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28 March 2017 08:07 (South Africa)
Politics

US war on terror: the next security threat could be the boy, or girl, next door

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics
blue eyes

For years, the enemies of the globe’s biggest power were clearly, and visibly, recruited from the Muslim countries, or were in some way connected to them. But, as the latest incidents show, terrorism’s front-line soldiers could also come from the places that are as American as apple pie.

Let’s imagine you work as a Homeland Security officer at Kennedy Airport in New York City. An unending stream of humanity inches towards your duty station – looking forward to a business deal, some tourism, a family reunion… or something originally horrific and previously unimaginable.

A conscientious staffer, you take your responsibility seriously to keep potential terrorists out of the country. 9/11 is not an abstract thing for you. You’ve read the advisories and guidelines; you follow the protocols for checking passports, fingerprints, the hundreds of thousands of names on terrorist watch-lists and databases without fail – this is important work and you want to do it right. Your success rises or falls with your ability to triage the people appearing before you: are they safe, definitely not safe, or maybe yes/maybe not. You must judge if someone merits one of those full-scale body searches and the really thorough looks through hand luggage, overcoat, hat, laptop, cellphone, or to just say to them: “Go ahead please, and welcome to the US.”

Keeping focus is an important challenge as the multitudes stream past. But, most often in the past, a key task has been to apply the profiles of likely terrorists, smugglers and other criminals to the people in front of you who you may need to mark for a more thorough examination.

This careful, thorough, methodical universe may now be on its head with the identification and capture of Colleen R LaRose, an American from the Philadelphia suburbs, now referred to as “Jihad Jane” – as well as a growing roster of other (mostly US-born) would-be terrorists entering or leaving the US.  

LaRose’s suburban Philadelphia neighbours told the media she looked just like any other average American. But her arrest puts the spotlight on the problem of individuals who would commit themselves to Islamic-connected extreme action, but who are almost impossible to differentiate from the rest of the US population – precisely because they are from that population. Like, uhm, the guy who crashed his light plane into a federal government office building the other day, or Timothy McVeigh, infamous for his bombing attack in Oklahoma, or the Unibomber (although he scribbled a lot and didn’t speak much). The difference between these people and LaRose and her cohort, of course, is that LaRose and those like her linked themselves to a cause beyond the country’s borders.

Law enforcement sources say LaRose’s arrest is also linked to the arrest in Ireland of seven Muslims plotting to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks – the man who drew the prophet’s head on the body of a dog. Irish sources have told reporters that those arrested there came from Algeria, Croatia, Palestine, Libya – and the US. Meanwhile, the mother of the other American woman arrested as part of this plot told the Associated Press last week that her daughter, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, was among those picked up in Ireland. Paulin-Ramirez’ mother said she first learned of her daughter's arrest from the FBI and other US government agencies.

Now, what’s going on here with Main Street, plain vanilla-type Americans like LaRose or Paulin-Ramirez? US Attorney Michael L Levy argues such activities “shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance”.  And, Georgetown University international terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman adds that this case “shatters the conventional wisdom that somehow the US is immune to the heady currents of radicalisation that have affected citizens of other Western countries. For all intents and purposes, she’s the neighbour next door. You could get all the thrills of participation in an illegal clandestine act in the comfort of your own bedroom. This is someone who, I think, because of the communicative power of the internet is able to... enter into something that is larger than herself.”  This makes for some really tough work ahead for border guards – and other law enforcement officials, doesn’t it?

Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks poses before an interview with Reuters in Stockholm March 10, 2010. Irish police said on Tuesday that seven people had been arrested there in connection with a plot to kill Vilks over a 2007 drawing depicting the Prophet Mohammad with the body of a dog. REUTERS/Bob Strong

According to her indictment, by 2008, LaRose was starting to use aliases like Jihad Jane and Fatima LaRose on YouTube and, by 2009, she was emailing co-conspirators in Southeast Asia and Europe, expressing a desire to become a martyr for an Islamist cause, explaining that her blonde appearance and US passport would make it easier for her to operate undetected. And as she wrote: “I will make this my goal till I achieve it or die trying.” Except for the still-apparent absence of a shadowy Israeli spymaster, it all sounds more than just a bit like the plot of John LeCarre’s novel, The Little Drummer Girl.

Now, by this point in her journey, LaRose was on the FBI’s radar screen. They interviewed her and she told them – falsely, it turns out – that she had never solicited money online for terrorism, had never used the alias Jihad Jane and had never made postings on a terrorist website. Despite the FBI’s interest in her (does this wearily sound familiar as well?), she travelled freely to Europe and attempted to recruit others for what the FBI is now calling “jihadist” attacks.

Jihad Jane, aka Colleen LaRose, apparently had a really busy double life as well. While she was doing all this plotting and planning, she was also giving her all as the primary caregiver for her boyfriend’s terminally ill father. Her then-boyfriend says of her, even now, that she “was a good-hearted person. She pretty much stayed around the house” – except when she was travelling to Europe or posting YouTube videos that said she was desperate to do something somehow to “help” ease the suffering of Muslims. (An object lesson in the question of how much do we really know about our partner, sometimes, eh?) Her boyfriend says he sensed nothing odd in their relationship until the day after his father’s funeral when “I came home and she was gone. It doesn’t make any sense.” On that same day, LaRose set off for Europe where she agreed to marry a Middle Eastern man so he could travel more easily, and where she would write online that it would be “an honour and great pleasure to die or kill for” her intended spouse. “Only death will stop me here that I am so close to the target!” Clearly no longer the girl next door, LaRose is now due in court later this week.

But, it’s not just that shy girl next door, however. It also seems to be the man who does maintenance at nuclear reactors. Yemeni authorities said last week that American Sharif Mobley, a man who had worked half a decade at nuclear plants, had been arrested last week in a crackdown on militants connected to the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda – and the Somali movement Al Shabab.

A clearly chagrined US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it is “not aware of any security-related concerns or incidents related to Mr Mobley’s prior employment” and that he had passed background checks for his work as a maintenance man at nuclear plants in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Just like Major Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter) and the Nigerian Christmas-time underwear bomber, Mobley has been in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Yemeni-American cleric whose electrifying message reaches his flock via the internet, on CDs and DVDs, and even on paper sometimes.

Trying to figure out how to deal with this homegrown extremism, Rick Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a co-author of a new study of the homegrown extremist threat, says that while the radicalising effect of large-scale US military intervention overseas must be weighed by policy makers, such concerns “can’t drive our foreign policy”. Still, his research says that a perception the US is singling out Muslims, fuelled by years of military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and other Muslim countries, plays a greater role than “poverty or social marginalisation” in turning a small number of Americans toward extremism, in spite of President Barack Obama’s efforts to combat the notion that the US is hostile to Islam. Nelson argues the facts on the ground, such as additional troops in Afghanistan and missile strikes from drone aircraft on suspected militants in Pakistan, can become effective fodder for Al Qaeda propaganda that Obama is no different from George W Bush.

As a result of these recent cases, researchers, analysts and security officials are wrestling with questions like: what was the spark that lit LaRose’s interest in radical Islam – was it a person, an internet chat room, a news event; was she supposed to become the head of some kind of terrorist women’s auxiliary?

But perhaps there is no easy common denominator. Maybe homegrown militants like Jihad Jane come to these views from a broader sense of alienation, rather than a specific religious point of departure. Back in 2006, FBI Director Robert S Mueller argued such people “were not sleeper operatives sent on suicide missions [like some movies we remember]; they were students and business people and members of the community. They were persons who, for whatever reason, came to view their home country as the enemy… radicalisation is fluid; it does not follow a set formula or timetable.”

A half century ago, longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer, in his classic volume, The True Believer, contemplating the nature of ideology and extreme action, tried to explain this process [about religious and political extremists, or student radicals], when he wrote: “All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the programme they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance….If they join the movement as full converts they are reborn to a new life in its close-knit collective body, or if attracted as sympathisers they find elements of pride, confidence and purpose….”

And South Africa’s own former foreign minister, Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma, likes to quote a famous passage from Russian revolutionary author Nikolai Ostrowski’s How the Steel was Tempered to explain an embrace of belief in the impact and importance of extreme action. Ostrowski wrote: “Man’s dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the Liberation of Mankind.”

And Dlamini-Zuma has added: “It is this philosophy of life that has enabled freedom-fighters world-wide to endure great suffering, to remain unflinching in their resolve, to fight glorious battles and to win against all odds, not for glory or distinction, but for the collective liberation of all of mankind.”

LaRose seems to have decided that what she could do would become a part of some much larger movement – subordinating herself to find inner meaning for her life. Now, how can the border guards at Kennedy Airport – or anywhere else – deal with that? This is going to be a very big question for the future, one that is sure to cause many more headaches for the US security apparatus.

By J. Brooks Spector

For more, read the NYTimes here, here and here, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor here and here and the BBC.

Main photo: Michael Dawes

WATCH: Fox News on Jihad Jane

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics

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