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By: Jonathan D. Greenstein
This article is a continuation in the discussion of self-initiated violent actors (SIVAs) and the asymmetric threat they pose. This article is the independent work of the author. Any conclusions, inferences or otherwise are the authors own and should not be taken as the official position of any agency. The author welcomes constructive comments and input, pleases direct correspondence to: email@example.com
Publications such as Inspire provide a tangible product that a follower of Al Qaeda (AQ) can tote around like a badge of honor. They catch up on the latest news from the Jihad and glean operational guidance from its pages. While there has yet to be an open source report of the recent self-initiated violent actors having a copy of Inspire in their possession, it is a near certainty that they had opportunity to and likely read one of the recent editions. It is also likely that they devoted countless hours online in one of the numerous English language forums devoted to Jihad. Jihadist forums provide a collection of and links to videos, audio clips, general propaganda, images of battle, how-to guides and spiritual guidance; albeit skewed. Propaganda can be inspirational or directional; giving the reader ideas for potential targets and in developing operational plans. To even the casual follower, the orgy of violence and slanted ideological interpretations on these sites serve to foment the rage that is needed to move from interested party to the self-initiated violent actor. The rage builds and leads to action. Jihad websites and its associated mediums serve a purpose for SIVAs; it reinforces their beliefs; foments their perceptions; sustains them; drives them and provides them with either the fatwa or nullification needed to cross over into an act of violence. It becomes their belief that they have a mandate. It becomes their belief that they are following a holy decree. For us, it becomes the driver leading to a terrorist driven attack. For us, it becomes casualties. The more exposure a SIVA has to this diatribe, the greater the erosion of barriers that may exist. It is through this exposure that the gap between that of a supporter and a self-initiating perpetrator of violence is closed. While not discounting the potential for a person to randomly act out in a case of sudden range, I would proffer that a greater number SIVAs devoted an increasing amount of time exposing themselves to radical materials in the time before taking action than those who act without exposure to these sites or related mediums. To support this position, one need only review open source reporting on two recent self-initiated actors; Zachary Chesser and Colleen Rose (Jihad Jane). In both cases the process of self-radicalization was similar. Both were converts to Islam who underwent significant radicalization in the outside world and later became regular, active participants in the online jihad forums. It was through these forums that the developed operational concepts and postulated clear, unequivocal indicators. Understood and critically important is to respect that no matter how offensive and patently false the content of these sites or the pages of Inspire may be, the mere reading and to a fair degree, participation in online discussions; such conduct is generally protected conduct in the United States and most democratic nations. Appropriate measures must be taken to ensure that their freedom of speech is not encroached upon. Provided that the subject is not postulating threats, their participation in these forums is their right; however misguided and potentially dangerous. Of course should they issue a credible threat or engage in illegal activity, appropriate action should be taken.
Who are SIVAs The term self-initiated violent actor (SIVA) was coined to make clear the distinction between those who are tasked to conduct acts of violence and those who strike out on their own. Given the ever growing lexicon, the question as to why another term; why another acronym is certainly expected. My response is simple. I found that the use of general terms such as Homegrown Violent Extremist (HVE) narrowed the focus to the homegrown threat. In its current use, a HVE can be mission tasked by AQ itself, an affiliate group or other entity. For me, the term homegrown violent extremist has its place, but fails to capture the nature of what a self-initiated is: someone who self-initiates an act or acts of violence without command direction. They tend to have very limited direct contact, if any, with AQ or its affiliates. Noted is my alignment with but approach in difference to clinical methodologies. While I respect and value the diversity of work done on the psychological and sociological assessments of violent actors, I have made the conscious decision to approach the topic of SIVAs from a different perspective. My person centered context is hoped to be the divergence approach that will allow a fresh look at those who seek to strike out on their own in acts of violence. I would maintain that they are failures. While they perceive themselves as a success in jihad if they conduct a successful attack or commit shahada, they are only successful in their own minds and perhaps in the minds of those who subscribe to the same beliefs. To any sane, grounded person, the perpetrators of terroristic acts are not heroic warriors defending the faith; they are easily swayed sheep who were pulled into the senseless world of terrorism. Noted is that this assessment is of the person and not the actual attack. In reality, nearly every action taken by our enemies can be touted as a success in one form or another. My assessment and position is that the SIVA has failed to attain a satisfying station in life; that failure leads them to seek out a means to capture some degree success through self-aggrandizing activity. SIVAs are not true warriors, they are likely marginal figures in the world that exists outside their minds. Those who would bolster their skewed self perceptions are likely doing so with one goal in mind; to foment action. While the case of a successful, well educated and well regarded person engaging in acts of violence is not unheard of, when we discuss the case of the SIVA, I would maintain that the vast majority of past and likely future SIVAs will fall into this typing. They are want-to-be Warriors. They have no true appreciation of what war or battles are like outside the sphere of video games and artfully edited videos on YouTube. While they have been exposed to thousands of images depicting violence, the depictions are carefully crafted. Just as we see impressionable youth muster into the various services in pursuit of combat, SIVAs will engage in self-initiated jihad based on their skewed view, lacking true appreciation of what lies ahead. The main difference is that modern militaries appreciate the motivation of some to join up for the sole purpose of battle and have capable mentors to steer them in the right direction while assessing them for suitability. In cases where a military enlistee is found unfit, there are processes and procedures. While attrition rates from jihad will likely never be quantifiable but we can look at some recent cases where a SIVA sought to join the jihad but were found unfit and were sent away. They subsequently returned and took action on their own accord. It would seem that even AQ has a process to weed out those who lack the capability or wherewithal to be a successful operative, even in a martyrdom operation. For self-initiators, there is no steering but towards criminal violence. Because they act on their own, there is no means to judge them suitable, even for jihad, they act alone.
SIVA Martyrdom Operations When we look at SIVAs who seek to die in a martyrdom or shahada operation, we must appreciate that a good number of attacks can be termed de facto suicide operations when in fact they were not planned as such. Given the historical review of terrorist attacks, a vast majority ended with the actors being killed, but the killing of the perpetrators or even self inflicted injuries that resulted in their subsequent death does not in itself make it a suicide operation. I would frame a suicide operation as one that is planned with the death of the SIVA as a primary component. While the ability to forecast terrorist attacks beyond the speculative is a near impossibility, it is important to note that instances of suicide attacks have risen dramatically. Data shows that from the 1980s to 1990 there were approximately five documented cases. 1991 to 2000 showed a near tripling and 2001-2005 a jump into the hundreds. Given the trend towards suicide operations and taking into account the self perceived glory of shahada; it is not difficult to imagine a rise in SIVA suicide operations. What kind of person would engage in a suicide operation? I would proffer that some of the same indicators of conventional suicide, coupled with propensity to self-initiate violence would be a good aim point. I maintain that just as a SIVA can come from nearly any walk of life, so can and likely will one who elects to conduct a suicide operation. Not to dismiss the impact of a suicide operation or weigh it differently than another form of attack, but in the end the goal is to identify potential self-initiated violent actors. Behavioral Indicators Some of these behavioral indicators cover both SIVAs and mission-tasked actors. Given that SIVAs act on their own accord, the ability to leverage confidential sources is somewhat reduced, but this does not change potentially observable behaviors. ● New or increased violent rhetoric. Particularly following a significant event; such as a victory by their group. Just as important is a drastic change following a loss suffered by their group. Victories can include successfully attacks, high profile media coverage or measured capitulation by their perceived enemies. Losses can include disrupted plots, deaths of leadership, notable sways in public opinion and bad press. It should be noted that these are subjective and what is viewed in one light by us can be viewed from a completely different perspective by a SIVA. ● Obsession with violent Jihad depictions. This is where a SIVA shares some common elements with other violent actors; they seek out videos and first-hand accounts that portray the glorious aspects of battle. Like a drug, they use it to sustain themselves. ● Shunning of non-violent ideals. Both SIVAs and those tasked by higher authorities are likely to align themselves with postulators of violence; be it religious or other justification. Where a SIVA may bear a unique indicator is that they may never seek formal council. While they subscribe to a particular group “mission statement” they may never actually communicate directly with the group; opting to act on their own. ● In cases where the SIVA intends to commit a suicide attack there may be additional potential indicators such as: -Agitated or excited state quickly changing to an apparent calm demeanor -Gifting of important or valuable possessions -Marked change in appearance such as shaving of a long worn beard -Writing of a will, filming of a goodbye video or similar
Potential SIVA Pre-operational Indicators As we know, the attack cycle includes development of an initial or broad target list; initial/low lever surveillance of potential targets; refinement of target list based on observations during surveillance; increased surveillance of selected target(s); attack planning and rehearsal; finalization of pre-operational actions and then the attack. The following pre-operational indicators may indicate activity at one of the stages of the attack cycle:
●Sudden interest in symbolic cities or targets ●Increased interest in any recent terrorist plots and discussion as to lessons learned ●Changes in routine, travel patterns and other counter-surveillance activity ●Seeking employment with or access to critical infrastructure points, potential targets and the like ●Efforts to obtain implements that could be used in an attack. This would include weapons, ammunition, explosives and/or chemicals ●Research beyond the casually curious into the construction of explosives or other devices.
Interest in high profile locations. These can be previous attack locations or those that hold significance to the SIVA and/or their affiliated group. Engaging in surveillance activity. As demonstrated by evidence uncovered following the Times Square VBIED Plot; the ability to conduct remote target selection and initial surveillance through publically accessible platforms remains a viable tool for actors. Even with remote capabilities, it is very likely that a SIVA will conduct in-person target site assessments. This is the period when most acts can be either deferred or detected. Seeking employment at, with, or access to potential targets. Like any other criminal, a SIVA will likely seek out opportunities to gain insight to a target location. If the SIVA is planning an “inside job”, the most probable route will be through employment at the target location or in a position that will provide access. Despite the austere job market, when other potential indicators are coupled with a drastic divergence from one type of work to one that provides access to a facility of interest5, you may have cause for concern and increased interest. Possession of unusual documents, maps, photos and related materials. This can be indicative of operational planning or an aspiration. A SIVA who poses an insider threat concern could be an individual who seeks out or is found to have these materials or information outside the scope of their role within an organization. This, coupled with potential behavioral indicators would likely be cause for further inquiry. Acquisition or attempts to acquire precursor chemicals, excessive ammunition and weapons. This is another critical point in pre-operational activities when plots are detected and disrupted. Frequently, it is during the process of assembling the tools needed to execute their mission that SIVAs and mission tasked actors are identified and subsequently apprehended. Unfortunately, the ability to detect actions at this stage has been highlighted by the simplicity of recent attacks, the use of readily available and seemingly innocuous implements.
Increased secrecy about activities and associates. While a SIVA may closely associate with a particular group prior to their self initiated action; openly posting on public forums, attending meetings, hosting group members or otherwise maintaining a visible affiliation, it is probable that such contacts will show a marked decrease as they reach a point just prior to acting. A caveat is that the decision to act can be predicated by any number of factors and is largely driven by the individual and their mindset at the time. Though the act may appear spontaneous, it was likely well thought out beforehand. A marked change in their public profile may be indicative of action in the near-term. The presence or absence of an indicator is not an absolute indication that a person intends to engage in an act of violence, but they can be leveraged as an additional tool used in the development of cause to open or continue inquiry. They are just as valuable to an experienced law enforcement officer as they are to a civilian observer. I believe that even if given the opportunity to examine the individual paths taken from detached person to self initiated violent actor, I am unsure that we will identify common elements beyond those highlighted. Given the dynamics of individual behaviors and the myriad of influences that chart the course of daily life, I question the viability of even the most refined clinical tool as being truly predictive of a person’s move from bystander to violent actor in the context of terrorism. Despite an individual’s alignment with a particular group, as a SIVA, by virtue of being self-initiated, they are acting on their own. Conclusion The path to radicalization for a self-initiated violent actor (SIVA) is one undertaken for a variety of reasons. Some SIVAs delve into jihad for lack of anything else of interest them; others because they are listless and have a need to latch onto a cause; and yet others are nudged towards the steady stream of hate filled propaganda by nefarious elements. Along the way they are exposed to proselytizing by radicals. They are fed a steady stream extolling the glory of jihad and instilled with the belief that their cause is a just one. Because the message tends to be singular, there is nothing along the way that would dissuade them from their path towards violence. Perhaps the offering of a moderate voice, a reasonable view, and a different path will provide a new direction for potential SIVAs. This will require a credible and respected means to communicate these messages; and in a manner that doesn’t compete with but cancels out the hate filled. Perhaps this voice will be heard sooner than later. Perhaps.
This article was written as part of a professional development exercise and does not reflect the official position or policies of the author’s employer. Inferences and conclusions are the authors own. This article may be copied and shared with the understanding that it is not to be used as part of a commercial enterprise.
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