James Pendley's thesis
The Cloudy Crystal Ball: Detecting and Disrupting Homegrown Violent Extremism
– Executive Summary –
Some observers are critical that recent attacks related to homegrown violent extremism (HVE) in the United States have occurred because investigators had information about would-be perpetrators but missed warning signs of imminent violence. Others rightfully contend that absent a crystal ball, some violent attacks will occur despite the best efforts of law enforcement investigators. One of the worst massacres in modern American history occurred on June 12, 2016, when Omar Mateen entered an Orlando, Florida, nightclub and gunned down over 100 patrons, 49 of whom were killed. The Orlando incident has been cited as example of how warning signs are missed. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interviewed Mateen three times for potential ties to Islamic extremism. This thesis evaluates the Orlando massacre and a sampling of similar incidents—the Boston Marathon bombing, Charleston church shooting, San Bernardino shooting, and Fort Lauderdale airport attack—when authorities knew of the perpetrator prior to the attack.
In recent years considerable research has been conducted to understand how individual radicalization occurs and what techniques can be used to counter violent extremism from individuals or small groups rather than larger transnational terrorist organizations. Relevant background information related to this thesis is included in a literature review comprised of four topics: preventive detention and enemy combatants; extremism and radicalized violence in the United States; countering violent extremism; and civil commitment.
Law enforcement must find probable cause for a crime before encroaching on the freedoms of a person who may or may not transition from radical rhetoric into violent action. This study considers how other stakeholders in the community, like experts in mental health, should be engaged as part of a multidisciplinary effort to detour individuals who are on a path towards HVE. With limited options available to law enforcement if no crime has occurred and the possibility that other community resources can help, this thesis sought to answer three important questions: How can potential homegrown violent extremists be more effectively identified before an attack takes place? Can the predictive framework of multidisciplinary team (MDT) evaluations be used to identify individuals who are more likely to commit extremism-inspired violence? Once these individuals are identified, should preventive civil detention be used to mandate participation in countering violent extremism (CVE) programs?
In order to answer these questions, the framework for MDTs in other programs related to criminal recidivism were evaluated to apply MDTs in a similar way to the evaluation of HVE threats. A series of generalized risk factors that aid the structured professional judgment (SPJ) of experts on an MDT were applied retroactively to the sampling of recent HVE cases selected for this thesis. Results from this study provided some qualitative support for the use of MDT threat evaluations to assess individual risk for HVE, but empirical evidence from other sources on the reliability of risk assessment instruments diminished support for the use of preventive detention in CVE.
Even though information related to how authorities investigated the sampling of cases in this thesis was limited because the full range of sources and methods that were used in real time are not readily available, this thesis does identify gaps in the HVE investigative process. Poor information sharing between government agencies, citizens failing to report suspicious activity, sole reliance on criminal investigation resources, not engaging other experts, and the lack of two-way communication between government officials and social service providers in the community are all argued to be weaknesses that can be ameliorated by engaging an MDT threat assessment process.
To visualize how a full range of stakeholders should interact in CVE efforts, this thesis introduces and recommends the use of a trusted contact model (TCM). The TCM is set on a wide base representing frequently used community resources. The TCM also illustrates less frequently applied levels of mental health treatment, local law enforcement intervention, and federal prosecution. All of these levels are connected by trust and knowledge among the stakeholders involved combined with reciprocal referrals that can be made between the levels.
This thesis also introduces and recommends the use of a threat assessment matrix to prioritize intervention efforts. This matrix aligns a person’s radical belief system with evidence of violent behavior to create a clear visual of which CVE techniques should be engaged at a particular point in the radicalization process. Circumstances related to a person’s beliefs and behaviors change gradually over time, or suddenly after a triggering event. Since all community and government resources for CVE programs are limited, it is important to engage the right resource at the right time to improve efficiency and efficacy.
The threat assessment matrix is designed to provide a visual reminder that certain beliefs are protected by freedom of speech but may be changed through respectful dialog. Beliefs held by an individual can become radical in comparison to the rest of the community. Once radical beliefs are expressed, it is important for the community to proactively intervene in the individual’s life to dissuade violent action. The threat assessment matrix is a visual reminder for the role government plays in the prosecution of criminal violence that occurs independently of a radical belief system and the vital role government plays in the disruption of terrorism borne out of a radical belief system that is combined with violent behavior.
The sampling of cases in this thesis was limited to the United States, but did include different types of radicalized violence. Wider data sets that include domestic and international incidents of HVE should be used in future research. Considerable research is also needed to evaluate the actual steps used in a de-radicalization process once an at-risk person is identified. Despite these limitations, MDT threat assessment models used in other circumstances and retrospective analysis of recent HVE incidents did provide qualitative support for the use of MDT threat assessments in the United States.
 Del Quentin Wilber, “The FBI Investigated the Orlando Mass Shooter for 10 Months—and Found Nothing. Here’s Why,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-fbi-investigation-mateen-20160712-snap-story.html.
 Charles Kurzman, Terrorism Cases Involving Muslim-Americans (Chapel Hill, NC: Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, 2015), http://kurzman.unc.edu/muslim-american-terrorism.