Read the full comprehensive report, Homegrown Islamic Extremism in 2013: The Perils of Online Recruitment & Self-Radicalization (PDF).
The Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 served as a tragic reminder of the persistent threat posed to the United States by homegrown extremists motivated by the ideologies and objectives commonly propagated by Islamic terrorist movements overseas. The bombing also underscored the significant influence and impact of online terrorist propaganda on a new generation of homegrown Islamic extremists.
As Internet proficiency and the use of social media grow ever-more universal, so too do the efforts of terrorist groups to exploit new technology in order to make materials that justify and sanction violence more accessible and practical. Terrorist groups are not only using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and various other platforms to spread their messages, but also to actively recruit adherents who live in the communities they seek to target.
Face-to-face interaction with terrorist operatives is no longer a requirement for radicalization. Individual extremists, or lone wolves, are increasingly self-radicalizing online with no physical interactions with established terrorist groups or cells – a development that can make it more difficult for law enforcement to detect plots in their earliest stages.
In his testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security in February, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson directly acknowledged this risk and the need “to address the threats we face from those who self-radicalize to violence, the so-called lone wolf who may be living quietly in our midst, inspired by radical, violent ideology to do harm to Americans – illustrated last year by the Boston Marathon bombing.”
In 2013, 14 American citizens or permanent residents were implicated in the U.S. on terror-related charges, ranging from domestic plots and conspiracies to providing material support to terrorists abroad. Many were directly influenced by propaganda easily accessible on online.
And this number does not account for all the Americans that have traveled to or attempted to travel to Syria to fight with militants, including Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, according to U.S. intelligence officials. Nor does it account for foreign nationals that have been arrested in the U.S. on terror related charges.
While the fundamental ideological content of terrorist propaganda has remained consistent for two decades – replete with militant condemnations of perceived American transgressions against Muslims worldwide, appeals for violence and anti-Semitism – terrorists groups are now able to reach, recruit and motivate homegrown extremists more quickly and effectively than ever before by adapting their messages to new technology. One clear indication of the success of these efforts is the number of homegrown extremists that have been found in possession of terrorist propaganda.
Although most homegrown Islamic extremists have lacked the capacity to carry out violent attacks – plots have been foiled by law enforcement at various stages – the Boston bombing showed how two brothers influenced by online terrorist propaganda can terrorize our communities and undermine our security.