Two “official use only” government documents published this week offer insight into federal investigators’ perceptions of the domestic terrorism suspects they pursue, making them especially relevant in light of revelations in a recent in-depth article from The Intercept exploring the murky world of undercover terrorism stings.
“Analysis of 57 fully adjudicated FBI international terrorism cases disrupted in the US between 2009 and 2012, revealed that in 84% of the cases, at least one third-party observed concerning behavior that preceded radicalization or mobilization to violence,” notes one of the two documents recently published independently of the Intercept story. “Additional review of the disrupted international terrorism cases highlight that a majority of third-party observers were individuals with an interpersonal or familial relationship to the subject.”
The document, dated January of this year and titled “Terrorist Attack Planning Cycle – A Homeland Case Study,” originates with the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Though unclassified, it’s marked “not for public release” with a further note emphasizing it not be distributed to those without “a valid need to know” its contents.
“The terrorist attack planning cycle is not a static, linear process but rather could begin in any of the several stages with variances in details, sequence, and timing” it notes. “An individual’s mobilization to violence often provides observable behavioral indicators such as, pre-attack surveillance, training, and rehearsal.”
It goes on to describe in some detail the case of John T. Booker, 22, of Topeka, Kansas, who was recently sentenced to 30 years in prison for an ISIS-inspired bomb plot attempt. “This case is an example of a homegrown violent extremist inspired by overseas terrorist groups who exhibited several observable behaviors of the attack-planning cycle that indicated radicalization and mobilization toward violence,” according to the document.
More on the Booker case in a moment, but first a note on the language used here — “homegrown violent extremist inspired by overseas terrorist groups” — which corresponds almost exactly to that used in the second newly published document.
The “Overview of Recently Successful or Arrested HVEs’ Radicalization to Violence” is dated March of this year and was produced by the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) based on a review of 39 “US homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) who either successfully carried out or were arrested before attempting to carry out attacks” in 2015 and 2016.
(“DHS defines an HVE as a person of any citizenship who has lived and/or operated primarily in the United States or its territories who advocates, is engaged in, or is preparing to engage in ideologically-motivated terrorist activities [including providing support to terrorism] in furtherance of political or social objectives promoted by a foreign terrorist organization, but is acting independently of direction by a foreign terrorist organization,” which makes them “distinct from traditional domestic terrorists,” according to the document).
“A version of this Reference Aid was previously released at the SECRET level, which reflected relevant disseminated all-source intelligence reporting but not non-disseminated FBI case information about these HVEs,” the document notes.
The report offers some interesting figures, including that more than half of the “HVEs” were converts and nearly half considered traveling to commit terrorist attacks, and that the vast majority were men. It also, however, concludes with a less-than-confidence-inspiring statement that DHS I&A has “medium confidence” in its assessment “that we identified the most common mobilization factors among the examined HVEs”; “that we have identified the most common signs of radicalization based on a body of press reporting and court documents”; and in its “assessment that HVEs typically experience radicalization to violence timelines lasting longer than” one year.
Homeland Security’s “medium confidence” level “is based primarily on our review of court documents and press reporting,” the document also notes. “Our confidence would be strengthened with further reporting on why HVEs chose their specific targets, weapons, associates, and other key elements of their mobilization pathway,” it adds, in what almost appears to be an annoyed plea to the news media to do the intelligence community’s job for it. This brings us to Trevor Aarsonson of The Intercept‘s recent report on “unlikely jihadi” Harlem Suarez, the latest in a series titled “Trial and Terror.”
Aaronson’s article on Suarez, who “suffered several significant head injuries” and comes across as a naive fool who probably didn’t pose a serious threat but got himself in over his head with a team of aggressive federal investigators posing as terrorists, reads very differently from the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team report on Booker. In Booker’s case, he “followed through with his attack plan and insisted on being the one to detonate” a car bomb “and commit suicide while killing as many persons as possible, and/or use a firearm before he died,” according to the document.
And yet on closer inspection the differences in the two cases may have more to do with presentation than anything else. For one thing, the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team report makes no mention of Booker’s own known “mental health” issues. “The circumstances of his case — in which the FBI evidently watched him check himself in to a mental health facility as a teenager and then proceeded to set up a sting — have led to speculation that Booker was a vulnerable individual who was entrapped by the government,” the Intercept reported last year.
And while the government report notes, inexplicably, that “Booker was recruited by the US Army in Kansas City, Missouri, and was scheduled to report for basic training in April 2014” — and that early in 2013 “during a visit to a local military recruitment office (MRO), Booker advised the recruiter that he would ‘switch sides’ and kill US soldiers” — it omits the fact that he was somehow still approved for a “secret” level security clearance in 2014.
Sometimes, it seems, what’s left out of an official narrative can tell you just as much or more than what’s left in.