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Pre-empting the Terrorist Threat to Military Communities in the United States

05/12/2011

On Wednesday, December 7 the United States House and Senate Homeland Security Committees will hold an unprecedented joint hearing to discuss the homegrown terrorist threat to military communities in the United States. Since 9/11, there have been approximately 15 plots and attacks targeting U.S.-based military personnel and facilities, perpetrated by American citizens and legal residents who were radicalised by violent ideology introduced by al-Qaeda and its supporters, including the 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood in which U.S.  Army Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 and wounded more than 30 others.  Ideally, the hearing will result in recommendations to tackle the threat at its root cause; the point of radicalisation.  Indeed, if the perpetrators had not been radicalised the plots would never have been born.

The origin of any attack is an idea. The ideas in question are inspired by al-Qaeda, its forbearers, its affiliates, and its supporters, which decree the United States is at war with Islam and all Muslims are obligated to take action to retaliate against the U.S. military and preclude its operations in Muslim majority countries.

Historically, the ideology was generated and disseminated exclusively by al-Qaeda spokesmen, whose names we knew and whose faces we recognised.  Now, the ideology is taking on a life of its own in the hands of its consumers.   With the rise of the “lone wolf” movement, an effective radicalising agent could be anyone with a camera and internet access, and their violent message could be acted upon by any one of the random strangers who happens upon it and finds it compelling.

Since the 1980s, al-Qaeda has campaigned to radicalise U.S. citizens with the hope of turning our own population into a weapon against us.  They started by sending their representatives to the U.S., like Omar Abdel Rahman (“The Blind Sheikh”), to radicalise mosque goers.  Then, over the course of more than two decades, their tactics became more infusive with the availability of new technology.  Today, blatant al-Qaedist propaganda created by young Americans can be spotted on such popular websites as YouTube and Facebook, despite the ongoing requests from politicians, including Senator Joseph Lieberman, to get rid of it.

We can no longer predict with certainty who will be imparting the message; it could be someone in a Brooklyn apartment or in a basement in Phoenix.  Nor can we predict who will be exposed to the message, who will be radicalised by it, or who will ultimately conspire to attack.  Thus, our response to the threat must adapt to the less clearly defined battle environment.  It simply makes no sense to go after a thousand different messengers and multi-thousands of potential recipients of the message. Rather, the focal point of our counterterrorism efforts should be on the one variable that remains constant; the message itself.

Identifying and eliminating the message that inspires violence and murder will require training of counterterrorism professionals, and even the general public, which comprises the actual user base on social media networks and media-sharing sites.   The training should include unambiguous explanation of the al-Qaedist narrative so the distinction between the dangerous ideology that leads to violence and the vital expression of dissent will be clear.  An effective strategic plan will also include sustained pressure on social media sites, such as YouTube and Facebook, to scrub its content of al-Qaedist and other violent propaganda.