The path from believing in radical Islamist political ideology to plotting attacks in the homeland can be triggered by a number of factors, a new Congressional Research Service report finds.
The report focuses on homegrown Islamic terrorism, which in itself is remarkable given the reluctance many in Washington have had to clearly naming a leading source of the terrorist threat. The title, "American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat," uses the kind of language all-but-banned by the executive branch since 2008. Cabinet officials in the Obama administration have strained to avoid references to jihadist violence.
But the Congressional Research Service is tasked with producing "authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan" analysis, rather than catering to political semantics. The 137-page report contains more than 500 references to "jihad" or "jihadist." The term "Islam" or "Islamic" is used 117 times. It doesn't deny the existence of other forms of violent extremism, including "radical environmentalism, animal rights, or anti-abortion causes," but the report's focus is on the threat of attacks motivated by radical Islam.
That is something House Democrats have treated with shrill accusations of bigotry.
The report examines 63 homegrown jihadist plots since 9/11, noting that nearly two-thirds of those took place in just the last three years. That spike "suggests that ideologies supporting violent jihad continue to influence some Americans—even if a tiny minority," the report says.
Among those are two deadly attacks that have not even been charged as acts of terrorism. The shootings at Fort Hood and at a Little Rock, Ark. military recruiting office were "lone wolf" attacks that left 14 people dead.
"[W]hen someone moves from simply believing in jihad to illegally pursuing it via violent methods, he becomes a terrorist," the report says. "Because the move from belief to violence is so individualized, there is no single path that individuals follow to become full-fledged terrorists."
Social interaction – from online sources like terrorist forums to calls to action from al-Qaida operatives like Adam Gadahn or Anwar al-Awlaki and in Inspire magazine – has proven significant in many plots. In addition, converts to Islam were involved in 26 of the 63 cases, and many acted on a belief that "the West is harming the global community of Muslims (the Ummah), or even waging war against it."
Other reports have agreed that the perception of a "war on Islam" is among the most effective messages in stirring Islamists to seek violence. Despite that, American Islamist groups have repeatedly made the claim.
The report also discusses the FBI's use of informants and undercover agents in counter-terror investigations and concerns that the tactic might alienate some Muslim Americans. Lawmakers must decide if that tradeoff is worthwhile in facing what is a very real threat.
"A single successful attack can incur scores of casualties and cause considerable socioeconomic disruption. Regardless of their novelty, frequency, or lethality, violent attacks fostered by violent jihadists radicalized in the United States remain a security concern."
Read the full report here.