'Home Grown' Jihadis And Invisible Gorillas About Equally Dangerous To U.S. Americans

Blogging is largely a matter of finding the right stuff to write about. For instance, we see that theWashington Post has a new political science blog feature called "The Monkey Cage" -- from the H.L. Mencken quote, "Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage." And its first post is this really thoughtful, well-informed essay on why, even after the mall attack in Kenya, which may have included some al Shabaab recruits who came from America, we probably don't need to be excessively freaked out about the threat that foreign-trained jihadis pose to Our Way Of Life. This is some serious, research-based policy analysis by Thomas Hegghammer, a "political scientist and historian at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment," and he really seems to know what he's talking about.

On the other hand, we also got a tip on this HuffPo story about a guy in Decatur, Tennessee Alabama,* who shot up his own living room with a shotgun to fend off an attack from imaginary gorillas. You can see how we'd be torn.

But then we figured, hey, why not just Thomas Friedman this sucker and write about BOTH?

In Tennessee Alabama* -- which is an admirable state full of many admirable people who are no loonier than any of the other 56 states, even the one *you* live in -- an unidentified man called 911 Tuesday afternoon to report that gorillas were in his backyard. At some point during the call, the man stopped talking to police but left the line open, and police heard several gunshots over the phone.

Once police arrived, they determined that the man had fired several shots into a wall while sitting in a recliner; the man was taken to a local emergency room for a mental evaluation. Police said that no charges would be filed. Presumably no gorillas were found, although the Decatur Daily does not state that definitively.

On the other hand, Thomas Hegghammer attempts to answer several questions about the guerrillas who come from our own backyard (How's THAT for a Friedmanesque transistion?):

Why do some Western jihadists attack at home while others fight abroad? Moreover, if jihadists are so keen to attack the West, why do some of them leave, given that they are already “behind enemy lines”? And how worried should we be about the prospect of foreign fighters returning to perpetrate terrorist attacks?

Hegghammer, whose blog post is drawn from a more detailed article he published in the American Political Science Review, concludes that while substantial numbers of Western-raised jihadis have gone to fight in conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, we would be mistaken to assume that they pose a threat that would warrant blowing our national living room all to hell with a shotgun. He summarizes his major findings:

  • Foreign fighting is by far the most common activity. Foreign fighters outnumber domestic attackers by at least 3 to 1 (over 900 vs. 300 individuals over 20 years).
  • Western jihadists seem to prefer foreign fighting for normative reasons. They heed religious authorities who consider fighting in warzones more legitimate than killing civilians in Western cities.
  • Most foreign fighters appear not to leave with the intention to train for a domestic operation. However, a minority do acquire this motivation after their departure.
  • Most foreign fighters never return for domestic plots. In my data, at most 1 in 9 foreign fighters came home to roost.
  • Those foreign fighters who do return are significantly more effective operatives than non-veterans. They act as entrepreneurs and concoct plots that are twice as likely to kill.
  • While foreign-trained jihadis do exist, and have participated in domestic attacks, Hegghammer concludes that "foreign fighters as a group pose somewhat less of a terrorist threat to the West than is often assumed" and that the majority go off to pursue jihad elsewhere and are never heard from again in the West. To prevent wasting resources, he suggests that

    A first step toward a more efficient counterterrorism strategy is to differentiate between outgoing and homecoming foreign fighters and focus resources on the latter. Some countries might consider going a little lighter on outgoing foreign fighters.

    Now before Pam Geller says he's saying let's give up on tracking foreign terrists, weakness, surrender, creeping sharia! what he's really getting at is that while we should still try to deter people from going to join foreign conflicts, we should also not be as worried about the guys who are leaving as we are about the few who come back, which is where he suggests intelligence should be concentrated.

    Hegghamer also says that we need to more carefully study why some conflicts seem to spin off domestic terrorists than others -- for instance, the Afghan/Pakistani conflicts have resulted in several returnees who plotted attacks on Western targets, while "Somalia has hardly produced any." The likeliest factor is the declared intention of the organization they join up with -- al Qaeda says it's at war with the West, and acts like it, while al Shabaab hasn't. Is Syria going to spawn fighters who return to the West to cause trouble? Probably depends on which of the many rebel factions they join up with, and they are not all the same, no matter how much the anti-Muslim blogosphere yells that they are. He closes,

    we can take comfort in the finding that most jihadis choose foreign fighting because they do not want to be terrorists.

    Lesson to Americans in their recliners: assuming that all Muslims are at war with you is going to waste a lot of your counter-terror efforts and just leave holes in your walls, so be careful where you're pointing that shotgun, mmmkay?

    Disparate sources: Combined! Flawless blogging victory!

    Now we just need to figure out what to make of this other HuffPo teaser link: "Firefighter Pooped On Floor: Police"

    *Correction: The imaginary-gorilla scare took place in Decatur, Alabama, not Tennessee. The error originated with HuffPo, which also said Tennessee when aggregating the story from DecaturDaily.com, whose masthead reads "The Independent Voice of the Tennessee Valley Since 1912." The Decatur Daily article does not include "Alabama" in the location, complicating matters for outsiders. Thanks to alert commenter "rowanboatman" for the clarification!

    [HuffPo via tip from Lisa Z / WaPo / American Political Science Review]

    Doktor Zoom

    Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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