AMU Careers & Learning Intelligence Terrorism

Understanding Homegrown Extremists: An Academic Approach

By Jeffrey V. Gardner
Faculty Member, Homeland Security at American Military University

For almost a full decade after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government was concerned about sleeper cells within the U.S. or terrorists infiltrating from overseas. However, there have not been any significant external attacks from Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups in the U.S. since 2009. Instead, the U.S. (and Canada) has seen a long string of attacks committed by homegrown extremists.

Homegrown extremists are individuals who were born, or spent most of their lives, in the U.S. and who generally lack any direct foreign support or control, but have been radicalized and trained to carry out (or attempt to carry out) attacks on home soil. Some recent examples of homegrown terrorism by American citizens include the recent attack in Orlando, as well as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting — all of which were committed by individuals claiming allegiance to international terrorist groups.

This shift to attacks by homegrown extremists represents a major change to the domestic threat environment. Individuals working (or aspiring to work) in homeland security and intelligence professions must advance their understanding of what leads individuals to radicalize and engage in terrorist activities, as well as de-radicalization approaches.

Professionals in homeland security careers ultimately must understand that terrorists are not “crazy” nor are they disadvantaged individuals. They actually have many of the same characteristics as the young men and women who choose to join the military: They are sane, average, and often in search of meaning, identity, purpose and something bigger than themselves.

To fill this knowledge gap and dispel myths about homegrown extremists, American Military University (AMU) has recently added a new course to its Homeland Security undergraduate degree, HLSS323 Homegrown Violent Extremists.

What Causes Individuals to Radicalize and How to Counter Homegrown Extremists?

As the developer for this new course, I wanted students to start by learning more about the radicalization process, terrorist profiles and how people are being recruited through the Internet and social media platforms.

This course starts with students learning what leads a sane person to radicalize and take action that inflicts harm on fellow citizens for a perceived cause. Many people believe the primary cause of this behavior is mental illness, brainwashing or religious fundamentalism.

However, that is not the case. This course aims to academically and cognitively debunk such myths and misperceptions, and teach students about the real reasons and conditions under which people radicalize and engage in acts of terrorism. Research clearly shows that terrorists are predominantly sane, average, and choose to act violently based upon external influences – which we explore in the course.

The final weeks of the course discuss how the radicalization process can be disrupted. Students also learn how to practically counter violent extremism. They will conduct research for a final paper analyzing government measures to counter homegrown extremists in North America.

Using Case Studies and Videos as Educational Tools

This course relies heavily on the use of case studies. In my 14 years of teaching, I have found real-world case studies to be highly effective in making academic material engaging and memorable. I have included a diversity of case studies from both left- and right-wing homegrown extremists, as well as recent cases of Al-Qaeda-inspired acts of terrorism.

One of the most important case studies is about the Toronto 18 terrorist group, which was disrupted by a former extremist who became de-radicalized and then turned into a government informant. This particular case study is rich with information and hits on almost every course objective. I actually personally know the former extremist who de-radicalized in this case and stopped the plot, and we have taught counterterrorism courses together. I have used this case study in other courses and students often comment about how this example got them thinking about terrorism from a personal perspective and helped them better understand the path to extremism as well as the challenges to de-radicalize someone.

In addition to using case studies, the course also relies on multimedia resources including a video for each week of the eight-week course. As an example, students read the 2015 article, “The Radicalization Puzzle” by Mohammed Hafez and Creighton Mullins. To accompany this reading, students also watch a video by the author explaining the concept and presenting additional graphics.

Professional Experience Drives Academic Learning

While designing this course, I drew from my own experience in the military. Immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, I did not give much thought to issues of radicalization. The U.S. had been attacked, so we had to respond. At the time, it didn’t occur to me how important it was to understand the motivations and purpose of these terrorist groups. This is an ineffective mindset. I learned that if we don’t understand the driving factors behind terrorists and insurgents, it can cause us to choose a course of action that may unnecessarily prolong conflicts and make more enemies than we need to.

[Related: U.S. Strategy Against ISIL in Light of Paris Attacks]

As I progressed through my military career, I focused more on counter-terrorism activities. As an intelligence professional, I was expected to know the enemy and understand how they think. It was a major challenge for someone coming from a Judeo-Christian upbringing with a Western education to suddenly try to understand people living in the tribal regions of Pakistan or Afghanistan, for example. It helped that during my military career I traveled around the world, going to more than 40 countries and living overseas for a number of years. This experience certainly opened my eyes and widened my perspective on the world and how different people live. These experiences and higher education opportunities helped me realize how important it is to understand the psychology of terrorists and the motivations and thought processes driving the way they act.

There’s Always More to Learn

It is my goal to take those experiences — both what I learned from my experience in the military and what I’ve studied academically — and share them with students through these courses. Acts of terrorism will never go away. Students who aspire to be national security professionals must strive to learn more about what drives these people and how to counter violent extremism.

This new course within the Homeland Security degree program is just a small piece in this lifelong effort. Through this coursework, students will understand the factors that contribute to a person becoming a homegrown terrorist, how to recognize those individuals, and strategies to counter homegrown extremism.

About the Author: Jeffrey V. Gardner is an assistant professor of Homeland Security Studies at American Military University, and is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. Jeff is a Homeland Security Ph.D. candidate who possesses a Master of Science of Strategic Intelligence with a concentration in terrorism from National Intelligence University, as well as two other master’s degrees.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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