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Terrorism Trends

12:00 AM, Aug 19, 2009 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
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Old and new.

A cluster of recent events has put homegrown terrorism on the country's radar for the second time in two months. We have seen alleged members of a jihadist cell arrested in North Carolina, a Minnesota-based Somali man plead guilty to aiding Islamic militants in Somalia, and the revelation that a Long Island man gave al-Qaeda information about New York subways and trains. This follows the events of late May and early June, when a shooting at an Arkansas military recruiting center followed the disruption of a bomb plot in the Bronx.

Attorney General Eric Holder told ABC News on July 29 that he is increasingly concerned by Americans who are radicalized and turn to terrorism. "The whole notion of radicalization is something that didn't loom as large a few months ago ... as it does now," he said. "And that's the shifting nature of threats that keeps you up at night."

Holder is correct that homegrown terrorism is a significant problem. But the idea that it was not on the radar until recent months suggests, more than anything, that Holder had not immersed himself in the issue until recently.

My policy institute recently released a study I co-authored, Terrorism in the West 2008, which examines terrorism events and legal developments in Western countries over the course of last year. Terrorism is neither a new phenomenon nor a scourge that will disappear soon. Though recent incidents have involved Islamic extremists, terrorism is not the exclusive domain of a single religion or ideology. Here, I will highlight a few trends that are relevant to those trying to comprehend the terrorism threat in the United States.

First, there is a trend toward transnational terrorist groups developing their capacities in the West in order to build strength and resiliency. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Hezbollah, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and other transnational groups are all active in Western countries.

When transnational terror groups operate in the West to build their capacities and resilience, they often do not intend to carry out attacks on Western soil. Rather, Western countries can be used as bases to raise funds, obtain equipment, and propagandize. The LTTE experienced a dramatic military defeat in Sri Lanka this year, and if it is able to make a comeback, its Western networks will likely be part of that story.

Second, the connections between transnational crime and terrorism have deepened. This linkage is not new: the USSR had been a major terrorist sponsor during the Cold War, and after its collapse these groups were forced to look elsewhere financially. Many turned to criminal activities.

There are two strategic aspects of terrorist involvement in criminal activity. First, it allows terrorists to gain financially while damaging the societies they target. Second, law enforcement can derive some advantage from the crime-terrorism nexus by shutting down terrorists through targeting their criminal activities. This echoes the strategy used to fight the mob in the early to mid-twentieth century, as typified by Al Capone's prosecution. Though Capone's offenses included murder, bribery, and running illegal breweries, he was charged with tax evasion.

After 9/11, then-attorney general John Ashcroft publicly advocated an Al Capone/mob model for prosecuting suspected terrorists, charging them for their full range of offenses (rather than just terrorist activities). Consistent with this, prosecutors have often employed "undercharging," charging defendants with lesser crimes than terrorism offenses. Last year in Australia, Jack Thomas was convicted of possessing a falsified passport after prosecutors failed to convict him on terrorism charges. Similarly, U.S. prosecutors won convictions against three former Care International officers for concealing material facts from the United States and defrauding the government, despite the organization's suspected involvement in jihadist activity.

Third, debate about how to balance security and civil liberties is especially acute on the question of when speech crosses the line to illegally supporting terrorism. In 2008 several individuals were arrested or convicted for propagandizing on behalf of terror groups. In Germany, two men were arrested for operating a jihadist web site. In Spain, three men were arrested for "promoting radical ideology among the Muslim community," while a married U.K. couple was charged with distributing propaganda.