Though marked “for official use only” and “not for public release,” the 2017 edition of a National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) document offering guidance to law enforcement agencies has surfaced on the internet, raising questions about the kinds of activities the government considers “homegrown violent extremist mobilization indicators.”
Some of the signs that a person might be attempting to commit a terrorist act or join a terrorist group that are discussed in the document are almost laughably obvious. These fall into “Category A” of indicators which “are very diagnostic on their own” and include “seeking help from family or friends to enable travel to join terrorist groups overseas,” and “planning or attempting to travel to a conflict zone to fight with or support (a Foreign Terrorist Organization).” Other “mobilization indicators” discussed in the document, however, are open to broader interpretation.
Aside from Category A, the NCTC also describes Category B indicators, which “are moderately diagnostic, more so when observed with other indicators,” and Category C, which “are minimally diagnostic on their own and require the presence of other indicators to gain diagnosticity.” While such disclaimers are mildly reassuring, some of the “mobilization indicators” listed in these groups, particularly Category C, seem excessively vague.
Category C mobilization indicators include “selling personal assets/belongings in an unusual manner”; “blaming external factors for failure in school, career, or relationships”; “expressing frustration with employment situation”; “discussing operational security or ways to evade law enforcement” and “using communication security techniques and tradecraft.” While many of these Category C indicators require “many other indicators pointing to terrorism and intent to commit violence needed to confirm mobilization,” they nonetheless raise questions.
The so-called terrorism indicators of “discussing operational security or ways to evade law enforcement” and “using communication security techniques and tradecraft,” for example, could easily be signs that a person is a political activist or journalist engaging in constitutionally protected activity, rather than a terrorist. Others, such as “selling personal assets/belongings in an unusual manner” could have any number of innocent explanations, while the vast majority of us have probably been guilty of “expressing frustration with employment situation” at one time or another.
The NCTC document specifically notes that it was created due to the threat posed to the US “from ISIL and other global jihadist groups.” It includes a section specifically explaining why it does not include indicators for “violent white supremacists” or “violent anarchists.”
“By law, the NCTC focuses on international terrorism, which includes people in the United States who are inspired or enabled by (Foreign Terrorist Organizations),” it states. “Senior Intelligence Community officials judge that violent extremists inspired or enabled by ISIL and al-Qa‘ida, including their allies and affiliates, are among the most lethal international terrorist threats to the Homeland. This booklet focuses on those actors.”
Few would argue that the greatest “international terrorism” threat to random civilian targets in the US comes from any group other than Islamist extremists, given numerous high-profile attacks in recent years. Yet the NCTC guide is prepared not for agencies with any sort of international authority or mission, but rather for “federal, state, local, territorial and tribal law enforcement” — in other words, members of government agencies that presumably are already trained and on the lookout for any signs of unstable individuals or criminal conspiracies that may exist within their communities.
Given its explicit focus on Islamist extremism, though, the NCTC guidebook will likely be used at least in some cases as an excuse to profile people based on their religion, ethnicity or nationality. At the same time, however, it opens the door to perfectly legal, mundane and completely commonplace activities such as feeling frustrated at work getting people lumped into the same group as international terrorists. “Certainly, behaviors exist and are noted in this booklet that would be troubling regardless of whether they were motivated by a foreign terrorist organization, a domestic extremist group, or a personal grievance,” the document notes.
The 36-page NCTC booklet makes extensive use of bullet points and flashy infographics, yet it boils down to a list of “homegrown violent extremist mobilization indicators” that are in some cases so self-evident that stating them seems stupid, and in others are so vague that they could include practically anyone. One “mobilization indicator” included in the guide, however, stands out among the rest.
According to the NCTC, “seeking religious or political justification for violent acts” is a Category A mobilization indicator. “This behavior on its own is a mobilization indicator,” the guide states. And yet the entire purpose of the document is to outline a set of indicators that would allow police agencies to apprehend suspected terrorists — almost certainly violently, if they’re caught in the late stages of planning or carrying out an attack — using justifications that are, ultimately, political. Moreover, the US government seeks political justification for violent acts it routinely engages in all over the world, thus making it, according to the NCTC guidelines, a “homegrown violent extremist.”
Documents like the NCTC “mobilization indicators” booklet are not meant for public consumption, but when they do on occasion leak out, it becomes clear why they’re kept secret to begin with. The 2017 NCTC guide is vague and contradictory enough to be next to useless operationally, though it provides enough concrete documentation of an intellectually and morally bankrupt political philosophy underpinning government policy to be truly embarrassing.