With the Islamic State encouraging "lone wolf" terror attacks and the threat of al Qaeda still looming, two national security experts believe the US needs to adopt new methods for preventing domestic terrorism. But the proposed tactic for saving lives may require a much softer touch than American intelligence agencies have used in the past.
The need for a new terror prevention strategy comes as national security officials both at home and abroad have been forced to adapt to the new types of militant groups that have emerged in recent years. Most notably, the fight against the Islamic State has extended beyond Iraq and Syria and onto the internet, where the group has used propaganda to woo recruits and urge extremists to stage attacks in their home countries.
"It's very different targeting from an intelligence point of view,"said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer and current director of special projects at the Soufan Group, a security and intelligence company. "They pretty much have the same violent bloodthirsty ideology but their manner of attack is different, so it necessitates we go about it in a different way."
Earlier this month, British newspaper the Express reported that intelligence officials had reason to believe that al Qaeda may be planning a coordinated attack on airlines during peak holiday season in Europe. Authorities in both Europe and the US responded by describing ways to boost airport security and prevent suspicious passengers from boarding planes, as they have for years.
But recent incidents — the shooting in Canada's parliament, and a hatchet attack on New York police officers — have shown that individuals with no known affiliation to terrorist groups can still carry out attacks. Even with the best intelligence and surveillance, these acts of "lone wolf" violence are extremely difficult to foresee.
"The biggest threat — if we're talking about threats during holidays and such — are these grassroots guys, in places like Canada, Europe, and the US," Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at the global intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor, told VICE News. "I really see them as being a bigger threat than al Qaeda, or the Islamic State, or the al Qaeda franchises. They are hard to locate, identify, and focus on."
Skinner pointed out that al Qaeda has a self-contained "external operations" group made up of core fighters that plan and coordinate attacks. Intelligence officials can attempt to identify what that group is doing by monitoring their lines of communication — what Skinner called "rat lines" — to look for information about potential attacks.
"They're targeting looking for rat lines, communications and logistics lines, they vibrate when there's chatter," he said. "That's the traditional mindset and it works, but ISIS is not al Qaeda. They have the same ideology but go about it completely differently."
The Islamic State has no external operations group, Skinner said. Instead, they use propaganda to try to convince individuals around the world to carry out their own attacks.
"They have basically crowd-sourced external operations," Skinner said. "It's remarkable that they can just go out and through Kik [a digital messaging service] or Twitter reach out to vulnerable people. It's like spam. Ninety-nine percent of people it doesn't work on, but it doesn't matter, because it costs nothing and you only need one percent."
The experts believe that US intelligence agencies need to disrupt the online recruitment process, and, more importantly, go out into communities to prevent at-risk individuals from acting violently.
"The new approach has to be a hybrid of counterterrorism, plus espionage, plus something we're not very good at, which is community outreach, going into disaffected communities and reaching people who are already off the radar," Skinner said.
To break "the radicalization process," Stewart recommended closer scrutiny of jihadi websites, and monitoring of people "commenting by Twitter or through other means with jihadi recruiters and cheerleaders."
Perhaps most critically, the security experts emphasized the need for communities to police themselves.
"It all comes down to grassroots defenders," Stewart said. "They are much more likely to encounter people than the CIA and FBI, whether that's more people in communities, including Muslim communities, saying, 'Hey, this guy's a hothead,' to police. It's not unusual after these attacks for people go, 'Oh yeah this guy was kind of nutty, he'd been thrown out of mosque for advocating violent jihad.' That happens a lot."
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