American jihadis: Where are they coming from, where are they going?

Jytte Klausen has DOJ funding to look at the role of social networking

In March, Mohamed Merah, a 23-year old Frenchman with extremist Islamist beliefs, shot and killed seven people in three separate attacks in Toulouse and its suburbs. Merah died in a shootout with the police after a 32-hour stand-off. During the siege, he tweeted copiously and gave interviews to French journalists. Merah is often described as an instance of what has become known as a “Lone Wolf” terrorist, but a different picture, of a man deeply embedded in an extremist network stretching from France to the Middle East and Pakistan, emerges from the systematic coding by Jytte Klausen and her colleagues of publicly available information about Merah's travels and contacts. Palantir Technologies's sophisticated platform allows them to code and analyze large amounts of information, and to produce a comprehensive picture like this one of how extremist networks develop transnational capacities.

Jytte Klausen, the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation

Jytte Klausen, the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, has received a $459,969 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to research the role of social networks in the evolution of Al Qaeda-inspired violence in the United States. 

The grant is one of seven made by the National Institute of Justice for study of domestic radicalization.

Klausen’s research will build on the work of the Western Jihadism Project, which she and post-doctoral fellow Eliane Tschaen Barbieri, Ph.D. ’10, started in 2006 to improve available data on Al Qaeda and counter-terrorism activities. She has received funding previously from the Home Office in the United Kingdom.

The project so far has amassed and analyzed information on 2,850 people involved in jihadi networks in the West. The new work will create a database of an estimated 500 American citizens and residents who are associated with jihadist terrorism domestically or abroad. A control group will be constructed of Americans apprehended and convicted in connection with offenses related to Hamas and Hezbollah.

A key question to be explored in the new research, which will examine the last 20 years, is whether domestic recruitment to violent Islamist extremism occurs primarily in identifiable immigrant, ethnic or national groups or is random.

While high-profile attacks such as 9/11 and the London subway bombings have led many to conclude that Islamist extremists come from certain ethnicities, Klausen said, “over the last 10 years, we have seen a high number of converts with no immigrant background, no Muslim background, who were middle-class, suburban kids growing up.”

Such a trend is of vital importance to local and national intelligence and police agencies that must put in place counter-terrorism strategies.

“If the [jihadi] movement is related to immigration of people with grievances, then you can reasonably predict who will join up,” explains Klausen, who specializes in Muslim communities in Europe and America. But if recruitment is more socially random, such predictions won’t work and tactics such as profiling will be a waste of time and money.

There are two extremely different ideas about terrorism committed in the name of Islam. One holds that it is ordered from abroad and that al Qaeda is really like an international corporation. The other is that most domestic terrorists aspire to Qaeda-like actions, but have no direct connection to the organization. 

Klausen’s DOJ grant will support two researchers and two graduate students for 27 months, beginning Jan. 1.

They will work on four principal questions:

  • Is domestic recruitment to violent Islamist extremism socially random or segmented?
  • How integrated are domestic networks with the global Islamist extremist movement and with the leadership of Al Qaeda and other organizations abroad?
  • Is Internet-based recruitment and proselytizing driven by jihadist organizations, self-radicalized cells or individuals?
  • Is there a predictable individual trajectory toward violent radicalization?

Al Qaeda demands continued attention, Klausen said, because “it is the most lethal terrorist organization we have ever had, and it is already way beyond the expected lifecycle of terrorist organizations. It is intergenerational; it has been able to replicate itself to a surprising degree.”

Answers to the questions she and her team will be exploring will assist governments in “figuring out where the weight of our [preventive] effort should be – transnational enforcement structures or domestic deradicalization,” she said.

Several Brandeisians will be on Klausen’s team, including Tschaen Barbieri, her original collaborator; Zachary Herman ’12 and Adrianne Roach, who is currently studying for her master’s degree in international and global studies.

The team will use a highly sophisticated software platform provided free by Palantir Technologies to analyze its mass of data on associations among thousands of individuals in and around major jihadi networks. Klausen says the project already has 20,000 data points and estimates there will be 40,000 by the conclusion of the work.

“This is an extraordinary gift,” Klausen said. “We couldn’t do this work without it.”

When completed, the data will be uploaded to Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research computers at the University of Michigan.

Categories: International Affairs, Research

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