July 20, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Shifting Indicators of Terrorism

• Several recent terror attacks have involved suspects previously unknown to counterterrorism officials.

• Investigators have used terms like ‘rapid radicalization’ to describe the trajectory of suspects who displayed no traditional indicators of terrorism.

• The absence of narrow terrorism indicators is not followed by the absence of indicators of radicalization and violence.

• Broadening the scope of indicators to include the propensity for violence and misogyny, among others traits, may demonstrate that radicalization is a much longer process than widely understood.


In a number of recent terror attacks, suspects have failed to set off the numerous tripwires that authorities have used to protect against traditional cell-based terror plots. As investigations into the recent attacks in Nice and Orlando are still underway, it is premature to determine that the attackers were lone wolves. Even if the perpetrators were not acting alone, however, they were operating on a small enough scale to slip through intelligence and security gaps. Because they lack established indicators of terrorism, inspired attacks present the greatest challenge to security officials.

The absence of traditional indicators—such as communication with known extremists or alerting travel patterns or purchases—often leads to the conclusion that the radicalization process took place so rapidly that traditional counter-measures were unable to detect threats in time. Certain clues may seem obvious in hindsight, but collecting these indicators and properly assessing them ahead of time would involve intelligence collection and analysis capabilities that do not yet exist. From a counterterrorism standpoint, these suspects are invisible.

The impulse after terrorist attacks is to dig deeper—looking farther into suspects' pasts and communications histories in order to find the red flags. The nature of inspired attacks suggests that broadening the scope of indicators to incorporate factors that were previously assumed to be unrelated would be more effective at detecting potential threats. These factors are highly visible to a range of actors and agencies. 

It is important to understand that while the attacks appear to come out of nowhere, the fuses that led to them were lit long ago. The Nice attacker had a history of violence and crime, and reportedly abused his wife and children. Tendencies towards violence, crime, and misogyny are found in many recent terrorists; poor anger management appears to be a particularly prevalent trait. These indicators are not detected by counterterrorism agencies, but rather observed by local law enforcement, mental health officials, and others. These agencies, in particular mental health, are usually underfunded and overburdened. Incorporating a more holistic understanding of violent extremism is far easier said than done given budgetary realities and privacy concerns. Moreover, the overwhelming number of people who exhibit such traits will not go on to commit terror attacks. Still, the individual nature of recent attacks requires a more granular approach. 

It is impossible to know who among those with violent tendencies and social estrangement issues will go on to commit mass murder. However, increased focus on early prevention and deterrence will work to curtail future terror attacks while addressing widespread social issues such as domestic violence and violence against women. The social benefit of widening the approach to counterterrorism—which has more funding and a higher prioritization than many other common challenges—could be substantial. Such an approach could also reduce the number of angry disaffected people who are exceedingly susceptible to extremist messaging and propaganda.


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