Addressing the home-grown threat

Line of Defence Magazine - Summer 2020/21

Home-grown terror threat

With recent terrorist attacks in the West ‘home-grown’, Wellington based Security Consultant Marc Collins CSyP explains how governments might go about countering the threat whilst preserving freedoms.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence, the US is facing a growing threat from ‘home-grown’ terrorism. Domestic threat actors often plan and carry out their acts of violence alone and with little apparent warning, in ways that limit the effectiveness of traditional law enforcement investigation and disruption methods. 

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in its annual threat assessment in March 2020, issued a warning that right-wing groups are more organised than in previous years. “In Australia, the extreme right-wing threat is real, and it is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.”

Technology plays a critical role in facilitating the spread, evolution and interaction of violent ideologies and narratives of personal grievances, and the subsequent security implications, are recognised. 

For some time in the US, there has been a move towards recognising terrorism and targeted violence as intertwined and interrelated, and the DHS national-level strategy explicitly states that terrorism and targeted violence overlap, intersect and interact as problems, and that they necessitate a shared set of solutions.  

Guiding principles in countering the ‘home-grown’ threat

Defending borders is necessary to prevent foreign terrorists and other hostile actors from entering the country. Border security, however, cannot stop violence originating from within the country. 

Governments must therefore focus on empowering and equipping agencies and the public with prevention strategies and capabilities. Prevention efforts must be multidisciplinary and include enhanced whole-of-society partnerships with mental health professionals, social service providers, and civil society in order to provide “off-ramps” away from terrorism and targeted violence. 

The DHS details five guiding principles for operationalising countering terrorism plans, all of which are relevant to other governments facing similar challenges:

1. Understanding and adapting to the threat environment

A government’s capacity to respond to terrorism and targeted violence depends on its ability to understand the evolving threat environment, and to adapt to it. Intelligence priorities and capabilities must adapt to the new security landscapes and craft innovative responses. 

Prior to the Christchurch Mosque attack, carried out in March 2019 by an Australian-born white supremacist, New Zealand’s assessed level of threat from a terrorist attack was Low (an attack is assessed as possible but is not expected). 

It was assessed that an attack would most likely be carried out by Islamic extremists or their affiliates, including a small number of ‘foreign fighters’ who had returned from the Middle East, and the intelligence services were monitoring up to 40 New Zealanders on a government watch list. The threat from domestic extremists was assessed as Very Low (an attack is assessed as unlikely). 

Prior to the attack, the New Zealand Intelligence Community’s security settings were focused on a fairly narrow part of the threat spectrum. The Intelligence Community, which is understandably limited in terms of resource and capability, had not made one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in the last ten years. 

It has also been evident that the Mosque attacks have raised important questions about what happened in the lead-up to that day and the performance of state sector agencies, many of which were captured in the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attacks published 08 December 2020. 

The report focused on the actions of the attacker, the actions of relevant Public sector agencies and any changes that could prevent such terrorist attacks in the future. Making 44 recommendations around four themes: (i) the requirement for strong government leadership and direction; (ii) a need for engaged and accountable government decision-making; (iii) the role that everyone plays in making New Zealand safe and inclusive; and (iv) the need for fit for purpose laws and policies.

In the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Annual Report 2019, the threat from terrorism, and home-grown violent extremism, was included in the list of National Intelligence Priorities. This demonstrated a subtle change in mindset post-Christchurch and a more realistic understanding of the wider spectrum of threats, including the threat from ‘home-grown’ violent extremist actors.

2. Understanding technology and its malicious use

Terrorists and violent extremists have proven adept at exploiting the internet’s potential, leading to changes in target selection and modus operandi. These so called ‘Gen Y Terrorists’ have a desire for instant gratification, meaning they are more likely to carry out low capability or less-sophisticated attacks that require minimal training and planning, such as active shooter attacks, and as a result become much harder to detect and prevent. 

Online extremist communities lionise attackers, encouraging others to follow in their footsteps, and the online space has made attackers more operationally competent, as they use the Web to glean technical information for their attacks. 

The widespread adoption of social media, development of the ‘dark web’, and the proliferation of encryption and anonymising technology has helped people to view themselves as part of global communities that transcend national borders. They provide users with a sense of intimacy with others half a world away and emboldens the adoption of identities or causes that may once have been obscure, marginalised, or otherwise unknown. 

As part of the strategy to counter the threat, governments must understand technological advances that attackers will employ, and should: 

  • conduct risk-based assessments of these advances
  • examine the promise and peril of emerging technologies, including unmanned systems, such as drones
  • work closely with the private sector, including Internet Service Providers and social media companies, to address the spread of violent extremist content on their platforms
  • encourage the sector to help inform the public of the risks associated with the spread of violent extremist ideology
  • participate in and contribute to prevention and resilience efforts. 

3. Collaboration between agencies

Multiple layers of security and intelligence can provide awareness of hostile threat actors long before they attempt an attack. However, ‘home-grown’ threat actors pose a particular challenge as they tend to operate alone, with little or no communication regarding their intention and capability to cause harm. They do sometimes leave a trail of pre-attack activities, such as target reconnaissance, overseas travel and social media exchanges, which if collected and collated centrally, could indicate a cause for concern and warrant proactive action. 

The sharing of information between agencies and, where appropriate, private sector partners, is a key element of any government’s strategy to counter the threat from home-grown actors. The gathering and sharing of Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR), and the need to establish robust standards for gathering, documenting, processing, analysing and sharing of terrorism-related SAR information, are central to this strategy. 

The development of a Fusion Centre can also play a critical role in collaboration and information sharing efforts, as this becomes the central repository for all threat-related information, increasing the likelihood that ‘dots can be joined together’ to form a pre-emptive picture of an emerging threat.

4. Whole of society approach

Working closely with academia, mental health professionals, educators, and faith leaders is crucial in order to better understand the threats faced and to develop strategies to address them. To enhance the efficacy of prevention programmes, governments and state sector agencies need to take a whole-of-society approach working with stakeholders to employ strategic frameworks that integrate various programmes to increase community resilience and reduce the number of individuals exposed to violent extremism, while identifying with individuals (‘off-ramping’) before violent or criminal acts occur. 

This approach recognises that peers are best positioned to notice individuals exhibiting signs of radicalisation to violent extremism and mobilisation to violence. Awareness briefings, engagement strategies and outreach efforts are required across the widest cross-section of society, explaining what to look for and how to respond if an individual is mobilising to violence. 

Denmark’s de-radicalisation strategy, known as the Aarhus Model, is a globally renowned whole-of-society approach. The programme is based on holistic collaborative efforts between various public, private and people sectors agencies and has gained global attention due to its ‘soft’ approach towards home-grown extremists, in contrast to many Western countries programmes which involve detention and incarceration.

The Danish de-radicalisation model is composed of an assortment of multiple agencies and has its roots in a broader approach to crime prevention in Danish society. The programme comprises three main guiding principles:

  • inclusion rather than stigmatisation or exclusion
  • strong collaboration between the various private sector bodies, institutions and government agencies
  • importance of a scientific foundation for the de-radicalisation programme. 

5. Upholding civil rights

Any strategy to counter the threat from ‘home-grown’ actors must respect and protect national values, including the prioritisation and protection of civil rights, civil liberties and individual privacy. Governments and agencies must uphold the rule of law and earn and maintain the trust of the public. 

Domestic terrorism and ‘home-grown’ violent extremism are inherently tied to ideas and ideologies. Planning or committing acts of violence is a crime, while expressing or holding radical or extreme views is part of civil freedom. Any government must take care while addressing the scourge of violence, to avoid stigmatising populations, infringing on constitutional rights, or attempting to police what the public should think. 

Additionally, how terrorism and targeted violence is identified and detected requires faithful adherence to fair information practice principles and privacy-focused agency policies. Agencies must consistently incorporate privacy protections in all they do, ensuring they consistently work within the parameters of their operational remit and in adherence to the legal framework within which they operate. 

Conclusions

‘Home-grown’ terrorist and violent extremist attacks are on the increase. They present a different set of challenges to governments and agencies by limiting the effectiveness of traditional law enforcement investigation and disruption methods.

In order to counter this ever-evolving threat, governments, Intelligence Communities and state sector agencies need to work collectively to understand and adapt to the changing threat environment. They must also understand the role that technology plays and how it can be used or misused for malicious purposes, collaborating together and sharing threat-related information whilst adhering to robust information sharing protocols in order to establish a whole-of-society approach through multi-stakeholder prevention strategies and programmes.

Most importantly, any strategy must also strike a balance between the secrecy necessary to operate effectively, the public’s expectations of accountability and transparency, and the legal framework they operate within. The protection of privacy, civil rights and civil liberties will remain a constant challenge.