Homegrown Terrorism in the U.S. and U.K.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, FDD's Vice President of research and Director of its Center for Terrorism Research


Frank J. Cilluffo, Director of George Washington University's Homeland Security and Policy Institute

Douglas Farah, Former Washington Post foreign correspondent and investigative reporter

Mark Williams, First Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs at the British Embassy


On April 27, 2009, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Center for Terrorism Research (CTR) released its newest study Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.: An Empirical Examination of the Radicalization Process at a Leading Thinkers Roundtable Forum. CTR director Daveed Gartenstein-Ross presented the study's findings to a select audience of government officials, policy experts, and counterterrorism practitioners. This rapporteur's summary reflects the findings of CTR's study and the Leading Thinkers discussion that took place under Chatham House Rule.

By: Cindy D. Tan

Homegrown TerrorismIntelligence services and law enforcement agencies are increasingly paying attention to the threat of "homegrown terrorism," terrorist activity perpetrated by individuals who were either born or raised in the West. In recent years, over two hundred such individuals have participated in, or provided support for Islamic terrorist plots. Understanding the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism and the radicalization process of these individuals is vital to the formulation of counterterrorism strategies and the undercutting of the powerful jihadist message.

In April 2009, CTR released its report, Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K., which examines the radicalization process of 117 homegrown terrorist cases. Authored by CTR director Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and research analyst Laura Grossman, the study is a product of over a year and half of extensive groundbreaking research on homegrown terrorism.  It is the first to examine the religious radicalization process in great depth using empirical methods.

Through personal testimony, court cases, and open source reporting, Gartenstein-Ross and Grossman identify six different steps that are particularly significant as homegrown terrorists radicalize:

  • Adopting a Legalistic Interpretation of Islam
  • Trusting Only Select Religious Authorities
  • Perceived Schism Between Islam and the West
  • Low Tolerance for Perceived Theological Deviance
  • Attempts to Impose Religious Beliefs on Others
  • Political Radicalization

The study shows that there is no single path to radicalization, nor one factor found in all cases. Rather, different individuals are influenced by different factors.

Homegrown TerrorismThe study finds that the demographics of homegrown terrorists in the U.S. and U.K. do not align with existing jihadist profiles: married, educated, and middle class. Rather, the homegrown terrorists examined were generally unmarried, less educated, and came from a lower socioeconomic background. Similarly, the study challenges the prevailing thought that religion plays a minimal role in the radicalization process and that political factors are most significant. While political grievances are important, five of the six manifestations identified in the radicalization process were religious.

Indeed, many of the individuals studied tended to seek guidance from a select group of religious authorities, many of whom ushered the individuals towards the crucial point of taking violent action. For example, Kamal Derwish recruited members for the Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni-Americans in upstate New York who provided material support to al-Qaeda. Derwish created an uncompromising religious atmosphere rooted in a legalistic understanding of the faith, which was designed to make the members ashamed for being "too American." He introduced members to a "spiritual closer," a young imam who used feelings of religious failure to convince the six young men that waging jihad was their only chance of salvation.

As part of the radicalization process, some homegrown terrorists also come to view Islam and the West as irreconcilably opposed. They model their lives on the premise that they are engaged in an existential fight against the West. Events in one's life can sometimes shape how individuals perceive their surroundings; in some instances, recruitment was most successful during times of intense personal trauma. Questions of identity commonly appear among homegrown terrorists. Ideology can give shape and purpose to these uncertainties, leaving an individual more willing to engage in violence (as was true in the case of the Lackawanna Six). The study finds that homegrown terrorists were often persuaded by ideological arguments as they transitioned from stages of religious extremism to terrorist acts.

Homegrown TerrorismAs an individual radicalizes, he becomes impervious to rational thinking and becomes intolerant to anything that weakens that narrative. Discussing the study, one expert noted that the jihadist narrative purported by terrorist groups wields great influence over Western born individuals who feel deep alienation from their communities. Membership in terrorist groups confers a sense of belonging under the guise of a divine mission. Through this mission, religion becomes a central feature of the radicalization process. How a terrorist understands religion shapes their worldview. Such changes are reflected in the individual's behavior and appearance.

This war of ideas requires that Western societies project a different, compelling narrative to disrupt the radicalization process and uproot the emotional fulfillment of terrorist participation. Some participants questioned whether the U.S. and U.K. are well-positioned to address such grievances. One often ignored aspect is the appeal of illicit radical behavior - "the cool factor" - that attracts young Muslims to extremist groups: a difficult point to challenge. Most participants agreed that countering this narrative should be facilitated by local policing aimed at lessening the tension between Muslims and law enforcement agencies, and an improved understanding of the stages of radicalization.

Another notable countermeasure to religious radicalization is Muslim civic engagement, through which local religious leaders can combat domestic radicalism by reaching out to disaffected, young individuals in their communities. One Muslim-American participant noted the importance of the tone used in addressing such sensitive issues. In order to win the cooperation of members of the Muslim community in fighting radicalism, a nuanced approach of local engagement is necessary. This allows Muslim leaders to target the perception that they are a marginalized and isolated community within the Western world.

There is no single pathway to radicalization - for this reason, it is urgent that efforts are made to understand the nature of radicalism from within the Muslim community. In the U.K., counterradicalization programs aim to understand how religion can shape communities positively. One program provides training overseas for imams who are often looked to for daily guidance on personal and religious issues.

Despite these countermeasures, the threat of homegrown terrorism will continue to grow. In a world of limited resources, intelligence and law enforcement agencies should develop a more sophisticated understanding of the threat and how to counter it. Any comprehensive law enforcement model should consider prevention-oriented, intelligence-led policing techniques. Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K. yields several insights into how terrorists radicalize, and provides a stronger basis for identifying homegrown terrorists and developing effective counterterrorism strategies.

This rapporteur's summary was produced by CTR research analyst Cindy D. Tan.

CTR was founded in 2008 to provide technical research and analysis on terrorist ideologies, the driving forces behind radicalization, the geopolitical circumstances in which the long war is fought, and terrorists' evolving strategies. For more information about our work, please visit our website, http://www.defenddemocracy.org/project/center-for-the-study-of-terrorist-radicalization/.


Testimonials for the Study

"I appreciate the lengths that you went to accomplish this study. From a counterterrorism perspective, the variables you used were exactly the ones that should be considered, and what we have seen too little seriously studied. I commend you on your willingness to challenge the assumptions that guide existing counterterrorism scholarship and help us move forward." -Douglas Farah, former Washington Post foreign correspondent and investigative reporter

"Homegrown radicalization is undeniably an important issue worthy of serious scholarship. FDD's work is a significant contribution to the debate. Your research findings will be of interest to those in the UK working on the phenomenon of homegrown radicalization." -Mark Williams, First Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs at the British Embassy in Washington