Privacy SOS

Association, communication, interest and possession of literature: possible terrorist recruitment indicators, say FBI and DHS

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI agree: police, firefighters and emergency services workers should be on the lookout for indicators of possible terrorism recruitment as they go about their day to day jobs.

What’s considered a terrorism indicator is a little hazy, however. 

In an undated document entitled "Suspicious Activity Reporting: Recruiting," now posted on the Public Intelligence site, the federal agencies first lay out an example of a scenario in which someone is approached to join a terrorism operation. Following this example the agencies spell out a number of warning indicators that "when observed in combination with other prior observed behaviors—particularly advocacy of violence—may constitute a basis for [suspicious activity] reporting."

All of the other problems with "suspicious activity reporting" (SAR) aside — and there are lots of problems — this "roll call" paper is extremely troubling. Most of the examples of behaviors to look out for, what the agencies call “Past Activities Observed in Individuals Recruited to Participate in Terrorism,” have absolutely nothing to do with actual acts of violence. They don’t even have anything to do with the example of terrorist recruitment presented in the document.

Here’s the example:

The following SAR incident from the NSI shared space is an example of an individual being recruited to commit violence.  The example is provided for situational awareness and training:

— An individual contacted the police to report being approached by two subjects about supplying firearms and participating in an attack on a military installation.  The subjects were arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder officers and employees of the US Government after being observed conducting surveillance of targets, testing security, and acquiring weapons for the attack.  One of the subjects pled guilty to the charges and is awaiting sentencing.

Wait a second. The federal government thinks that it needs to teach state and local law enforcement to react as if this situation is “suspicious”? If I were a police officer I'd be insulted. Clearly if someone tells the police that someone else is planning to attack someone with guns, the police should respond.

But after providing this scenario as “an example of an individual being recruited to commit violence,” the agencies go on to outline a number of entirely unrelated scenarios that local police (and fire and EMS workers) should apparently find suspicious. A number of those supposed “indicators” have to do with associations and speech. The worksheet claims that “Studies of terrorist actors have identified particular behaviors that have been observed in individuals vulnerable to recruitment or who have been recruited, and were ready to commit acts of violence.” The feds are careful to say that “Any one of these activities may be insignificant on its own,” but go on to say that nevertheless, “when observed in combination with other prior observed behaviors—particularly advocacy of violence—may constitute a basis for reporting.”

The authors of this document don’t tell us which “studies of terrorist actors” they are talking about, but if those studies are anything like the routinely debunked studies linking certain kinds of First Amendment protected speech and activity with a tendency toward “radicalization,” they are worse than bunk.

The FBI/DHS document lists the following “Past Activities Observed in Individuals Recruited to Participate in Terrorism” [emphasis mine]:

— (U//FOUO) Acceptance of violence as a legitimate form of political activity, expressed willingness to commit acts of violence, or close association with individuals or groups suspected of violent extremism.

— (U//FOUO) Communication with violent extremists, either through direct contact or virtually, or active participation in violent extremist blogs, chat rooms, and password-protected websites.

— (U//FOUO) Interest in paramilitary and explosives training or reconnaissance and surveillance activities in a manner reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning.

— (U//FOUO) Possession of literature written by and for violent extremist groups on terrorist techniques, including use of explosives, poisons, firearms and heavy weapons (when combined with other prior observed behaviors).

— (U//FOUO) Involvement by individuals—who otherwise never committed a crime—in theft, fraud, and illegal activities to fund terrorist causes.

(U//FOUO) In addition, individuals or groups attempting to enlist others to participate in acts of violence or terrorism should be reported to authorities.

(U//FOUO) These identified activities have been observed in cases of mobilization to violence, but are not a concrete formula for predicting illegal activity.  First Amendment-protected activities should not be reported in a SAR or ISE-SAR absent articulable facts and circumstances that support the source agency’s suspicion that the behavior observed is not innocent, but rather reasonably indicative of criminal activity associated with terrorism, including evidence of pre-operational planning related to terrorism. Race, ethnicity, national origin, or religious affiliation should not be considered as factors that create suspicion (although these factors may be used in specific subject descriptions).  DHS and FBI are not advocating interference with the rights of law-abiding individuals.  There may be a legitimate reason why some of the observed behaviors are present; it is up to you to determine when that is not the case.

Note that only one of those warning indicators has anything to do with the example the federal government provides, and it is smack yourself in the head obvious. Clearly, “individuals or groups attempting to enlist others to participate in acts of violence or terrorism should be reported to authorities.” Did the federal government really need to tell local police this?

The other alleged warning signs are very troubling indeed. Association with “groups suspected of violent extremism.” Like EarthFirst!, which the government considers an eco-terrorist organization?

“Communication with violent extremists,” even indirectly, simply by logging on to chat rooms or visiting blogs?

“Possession of literature written by and for violent extremist groups on terrorist techniques,” like the Anarchist Cookbook? Police might not like it, but there’s nothing illegal about owning such a book. The FBI/DHS document takes care to point out that possession of this kind of literature is only really suspicious when “combined” with one of the other named activities. So make sure that if you own a book like the Anarchist Cookbook, you never visit an EarthFirst! website or blog. This deadly combination could land you in the suspicious activity reporting matrix. And who knows what happens after that? 

None of the activities listed as suspicious is against the law. And none of this "intelligence" collection is subject to any outside oversight whatsoever. The agencies make that lack of oversight extra clear when they say, at the end of the document, that it’s up to the police officer or firefighter or EMS worker to decide whether or not something qualifies as “suspicious behavior.” So don't forget: if there’s a fire in your house and you call 911, make sure you tell the responding emergency workers that your interest in that Hezbollah book is purely academic. “I’m a PhD candidate in Middle East politics, see…”

'Radicalization' — the first step to recruitment?

All of this spy on your neighbor business is situated within a similarly troubling, broader context that places lawful speech and association under the "anti-terrorism" microscope. Before joining up with a radical group, people become “radicalized,” argue a number of discredited but nonetheless powerful reports coming from law enforcement and national security agencies.

One of those studies was put out by the NYPD, which when criticized inexplicably claimed that the report wasn’t meant as a teaching tool for law enforcement — even though the document explicitly states otherwise. My colleague Mike German, himself a former FBI counterterrorism agent, demolishes that “radicalization” study, in which the NYPD 

only examined terrorist acts committed by Muslims, and essentially suggested that all Muslims were potential terrorists that needed to be watched, stating that "[e]nclaves of ethnic populations that are largely Muslim often serve as 'ideological sanctuaries' for the seeds of radical thought." It posited a profile of potential terrorist "candidates" so broad that it's no profile at all: within these "Muslim enclaves," potential terrorists could range from members of middle class families to "successful college students, the unemployed, the second and third generation, new immigrants, petty criminals, and prison parolees." In other words: anyone and everyone. It identified "radicalization incubators," including mosques, as well as "cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, nongovernmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores." In other words: any place and every place. Commonplace activities for Muslim-Americans, like wearing Islamic clothing, growing a beard, abstaining from alcohol and joining advocacy organizations or community groups were all listed as potential indicators of radicalization. In other words: any kind of behavior and all kinds of behavior.

Yet, despite all we know of the admitted shortcomings of the NYPD report, the CRS continues to cling to its model of radicalization, suggesting that individuals can become terrorists "by radicalizing and then adopting violence as a tactic." This concept, that the adoption of a particular belief set is a precursor to violent action is refuted in empirical studies of actual terrorists, like one from RAND, which concludes that an individual's decision to engage in terrorist violence is a complex one involving a matrix of different environmental and individual factors, no one element of which is necessary nor sufficient in every case (see its "Factor Tree for Root Causes of Terrorism" above, which looks a whole lot more complex than the NYPD's four-step process).

In addition to being factually wrong, this radicalization concept is also dangerous, because, as the CRS report points out, adopting beliefs and associating with like-minded people is First Amendment-protected activity. But if counterterrorism officials believe that adopting radical beliefs are a necessary first stage to terrorism, they will obviously target belief communities and activists with their enforcement measures, as they often do. The CRS report highlights the NYPD radicalization theory, and while it acknowledges the criticism of the NYPD report it continues to hew closely to the model of radicalization it promotes. This is particularly true in its discussion of the appropriate law enforcement response to radicalization, in which it describes the "major challenge" as determining "how quickly and at what point individuals move from radicalized beliefs to violence." The faulty assumption that radical thoughts lead to violence drives many of the inappropriate law enforcement actions against Muslim-American communities and political activists that, like the NYPD surveillance program, violate civil rights but don't actually improve security.

Unfortunately, those faulty assumptions appear to be driving the federal government’s “suspicious activity reporting” program, too. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.