INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been a ubiquitous phrase for the past 16 years: If you see something, say something. But do you know what "somethings" you should speak up about?
Each year, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) – the agency formed following the 9/11 attacks to provide a central repository for counterterrorism information and analysis – publishes a guide for law enforcement agencies about what it calls "mobilization indicators" for homegrown violent extremists (HVE).
These mobilization indicators are signs, behaviors and activities the NCTC has determined are evidence that a person or persons may be planning to commit a violent act in support of a foreign terrorist organization like ISIS.
While the NCTC's mobilization indicators report isn't classified, it is not normally released directly to the public. Instead, it is sent to law enforcement agencies around the country. Those agencies are then "empowered" to discuss measures to protect vulnerable populations – without directly referencing the document.
RTV6 received a copy of the 2017 version of "Homegrown Violent Extremist Mobilization Indicators" published by the NCTC. The information that follows was taken from that report in the interest of better informing the public about ongoing threats from violent extremists at home and abroad.
Civilians Being Targeted More Frequently
In August 2016, a Joint Intelligence Bulletin found that homegrown violent extremists have been increasingly targeting civilians. According to the bulletin, 77 percent of the thirteen HVE attacks in the previous 12 months had focused on civilian targets.
Those attacks include the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, perpetrated by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. Farook was an American-born citizen of Pakistani descent. The investigation after the shooting suggested Farook and Malik had been radicalized in the years prior to the attack over the Internet and had amassed a large stockpile of weapons, ammunition and bomb-making equipment.
The FBI, DHS and NCTC define an HVE as "a person of any citizenship who has lived and/or operated primarily in the United States or its territories who advocates, is engaged in or is preparing to engage in ideologically motivated terrorist activities in furtherance of political or social objectives promoted by a foreign terrorist organization, but is acting independently of direction by a foreign terrorist organization."
According to the August 2016 Joint Intelligence Bulletin, HVEs like Farook and Malik focus on civilian targets because of a combination of factors, "to include perceived lower levels of security at civilian targets, a desire to select familiar targets of personal significance to simplify plotting and violent extremist messaging glorifying recent attacks on civilians."
Last week, (now former) FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress that his agency had more than 1,000 ongoing domestic terror investigations.
Former FBI agent and current ABC News contributor Brad Garrett says that number doesn't surprise him.
"My guess is the number is actually bigger than 1,000," Garrett said. "Because, think about the number of people, particularly young people, who spend hours and hours online. There's going to be a percentage of them who are looking for something. They're looking for adventure. They're action-driven and they want to get involved in weapons like you would in a video game, because it really becomes a fantasy for some of these folks, in my opinion. So you're going to get a percentage of those that you can lure into this extremist organization. I will tell you: ISIS has got some of the slickest videos out there to convince and impressionable, naïve person to perhaps join ranks with them."
Homegrown in the Hoosier State
In June 2016, the FBI announced it had arrested just such a young person who had become radicalized by the Islamic State from his home in Brownsburg, Indiana.
Federal agents raided the home of 18-year-old Akram Musleh after he allegedly booked or attempted to book several one-way flights to Iraq and Turkey. They also said they had intercepted communications intercepted from Musleh indicating he was attempting to travel to the Middle East to join the Islamic State.
In addition to trying to travel to the Middle East, the FBI alleges Musleh "conducted extensive internet searches on explosive materials, including: dynamite, flash powder, explosive precursors, instructions on constructing explosive devices and explosive chemical recipes." An agent conducting surveillance on Musleh reportedly observed him shopping for pressure cookers at the Brownsburg Walmart.
Garrett said young men like Musleh are the "ideal population" for ISIS to try to recruit.
"The reason why is, all of us in our mid-to-late teens have limited life experience. We may have issues at home. We may have other issues in our life that we're not happy. We may be lost and need direction," Garrett said. "ISIS recruiters will figure that out, and they'll actually start stepping through someone and say, look, you can come and join us. And they'll create this fantasy about what ISIS is overseas. Or, if you can't do that, help ISIS form this worldwide caliphate that you can be part of. This really goes to people feeling like they have some identity – that they have power. And, maybe more importantly, people are paying attention to them and telling them they are worthwhile and that this is a very worthwhile project to be involved in. All of that becomes, for some people, very intoxicating and they end up taking steps to either support terrorism or actually get involved."
What to Look For
Homegrown violent extremists like Musleh, Farook, the Tsarnaev brothers (who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombing) and others all have something in common: they were someone's friend, brother, son, neighbor, classmate, etc.
Garrett said law enforcement agencies – from local police departments up to the FBI – rely on people being willing to look at something their friend or family member is doing and then ask themselves the hard question of, "Could this be a sign of extremism?"
"Law enforcement is at the mercy of knowing about someone who is about to launch an attack," Garrett said. "Think about it this way: If someone was about to rob a bank in Indianapolis, obviously IMPD would stop them if they knew about it. If they didn't know about it, the bank would get robbed and then they'd start reactively trying to figure out who robbed the bank. It's really the same thing with terrorism. If you know about it and you get in front of it, then you've got the potential to control it or just completely stop it."
Knowing what to look for is where the NCTC's mobilization indicators come in. The NCTC has broken the indicators into three categories:
Group A consists of things that are very strong indicators on their own of extremist activity.
Preparing and disseminating a last will or martyrdom statement
Seeking help from family or friends to enable travel to join terrorist groups overseas
Planning or attempting to travel to a conflict zone to fight with or support an FTO
Seeking religious or political justification for violent acts
Attempting to mobilize others, especially family members and close friends
Group B are moderate indicators, but become stronger when observed with other signs.
Obtaining or attempting to obtain explosive precursors
Leakage demonstrating commitment or intent to engage in violent extremist activity (e.g. posting terrorist icons/flags/prominent figures to social media)
Expressing acceptance of violence as a necessary means to achieve ideological goals
Attempting to radicalize others, especially family members and close friends
Creating or joining an exclusive group that promotes violence to rectify perceived grievances
Conducting suspicious financial transactions
Creating or engaging in physical or virtual simulations of an attack/assault
Employing counter surveillance techniques
Changing behavior or using linguistic expressions that reflect new sense of purpose relating to violent extremist causes
Encouraging or advocating violence toward U.S. military officials, law enforcement, or civilians
Group C consists of things that are not necessarily strong indicators on their own – and which might, in fact, be totally lawful activities – but which can, in conjunction with other signs, indicate possible interest in extremist activity.
Unusual purchase of military-style tactical equipment
Suspicious, unexplained or illicit acquisition of weapons and/or ammunition
Selling personal assets/belongings in an unusual manner
Engaging in violent ideologically motivated outbursts/fights with family, friends, religious authorities, fellow employees, or students
Blaming external factors for failure in school, career or relationships
Displaying an unstable mental state and violent behavior
Switching from one violent extremist ideology to another
Becoming increasingly isolated by breaking contact with family and friends, particularly if believed to be associated with violent extremist doctrine or ideology
Garrett said knowing those indicators, and being willing to report suspicious activity to law enforcement, is the key to preventing potential future attacks.
"I think it's really important for everyone to know about some of these indicators, with the total understanding that, in a vast majority of these cases, nobody really wants to do anything," Garrett said. "They may be troubled, they may be talking about it, they don't like the United States, they think ISIS is cool – whatever it may be – but it sort of stops at that point. The real key here is intervening and figuring out why that person is troubled and seeing if that can be fixed."