of structured predictors – factors shown to be causally and non-causally associated with an anticipated outcome.
There are many drawbacks in the current model. To begin, the data set is limited mainly because of a low base rate – terrorists form an almost insignificant percentage of the population. The interpretation of predictors also poses an array of problems with the looming possibility that data analysts might show biases depending on how they’ve been socialised. No amount of training can fully negate these tendencies. This might make it easier to identify extremist views but make it much harder to justly differentiate between radical and merely offensive statements.
European countries have grappled with similar challenges, and this led to the adoption of an EU directive prohibiting the glorification of terrorism in 2017. The UNHCR, in response, however, has expressed concern over attempts to regulate speech, suggesting that it may limit freedom of speech.
When looking at Australia’s current dataset, it is hard to develop structured predictors from a pool of 58 people – the number of those convicted of terrorism offences. This is especially the case when it remains unclear what triggered these individuals to turn from engaging in offensive materials to embracing radicalisation and becoming violent extremists.
Australian Salafi-jihadis have generally been connected through a network transcending geography and time. In some cases, this has simply involved the use of materials with extremist views, as opposed to any interactions with specific people.
Interestingly, the three men convicted of attempting to carry out a terrorist attack in Melbourne’s CBD in December 2016 were inspired by Islamic State material but referred to al-Qaeda publications to construct their bomb.
Second, there’s the challenge of gaining access to what potential extremists do in the privacy of their own homes. When there are no obvious predictors – prior to the offence being commissioned – to bring them to the attention of those around them and of the authorities, this is particularly difficult.
This is also where one must distinguish between bottom-up and top-down recruitment, with the former being a result of an individual reaching out to a radical community, whereas the latter is the result of online recruiters grooming individuals who exhibit an interest in violent extremism.
Additionally, many of those who seek to commit acts of violence go out of their way to remain inconspicuous: they may decide not to dress in a devout way and to remain silent on controversial issues, keeping others unaware of their radicalisation.
Salafi-jihadis have become experts at trolling the online space. They target vulnerable people and feed them a cocktail of information by blaming others for their own misfortunes, explaining what skills and power they could acquire should they join the group, and by assuring them that the Salafi-jihadi movement cares about them.
With the new Salafi-jihadi architecture and the prominence of lone-actors, there is a need to rethink our approach to risk assessments. Individuals might not even have links to official recruiters, which limits the ability of the authorities to pick up information about them when monitoring established groups. Another challenge is timing. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the shift from radicalisation to violent can occur very quickly.
So, what can be done? Australia must look to what others are doing and adapt.
In 2015, Israel faced a ‘stabbing haba’ (eruption) during which the country had to manage a surge in stabbings, car-rammings, and occasional shootings. Many of the attackers were young and unaffiliated with mainstream groups.
Israel managed to prevent the situation from cascading into a full-fledged third intifada through ‘predictive intelligence’. It gathered information from social media platforms to help identify individuals on the path to radicalisation. There are some concerns that such methods can result in false positives and false ‘pre-crime’ assessments.
At the same time, more demands must be made of social and technology companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter who can monitor users’ content to help prevent the dissemination of offensive, radical, and extremist content. These entities already collect data on users for the purpose of selling things; national security arguably offers an even stronger justification for such behaviour.
Australia needs to engage in a better understanding of the pull-and-push factors that draw these young people into the violent extremist milieu. It must remember that violent extremists live in a binary world of them and us, good and evil, and black and white.
Extremist opinions and views comfort those in search of certainty, giving them clarity as to which group they belong to. And in order to even begin to understand why so many young, disillusioned people join extremist movements, we must first acknowledge their need to belong.
Our predictors must be able to recognise this reality.
It is also vital that those engaging in countering terrorism have access to new technologies to help and assist in human and signal intelligence – especially in terror-prone areas. For example, Israelis were able to penetrate ISIL computer networks that led to the discovery that the group was working on explosives that airport security couldn’t detect.
Risk and threat assessment techniques must continuously evolve as strategic realities constantly change. Australia has much to learn from others, and should it wish to strengthen its national security, it must reconsider how it employs available technologies.