Guest Blogger: Michael Masters, Senior Vice President, The Soufan Group and former Executive Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Cook County, Illinois
On June 21, two individuals, both 25, were convicted of conspiring to provide support for the so-called Islamic State, or ISIL, after they made plans to travel to Syria.
Earlier last month, three Somali-American friends were found guilty of trying to travel to Syria to join ISIL, after watching propaganda videos and engaging on social media, in between playing basketball and paintball.
As of the end of 2015, over 70 individuals in the U.S. had been arrested or charged in ISIL-related cases.
One individual who was not charged, however, was a 22-year old from West Palm Beach, Florida, who enjoyed playing basketball, listening to Jay Z, and playing video games. This was an individual, who, in May 2014, drove a truck filled with 16 tons of explosives into a restaurant in Syria, killing 37 others and becoming the first American to die in a suicide attack in that country.
It has been reported that the offender in the Pulse attack – also from West Palm Beach – was first interviewed by FBI agents following that suicide attack in Syria. Following the violence that killed 49 people and left others injured, many have questioned why – amidst the technology and tools– was law enforcement not able to prevent the massacre?
The reality is that law enforcement did quite a lot: interviews, outreach to a foreign government, surveillance, and a review of various records. In an evidence-based system, there are limits to what one agency can do.
How is it that we are sometimes able to effectively identify and interdict individuals while, in other situations, we often only come to learn of individuals as we are responding to an incident? Law enforcement is often organized to work through various sources of information, multiple leads, and different intelligence; to develop an understanding of the characteristics and motivations of a crime, then track, identify, and prosecute individuals.
In the terrorism space, we are particularly effective at this. The Los Angeles and Minnesota experience – as well as others – highlight this. But what about Orlando? There was no shortage of interactions: the offender, with a long-history of troubling behavior and statements, was recognized by co-workers – to include a former police officer – as well as an ex-wife as prone to anger. Yet, an apparatus that is still too-often designed to work agency-by-agency seemingly failed to connect potential indicators –many of which had little to do with law enforcement.
We can improve upon our ability to identify and interdict individuals, but it will take the whole community. Enhancing our identification and interdiction of individuals motivated to undertake violence is critical, particularly as an officer safety issue, for it is our first responders who are most likely to interact with offenders – and for them to be able to either prevent violence or have to respond to it.
The recruitment of individuals to join groups like ISIL is only one of multiple threats in the U.S. and abroad. Since September 11th, 2001, almost the same number of people – not including Orlando due to the ongoing nature of the investigation – have been killed by far-right violent extremists than by Al-Qaeda or ISIL inspired/affiliated individuals.
Extremist motivated violence is only a component of the larger issue of targeted violence; from shootings at schools, movie theaters, military installations, and houses of worship. Targeted violence – effectuated by individuals motivated by a wide-range of beliefs – comes in all forms, and frequently: over 160 events from 2000 through 2013.
We also have a unique opportunity to prevent attacks, for the indicators that forecast targeted violence – whether a white supremacist or violent Islamist – are often the same: a distancing from family and friends, increased intolerance for differing views, a fascination with weapons, and spending excessive time online. Moreover, those radicalizing to violence usually tell someone of their plans; in over 80 percent of mass casualty attacks, others were aware of the grievances of the offender.
We can change the paradigm in our favor. We have trained diligently on response tactics. Our best opportunity for prevention is to build relationships of trust, provide people with training to identify warning signs, and construct pathways to report issues. Programs that help to identify behavior before violence occurs protect our communities; this means safer schools, places of worship, and streets.
We must then connect the information and implement programming to intervene with individuals who may pose a risk to themselves, or others.
While we are making progress in addressing targeted violence, there is more to do. To move from surveillance to information sharing. To better educate those on the frontline in our communities – police, teachers, and others – on the indicators of targeted violence. To create mechanisms to off-ramp individuals inspired by ISIL, Neo-Nazism, or Columbine before it’s too late.
We can do this. But more importantly, we must – for the safety of our officers and our communities.