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November 17, 2015

The Terror Threat to the US in the Wake of the Paris Attacks

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to have been the mastermind of the Paris attacks

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian man believed to have been the ringleader in the Paris attacks

Following the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, cities around the world have ramped up security. While the type of coordinated attacks that have been carried out in France can occur in the U.S., an analysis of domestic Islamic extremist activity and plots in 2015 indicates that the U.S. faces a different threat landscape than many European countries.

Investigators still do not have profiles of all of the individuals alleged to have taken part in the attacks on Paris. However, certain features of the attack are already apparent.

1. External coordination by foreign terrorist organizations

The Paris attack is the second attack in France this year that appears to have been planned, at least in part, by foreign terrorist organizations.

By contrast, only one of the 15 domestic attack plots in the U.S. motivated by Islamic extremist ideology this year appeared to have had possible external coordination: Abdirahman Sheikh Mohamud, arrested in February, had allegedly been plotting an attack with some direction from terrorists in Syria, although the extent of that direction was unclear.

A second plot, the shooting of a Draw Mohammed contest at a Garland, Texas community center, was influenced by conversation with ISIS supporters online, including some who are believed to be fighting abroad. However, it seems that those online supporters incited activity against the contest but did not coordinate the plot with the alleged shooters.

2.  Foreign fighter threat

The attack in Paris was allegedly planned in large part by a Belgian citizen who had spent time fighting with ISIS in Syria before returning to Europe.

Only one individual in the U.S., Abdirahman Sheikh Mohamud, attempted to plot an attack after allegedly fighting with extremists in Syria this year. Interestingly, Mohamud had allegedly fought with Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda in Syria, and not with ISIS; however, court documents indicate that he was also sympathetic to ISIS.

The U.S. also has far fewer individuals who have traveled abroad to join ISIS than France or Belgium. At least 100 Americans are believed to have joined ISIS – approximately 1 person per million in the U.S. – compared with between 1,000 and 1,200, or 18 people per million in France and approximately 440 individuals, or 40 people per million, in Belgium. As such, the risk of returning foreign fighters attempting to perpetrate attacks in the U.S. is statistically lower than in France or Belgium.

At least 4 individuals believed to have been planning domestic plots in 2015 allegedly conceived of their plots after finding themselves unable to travel to join ISIS. At least 3 individuals allegedly planned to travel to join ISIS after perpetrating an attack.

In total, 29 U.S. residents arrested in 2015 allegedly attempted to join ISIS.

3. Plot size

At least ten individuals are believed to have taken part in the attacks in Paris.

By contrast, the majority of attack plots in the U.S. this year have been in small groups. Eight plots were allegedly planned by individuals (but not lone wolves, as they were often coordinating with informants or contacts on the internet); five were planned by two people working together; two were planned by groups of three. One plot involved a ring of five ISIS supporters, but only two of the five appear to have been actively engaged in the plot, while the others were primarily planning to travel abroad to join the terrorist organization.

Again, none of this data should be interpreted to mean that a large-scale, externally directed plot in the U.S. cannot occur; the 9/11 attacks proved that the U.S. is vulnerable to such attacks. However, it does indicate that the threat facing the U.S. remains different than the threat facing European countries.

The following is a list of domestic attack plots against the U.S. in 2015:

  • Joshua Ryne Goldberg of Florida was arrested in September for allegedly sending bomb-making instructions to and developing a plot with an undercover source. The plot involved building a pressure cooker bomb and detonating it at a 9/11 memorial in Kansas City, MO. Following his arrest, Goldberg claimed he had planned to alert law enforcement prior to the bomb’s detonation.
  • Harlem Suarez of Florida was arrested in July for allegedly plotting to detonate a bomb at a Florida beach. He also discussed attacking law enforcement officers.
  • Moham­mad Yousef Abdulazeez of Tennessee was killed after he opened fire at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July. The attack resulted in five deaths, in addition to Abdulazeez’s death. Abdulazeez was reportedly inspired by Al Qaeda propaganda.
  • Alexander Ciccolo of Massachusetts was arrested in July as a felon in possession of a weapon. Ciccolo allegedly planned to attack a state university.
  • Justin Nojan Sullivan of North Carolina was arrested in June for allegedly plotting an attack that included shootings in public venues and a bomb plot that involved biological weapons.
  • Munther Omar Saleh and Fareed Mumuni of New York were arrested in June after each attempted to attack law enforcement officials in separate instances. The two had allegedly planned to undertake an attack on a New York City landmark. Saleh and Mumuni were part of a conspiracy that also involved at least three other people, Samuel Rahamin Topaz, Alaa Saadeh and Saadeh’s brother, but these three were apparently more focused on traveling to join ISIS and the degree of their involvement in the plot is unclear.
  • Usaama Rahim of Massachusetts was killed when he drew a knife after being approached for questioning by law enforcement officers. He had allegedly plotted with David Wright of Massachusetts and Nicholas Rovinski of Rhode Island to behead Pamela Geller (head of the anti-Muslim organization Stop Islamicization of America) on behalf of ISIS; the plot later shifted to attempting to behead a police officer.
  • Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi of Arizona were shot and killed when they attempted to undertake a shooting at a Garland, Texas community center. They were allegedly assisted by co-conspirator Decarus Thomas of Arizona, who was arrested in June.
  • Miguel Moran Diaz of Florida was arrested in April on charges that he was a felon in possession of a firearm. Reports indicated that he planned to target Miami residents.
  • John T. Booker and Alexan­der Blair of Kansas were arrested in April for allegedly attempt­ing to under­take a sui­cide attack at the Ft. Riley mil­i­tary base.
  • Noelle Velentzas and Asia Sid­diqui of New York were arrested in April for allegedly pur­chas­ing bomb-making equip­ment with plans for an attack.
  • Hasan and Jonas Edmonds of Illi­nois were arrested in March and charged with attempting to join ISIS and plotting an attack against a military base.
  • An unnamed minor from South Carolina was arrested in February and accused of formulating a plot to attack a North Carolina military base and then travel abroad to join ISIS.
  • Abdura­sul Juraboev and Akhror Saidakhme­tov of New York were arrested in Feb­ru­ary and charged with mate­r­ial sup­port for ter­ror. Court doc­u­ments state they were attempt­ing to join ISIS and discussing the pos­si­bil­ity of a domes­tic attack.
  • Abdirahman Sheikh Mohamud of Ohio was arrested in February and charged in April with joining Jabhat al Nusra. He allegedly returned to the U.S. with the intention of perpetrating an attack against a military base in Texas. Court documents indicate that Mohamud supported both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, although he had fought with Jabhat al Nusra.
  • Christo­pher Lee Cor­nell of Ohio was arrested in Jan­u­ary for his alleged plot to attack the U.S. Capi­tol after fail­ing to con­nect with ISIS members abroad.

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November 4, 2015

Terrorist Videos Threatening Israel And US Continue Unabated

The new Al Qaeda message threatening Israel with Ayman al-Zawahiri

Image from the new Al Qaeda message

As violence has continued in Israel, propaganda released by foreign terrorist organizations threatening and inciting violence against Jews and Israelis has continued unabated. A new video released this week by Al Qaeda featuring audio by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s leader, praises terrorism in Israel and also calls for attacks against the U.S.

The video began by focusing on Israel, with Zawahiri saying, “I ask Allah to bless…those who proceeded forward to stab the Jews.” He quickly pivoted to calling for attacks on the U.S. however, stating that in order to “liberate al-Quds (Jerusalem) and al-Aqsa mosque,” it is necessary to “strik[e] the West and specifically America in its own home.” Zawahiri then praised specific terrorists and attacks, including the 9/11 attacks, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, and the Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombing.

Al Qaeda propaganda has attempted to harness popular anger about events in Israel in order to call for attacks against the U.S. in the past. Last year, the group released a magazine titled “Resurgence,” which had a cover story about Palestinians but focused primarily on harming American interests.  Al Qaeda affiliate Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) issued a magazine called “Palestine: Betrayal of the Guilty Conscience” that called for attacks on the U.S. and provided instructions for the construction of pressure cooker bombs and car bombs.

ADL’s recent report, “Anti-Semitism: A Pillar of Islamic Extremist Ideology” contains multiple additional examples of terrorist exploitation of sentiments about Israel and of anti-Semitism for the purpose of gaining supporters and rallying recruits.

The new Al Qaeda video also calls for unity between terrorist organizations.

Screenshot of the Hebrew speaker from the newest ISIS video threatening Israel

Screenshot from the newest ISIS video threatening Israel

Like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) also released a new video threatening Israel this week. The video is the second ISIS video to include a Hebrew speaker, although ISIS has translated official propaganda materials into Hebrew in the past.

Addressing “all the Jews, grandsons of apes and pigs,” the Hebrew speaker threatens that, “we are coming for you from all over the world to kill you.” In a reference to a hadith in which trees and stones tell Muslims where Jews are hiding so the Jews can be killed he goes on to state that there will be, “a big war, the war of the stones and of the trees, and this is near, it is not far.”

ISIS has released at least 17 videos threatening Jews and Israel since the middle of October, as well as multiple other propaganda materials including audio messages and graphics.

In addition, Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions, indi­vid­u­als cel­e­brat­ing and pro­mot­ing ter­ror­ism, and even main­stream Arabic-language news out­lets have also added to the online invective encouraging ongoing violence.

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August 12, 2015

From Charleston to Chattanooga: The Face of Terror in America

By Oren Segal and Mark Pitcavage
Directors of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism

Terrorism is sometimes referred to as the “faceless enemy,” but it has hardly been faceless in the United States this summer.  Too many people have emerged from the shadows to inflict death and suffering.

The parade of violence has seemed unending, from Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, who attacked police officers providing security for the so-called “Muhammad Art Exhibit” in Texas in May, to John Houser, the Hitler-admiring man obsessed with the moral decay of America who recently opened fire at a Louisiana movie theater showing the movie Trainwreck.

Of the various killers and would-be killers this summer, two stand out.  The first is Dylann Storm Roof, the white supremacist who allegedly confessed to the June massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine African-Americans dead.dylann-storm-roof-gun-confederate-flag-600

The second is Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who in July engaged in a shooting spree targeting a Chattanooga military recruiting center and a nearby naval reserve center.  Abdulazeez, who may have been inspired by radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed five people—all military personnel—before being killed by police.

In many ways, Roof and Abdulazeez personify America’s terrorist threat; they are the faces of the “faceless enemy.”  Most obviously, each represents a major source of terrorism.  Roof was a white supremacist who allegedly hoped to start a “race war” in which whites would prevail.  White supremacists have for decades been the most prolific source of domestic extremist-related lethal violence.  Along with the other main segment of the extreme right, anti-government militia groups and sovereign citizens, they are responsible for the great majority of extremist-related deaths in the U.S.

Abdulazeez, on whom there is less information regarding motivation, may well have latched onto the ideas of al-Awlaki—including his encouragement of attacks on military targets—as a way to atone for some of his personal demons, including drugs and alcohol.  Domestic Islamic extremists have in recent years attempted or conducted a large number of terrorist plots, conspiracies and acts, despite being fewer in number than right-wing extremists.

Both men also chose targets typical of their movements.  For Abdulazeez, it was the military; here he followed in the footsteps of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who killed a soldier at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2009, and Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, that same year.  Other Islamic extremists have also recently plotted attacks against military targets in the U.S., though without success.mohammad-youssef-abdulazeez

Roof went on a shooting rampage against African-Americans.  Sprees of violence against racial, ethnic, or religious minorities are a common type of white supremacist terrorism.  In recent years, there have been a number of such episodes, including Frazier Glenn Miller’s attacks on Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2014; Wade Michael Page’s rampage at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012, and Keith Luke’s attacks on African immigrants in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 2009.

Both Roof and Abdulazeez used firearms for their attacks, which is also typical of American terrorism.  Although the public usually thinks of terrorism in terms of bombs, terrorists like Ted Kaczynski and the Boston Marathon bombers are rare in America.  The vast majority of extremist-related murders involve guns—easy to acquire, simple to use, and deadly.  This is why Charleston and Chattanooga number among the 10 deadliest extremist-related attacks of the past 50 years.  Indeed, with the exception of the Oklahoma City bombing, the “top 10” attacks all involved firearms.

Abdulazeez and Roof were both young men, disaffected, facing personal stresses of different kinds (Abdulazeez also suffered from mental illness).  Although terrorism knows no age limits—Nidal Hasan was 39 at the time of his Fort Hood rampage, while white supremacist James Von Brunn, who attacked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, was in his late 80s—many of the attacks and plots in recent years by both Islamic and right-wing extremists have been committed by men in their mid-20s or younger.

Like Abdulazeez and Roof, a number of these extremists committed their attacks as lone wolves, unattached to any particular group.  Overall, the number of lethal lone wolf attacks in the past two decades has been fairly low, numbering only a few dozen, but in recent years, lone wolves seem to have been emerging at a faster rate.  One reason may be the increasing role played by the Internet in facilitating self-radicalization.  It was through the Internet that Roof educated himself in white supremacy; it was via the Internet that Abdulazeez downloaded recordings of al-Awlaki.

Here one can see a significant difference between right-wing extremists and domestic Islamic radicals.  While they can both easily immerse themselves in a sea of on-line propaganda designed to instill and reinforce extreme views, right-wing extremist Internet sources are primarily based in the United States and, therefore, must watch what they say.  White supremacists who openly use the Internet to encourage violence and terrorism open themselves up to criminal investigation and, if violence occurs, possible civil liability; as a result, their encouragement of violence is often more implicit than explicit.

Domestic Islamic extremists, in contrast, receive most of their radicalizing messages from abroad, from terrorist groups and like-minded supporters who are freer to use the Internet to call for violence and terrorism within the U.S.  Propaganda from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was an inspiration for the Boston Marathon bombing.  In the past two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken such tactics to a new level altogether, employing a virtual army of on-line recruiters who use social media platforms to reach and radicalize susceptible individuals across the globe.  Seeking to instill a deep sense of community and purpose, ISIS supporters encourage Americans to come to the Middle East to help it fight its wars—many of the 80+ U.S. residents linked to Islamic extremist activity since 2014 have made such attempts. But ISIS also urges people to launch attacks in the U.S.

Roof and Abdulazeez were both cold-blooded killers.  Their attacks deeply affected the citizens of Charleston and Chattanooga and, indeed, the whole country, though not always in the same ways.  In particular, the Chattanooga shootings, like some similar attacks before them, stirred anti-Muslim sentiments directed at America’s entire Muslim community, a disturbing phenomenon for which there is no parallel with regard to white supremacist attacks.

But their attacks were similar in that they were both essentially futile, able to achieve little but death and misery.  Indeed, the reactions to the attacks illustrate just how ineffective they actually were.  The Chattanooga attack, for example, inspired an outpouring of support for the U.S. military. The Charleston response was even more powerful.  Far from starting a “race war,” Roof’s slaughter not only brought Charlestonians of all races together but also resulted in a bipartisan effort to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol.

American extremists, of whatever stripe, can hurt and even kill, but the one thing they can’t do is win.

Mr. Segal is an authority on Islamic extremism and terrorism in the United States; Dr. Pitcavage is an expert on right-wing extremism and terrorism in the United States.

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