When Terry Lee Loewen allegedly attempted to blow up Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, his case became part of a recent surge in homegrown jihad-inspired terrorist plots.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and through the end of August 2013, federal authorities say they have discovered 71 such plots that were planned to take place either on American or foreign soil.
Fifty of those have come since April 2009, according to a report titled “American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat” and written by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan branch of the Library of Congress.
Five of those 71 actually occured, including April’s Boston Marathon bombing and the 2009 shooting at the Army’s Fort Hood in Texas, the report says.
The uptick in discovering the plots is both real and the result of improved intelligence and sharing of that information between law enforcement jurisdictions, authorities and experts say.
Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI special agent who spent his 20-year career working in the bureau’s Kansas City field office, said better surveillance and cooperation has “enhanced the FBI’s ability to get involved in these investigations before they result in actual attacks.”
At the same time, he noted that the federal government in general – including the FBI and military – has destroyed a lot of the capabilities of international terrorist groups like al-Qaida to launch broad-scale attacks such as 9/11.
“So what the terrorists have left is the smaller attacks that can be undertaken by people in the United States, who can operate under the radar screen,” Lanza said. “They are already U.S. citizens who they can radicalize and use them to do these types of attacks.”
There are some people who become “self-radicalized,” he added. “They aren’t getting help from anybody else. They’re just doing it.”
The feds have a name for that: lone wolves.
Lone wolf terrorists
Seven of the 71 plots on the list are tagged as being those of lone wolf terrorists, including Nidal Hasan, the former Army major who was convicted of killing 13 people during the Fort Hood shooting rampage.
In Loewen’s detention hearing Friday, a prosecutor called the the 58-year-old Wichita native the “definition of a lone wolf terrorist” in arguing that he should remain in jail because he could act on his own and continue to be a threat to the public.
Others say the lone-wolf tag is incorrect because it’s rare for someone to truly act alone, even if it’s no more than drawing information from terrorist sites on the Internet.
Inspire magazine has been singled out by authorities as a source for homegrown terrorists to find everything from information on how to make bombs to motivation to carry out their plans. An English-language online publication, Inspire is reportedly published by al-Qaida and is called a violent jihadist magazine by federal law enforcement.
Loewen and the accused Boston Marathon bombers are among those who have cited reading Inspire, according to reports and criminal complaints.
“Someone wrote Inspire magazine and placed it out there,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, who is on the House Intelligence Committee. “In my judgment, there’s nothing lone about that.”
Pompeo wasn’t weighing in on Loewen’s detention hearing but rather was addressing the broader use of the lone wolf term by the federal government. He said that term has become politicized as a way of stating the threat of terrorism has been reduced.
“This idea that these people all across America are acting alone fundamentally misunderstands the terrorist threat,” he said. “The tools to fuel the growth of terrorism don’t always come from home.”
Regardless, officials say the Internet and social media have played a role in people becoming familiar with terrorist networks and ideals and means to learn about tactics.
Those resources have helped spread the increase in homegrown terrorists, who often don’t have access to terrorist-training camps and other outside assistance, experts say.
“The ability to communicate, to search the Internet helps support your cause,” said Lanza, the ex-FBI agent. “If I’m a homegrown terrorist and decide to take out some revenge on the United States, it’s much easier to do that today under the radar than prior to the Internet and social media sites. People now can get and share more information readily.”
Mark Randol, a former director of counterterrorism policy for the Department of Homeland Security and a retired senior analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said recent congressional efforts to limit the public’s access to terrorist-oriented sites or to close down those sites are misguided.
“A lot of people get very upset with the Internet and its role in radicalization in terms of training and how to build bombs,” he said. “But the fact is the Internet is not a permissive environment for terrorists because that’s where the police are.
“Let me tell you who the first people are who are going to say, ‘Don’t do that.’ It’s the FBI, because that’s how they catch the terrorists.”
No workable definition
Federal authorities define homegrown terrorist activity as any plot initiated within the United States or abroad by American citizens, legal permanent residents or visitors radicalized largely within the country, according to the CRS report.
Of the 71 on the most recent list, 31 plots involved individuals interested in becoming foreign fighters in conflicts that involved violent jihad. Forty-one had U.S. targets on their radar, and three were threatening both American and foreign targets.
Thirty of the 71 were described as Muslim converts.
Besides the Fort Hood shooting and Boston bombing, the two other homegrown terrorists on the list who carried out their plots on U.S. soil are:
• Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar, who in 2006 drove his SUV through the Pit, a popular student gathering spot near the University of North Carolina campus, and injured nine people. He told authorities he wanted to “avenge the deaths of murders of Muslims around the world.” He was sentenced in 2008 to 33 years in prison.
• Abdulhakim Muhammad, the son of a Memphis businessman who was a converted Muslim, who in 2009 went to an Army-Navy recruiting center in Little Rock, where he shot and killed a soldier and wounded another. In a letter to the judge, he claimed ties to al-Qaida and dubbed himself a soldier for the organization.
The fifth homegrown plot that was carried out came in 2003 in Kuwait, where Hakan Akbar, a U.S. soldier, killed two Army officers and wounded others because he didn’t want to kill “my Muslim brothers fighting for Saddam Hussein.”
There isn’t a workable profile for a homegrown violent jihadist, experts say.
While one study has shown some broad trends, such as two-thirds of them are men and younger than 30, Lanza said, “I don’t think there is a typical profile.”
“Sometimes their motives are separate and distinct,” he added. “If there is a common thread, they are unhappy with their lives. They want to express their unhappiness against someone and ignite some sort of revenge.”
In the pre-9/11 days, the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was motivated by Timothy McVeigh’s anger over what he perceived as the government’s mishandling of the 1993 Waco siege and the Ruby Ridge incident a year earlier.
Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, who conducted a nationwide bombing campaign between 1978 and 1995, saw the growth of technology as restricting freedoms. There is uniform agreement among analysts and authorities that he truly was a lone wolf terrorist.
Prisons have often been cited as fertile ground for breeding homegrown terrorists, but the CRS report cites only one incident of the 71 plots coming as the result of the instigator being radicalized in prison.
Studies also show homegrown terrorists are less likely to die in the process of committing violent jihad. Of the 71 plots, 16 included plans for the terrorists to kill themselves, according to the CRS report.
Michael Ungar, an author, family therapist and social work professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said homegrown terrorists “are looking for power,” and violent jihadism seems to attract many.
“It’s the flavor of the day,” he said. “We’re all violent 2-year-olds, but we’re taught to control ourselves.”
Some don’t learn that as well, Ungar added.
But they can learn from what they see going on in the world, such as bombings and school shootings.
“Thirty years ago, you wouldn’t see a Sandy Hook,” Ungar said, referring to the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. “We have handed a script to these people.
“They are fishing around, and they think these jihadists have an answer. They want to get the biggest bang to get notoriety.”
Leonard Zeskind, president of the Kansas City-based Institute of Research and Education on Human Rights, said he’s concerned about what he considers the shifting definition of terrorism by the government.
“The KKK was killing people in the South under the same terms, which is no terms at all,” he said, “but they weren’t called terrorists.
“They’re paying more attention to this crap now than they used to, and I’m glad of that. But I’m still waiting for some firm lines in the sand. Historically, the definition has been loosey-goosey.”
Nearly 100 terrorist plots have been waged in America since 1995 by some of the more than 1,000 hate groups in the United States, according to a recent report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Finding homegrown terrorists
The inability to get a clear picture of what a homegrown violent jihadist looks like also creates problems for law enforcement.
It’s hard to defend against what you can’t identify, experts and authorities say.
“There are 320 million people in the United States,” ex-FBI agent Lanza said, “so you can fly under the radar very easily. You have a person come into this country on a student visa; they attract the attention of authorities for whatever reason. They’re going to have trouble being under the radar.
“But with someone who grows up in this country, how do you single these people out unless they commit an overt act? There are a lot of unhappy 22-year-olds. So if that’s the only common thread, you don’t have much to go on.”
Authorities are getting much better at figuring it out, though
The FBI is the nation’s lead agency for investigating terrorism. Prior to 9/11, the bureau spent 30 percent of its time on national security issues and had 10,000 agents on the streets.
Now the FBI spends 50 percent of its efforts on terrorism and has added 4,000 agents since 9/11. The FBI also has greatly improved its ability at sorting through what to pursue.
Randol, the former Homeland Security official and senior CRS analyst, recalled that shortly after 9/11, his 8-year-old nephew went on the Internet to do research for a school project on the bubonic plague that wreaked havoc in Europe centuries ago. Somehow, that online search threw up a red flag for the FBI.
“Two FBI agents showed up at his door and wanted to talk to him,” Randol said.
The matter was quickly resolved, and the agents realized they had better things to do.
While Lanza wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the bureau’s surveillance tactics, he said, “Lots of things go into it besides sitting down and watching things.
“They have created software that spot key words, but they’re not going to sit on sites forever,” Randol said. “When it’s clear the guy isn’t doing anything, the FBI is gone. They can’t afford to waste time.”
Entrapment has been used as a defense for some homegrown jihad terrorists, saying the defendants wouldn’t have gone so far if not led along by agents. But such a defense isn’t going to get much traction with U.S. juries, he said.
“There’s not a jury in the country that has bought the entrapment theory,” Randol said. “There are two crimes in the United States that if the government gets evidence on you, you’re screwed: terrorism and anything related to child porn.”