Since the 9/11 attacks, there have been many public controversies and debates on how to employ technologies and policies to thwart terrorism.
Less well known have been the discussions in psycho-social academic circles on how a terrorist becomes a terrorist, and whether there can be any steps to prevent a person with radical thoughts from stepping over the line to become a violent extremist.
Most researchers have given up on the idea that terrorism can be predicted in an individual with a one-size fits all profile. Another theory — that poverty breeds radicalization — may describe some cases. However, many terrorists come from educated, middle-class backgrounds.
Stevan Weine, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois – Chicago, said the 20 known Somali-American youths in Minneapolis, Minn., who left their communities to carry out terrorist attacks in their homeland, provides one case study.
From late 2007 to early 2008, the young Somali men left their homes in the United States to join the Al Shabaab extremist organization, which is seeking to impose radical Islam in the war-torn East African nation. One 27-year-old recruit died in a suicide car bomb attack in Mogadishu, which left 30 dead.
Despite coming from the same impoverished neighborhood, “the recruits do not fit one profile,” Weine testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on the causes of homegrown terrorism.
“Other than being males between the ages of 17 and 30, the recruits were not distinguishable from other Somalis on the basis of risk factors, and included both criminals and high-achievers,” he said. There were gang members and university students among the recruits.
Only 20 men of the Minnesota Somali population of 84,000 are known to have been radicalized. The recruitment followed Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006. Weine said some of the recruits may not have been drawn to radical Islam, but a sense of nationalism. They may have been asked to fight against the invaders, but were then radicalized in camps in Somalia.
“It is important to recognize that the idea of defending your homeland is not in and of itself a radical idea,” Weine said.
He warned that the extent of the recruitment is not known. Agents in Somalia used phones, email, conference calls, list serves and Facebook to reach out to the young men.
Weine wondered if some were recruited, but unable to join the others for logistical reasons.
“What the media hasn’t yet picked up on is the possibility that Somali youth who were recruited but not mobilized could decide to act on their own in the U.S.,” Weine said. “All it takes is one person with the right weapons to do great harm and pierce the American consciousness.”