The September 11, 2001, terror attacks radically changed how America does intelligence work and how it monitors and battles extremism. The transformation that 9/11 brought about was top-to-bottom, from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to public messaging instructing citizens, “if you see something, say something.” Law enforcement now had to confront a new type of criminality, harder to define and detect but critical to stop.
The New York City Police Department far outpaced other municipal police agencies in this new role. Taking office on New Year’s Day 2002, Commissioner Ray Kelly launched a largescale reorganization, creating from scratch an apparatus to monitor threats to New York, to pursue counterterrorism investigations, and to collaborate with other agencies. Kelly capitalized on the NYPD’s unique features, including an abundance of uniformed officers with immigrant backgrounds and foreign language fluencies.
Since 2001, investigations have shifted from an initial focus on al-Qaida to different threats: the increased activity of the Pakistani Taliban, inter-group fighting in Yemen, and the rise and global spread of ISIS. U.S. actions, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 or the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, have also affected the city’s threat landscape. But the focus of the intelligence community as a whole has shifted even more in recent years. Forty-one individuals from New York State have been arrested in connection with the Capitol riot on January 6. Beyond New York, violent domestic extremists spanning the political spectrum have forced law enforcement to reevaluate how it defines terrorism and how flexibly post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies and tactics can be applied.
Indeed, homegrown violent extremism now consumes the lion’s share of resources of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and other units that track extremist threats. From the Atomwaffen to Antifa, radical groups use social media as a medium for recruitment and mobilization, forcing police to widen their counter-extremism monitoring efforts from Islamist Facebook chats to the ever-mutating world of open content-sharing platforms and encrypted sites. Intelligence analysts can recite which groups prefer which platforms: Gab is for QAnon; Worldpress is favored by Accelerationists; BitChute is popular with white supremacists and militants. The January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol was livestreamed on blockchain via DLive.
Though they are increasingly forming active militias, black supremacist movements are hard to track because they livestream and podcast their material, platforms more time-intensive to review or monitor. Blog Talk Radio, Zoom, and Clubhouse are preferred by such militant groups as Melanated People, Black Junction, and Black Planet. Black supremacy poses a particular danger to law enforcement, its main target for violence. Meantime, on the far Right, message boards like 4chan, 8chan, 16chan, and 8kun are used to workshop memes before making an online push to take over usage of a symbol. (One perverse metric of success for these groups is getting the Anti-Defamation League to add an entry to its Hate Symbols Database.)
After 9/11, domestic counterterrorism efforts raised privacy issues still very much with us today. Civil liberties objections were prevalent during the most high-profile era of countering jihadi terrorism, highlighted by an Associated Press series that smeared the NYPD’s approach as racist and invasive. If anything, the privacy issues and legal concerns that the intelligence community must navigate are even more challenging today. As is always the case, public tolerance for such efforts can change dramatically over time, depending on the news environment and perceptions of risk and danger.
The work of trying to steer vulnerable individuals away from involvement with violent ideologies—loosely known as CVE (countering violent extremism)—has been fraught with challenges, ranging from the difficulty of gauging success (how do you measure when someone has not been radicalized?) to the risk that pushing youth to abandon a way of thinking may have the opposite effect. In the U.S., police departments have largely avoided the CVE aspect of counterterrorism; in the U.K., cops have at times taken the lead in this work.
Communications professor and researcher Kurt Braddock’s approach of “attitudinal inoculation” seeks to expose vulnerable individuals to extreme ideas before they have absorbed them online. His research indicates that this tactic fortifies people’s defenses by demonstrating that extremist groups are trying to manipulate them. Moonshot, an NGO focused on deterring people from online extremism, also provides mental-health counseling.
For law enforcement, the struggle remains in determining when a subject has moved from bigoted chatter to inciting violence or planning to commit it. Beyond the NYPD, local police departments often lack the resources to make these determinations. The information-sharing between agencies that blossomed after 9/11 is thus critical in evaluating the risk that an individual or group poses. The National Counterterrorism Center is a powerful hub for this work, fusing foreign and domestic information and analysis, and sharing it across the entire counterterrorism infrastructure, from national policymakers to sheriffs’ offices.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan suggests another redirection of efforts. The resurgence of the Taliban will likely generate new threats to America. Further, the Afghanistan evacuation will necessitate vetting thousands of individuals at U.S. ports of entry.
Counterterrorism officials agree that we’re in a crucial strategic moment. Since 9/11, the threats have become much more varied. The path forward requires more information sharing between agencies at all levels, more vigilance by concerned citizens, more partnership between government and the private sector, and more creativity in reaching vulnerable people before they assimilate extremist messaging deeply enough to act on it.
As the United States wrestles politically with how to think about policing, it’s important to remember that when it comes to violent extremism, there is no division between civilians and law enforcement—there is only the need to communicate better, look out for one another, and be ready to adapt to an ever-changing landscape of violent actors, motivated by hatred.
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