The challenge of recognizing radicalization before it’s too late

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Law enforcement officers mark evidence near the site where Ahmad Khan Rahami, sought in connection with a bombing in New York, was taken into custody in Linden, New Jersey, U.S., September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSOGL3

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to the attacks in New York and New Jersey.

With the capture of a man suspected of planting bombs in both states over the weekend come new questions about the terror threat and stopping radicalization in this country.

Joining us now to address them, Juliette Kayyem. She’s a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, and she’s author of the book “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland.” And Lorenzo Vidino, he’s the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

Lorenzo, let me start with you.

What do you make of this man Ahmad Khan Rahami and what he did?

LORENZO VIDINO, George Washington University: Well, we don’t know a lot of facts at this point.

I think most indications point to the fact that he had some kind of political motivation. I think — is talking about terrorism. We don’t know much about his radicalization. I think we’re getting tidbits here and there of visits to Afghanistan, which, per se, don’t necessarily mean much because he’s of North African descent.

He did a mini-terror campaign, if you look at the tactic, the use of pressure cookers. It’s something that al-Qaida and al-Qaida sympathizers used in the past. The targets seem to have some political motives, a certain neighborhood in New York, the Marine Corps marathon. We don’t know much. I think we’re starting to get a picture of somebody that had some signs of radicalization.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Juliette Kayyem, what do you make of this, the sophistication of it, how he carried it out?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, Former Department of Homeland Security Official: Well, not very sophisticated in terms of the pressure cooker.

How to make it can be found online and the different elements of it are pretty rudimentary. He did make a large quantity of them, but just to remind viewers, if all of these incidents are connected, he had about a 25 percent success rate.

And so what I’m curious about is, how quick was that radicalization process, that, you know, was this over three months and he figured it out how to do it quickly, or is it over two years and there were a number of people involved in the action? I think that that is going to be relevant to determine whether it’s just him, him and another person, or a larger network.

So I wouldn’t close anything off yet solely based on the materials or the bombs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lorenzo Vidino, what kind of work needs to be done now to figure out if others were involved?

LORENZO VIDINO: Well, first of all, his connections overseas and his connections domestically.

Authorities are all over social media and obviously are going to figure out his contacts, if he had Facebook profile, Twitter account, who he was talking to, his cell phone. I think the most immediate is his contacts here in the States.

The assumption is, I think, is that there are no contacts trying to plan follow-up attacks, but that’s obviously not a guarantee. We don’t know for sure, so, trying to see people who are immediately with touch with him in the United States, then if he had contacts overseas, if he had that was somehow directing him or at least aware of what he was doing overseas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Juliette, what do you make of the fact that we learned late this afternoon his family moved to the United States in 1995? We figured he would have been 7 years old then.

So, he grew up in this country in that New Jersey community, did travel back to the region, we believe, the last few years. But what does that add up to?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: It adds up to that we don’t necessarily have an immigration problem. We have a citizen problem.

I mean, unless someone is willing to say anyone who’s been naturalized here is automatically suspect, most of these men are U.S. citizens. But the good news is, it’s a very small percentage of the Islamic community so far.

So, what we need to look at isn’t so much — is maybe what happened when he traveled abroad. We know there’s a couple of trips. There’s also some discussion of a potential of a marriage that he may have had, so we need to look at the process of the review process, the interview process when he returned, returned from Afghanistan, but also the radicalization process at home or online.

And so this investigation will look very familiar, because they will be talking to friends and family of his, and then there will be, you know, basically the online footprint review, who was he talking to online, was there encrypted information, to get a better picture of who he is and, of course, the most important thing, the radicalization process.

That’s the only way we will stop it from happening in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lorenzo, friends of his describe him as growing more serious, more religious after he came back from one of these or I guess all of these trips to Afghanistan.

What does it take to put somebody on a terrorist watch list?

LORENZO VIDINO: Well, it’s obviously not becoming more religious.

That’s something that cannot by, in itself, lead authorities to profile and say just because somebody has become more conservative in his views, more religious, that he can be seen as a security threat.

That element, together with other elements much more operational, can lead authorities to put somebody on the radar screen or on some kind of watch list. It’s obviously very difficult. In many cases, we’re talking about just about internal psychological processes, which are, at times, put online. Many other cases, they’re not.

So, it’s very, very difficult for authorities, if there are no connections, no communications, to really know that somebody is of interest and potentially dangerous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Juliette, what can be done in these circumstances? As Lorenzo just said, just because someone becomes more religious doesn’t mean that they are automatically considered suspicious.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: And Lorenzo is exactly right.

And that’s why people who have been in government or in homeland security really talk about the homeland security enterprise, because the idea that the government is going to be able to prevent all these things from happening is just a fiction.

And so that is why there has been a tremendous focus on outreach to Muslims and Arab and other communities to integrate them into law enforcement, to have the kind of relationships that are necessary. In all of these cases — and I’m sure we will find this in this case today — but in all previous ones, someone knew.

That person was not an FBI agent. It wasn’t a surveillance — some guy in the CIA surveying. It was the ex-wife. It was the wife. It was the father.

And so at a time when discussions are heated about what to do about the Islamic radicalization problem, I think the better way to think about it is, it’s not a problem and actually to integrate and assimilate with these communities is going to be the best way to minimize the threat that’s sometimes coming from those communities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to that, Lorenzo? You and I have had this conversation, I know, after San Bernardino, after Orlando, with those incidents. What more does it take to try to anticipate these things before they happen?

LORENZO VIDINO: I think the ugly reality is that some incidents are impossible to prevent.

I think it’s — another illusion is that we can prevent anything. Unless you completely militarize a society, which nobody is arguing that we should, you can prevent anything. Juliette is perfectly right in saying we should work more with communities.

I think you can add a little more resources in terms of what we’re doing online, getting also social media companies to work more with the government, again, fully understanding the balance of civil liberties and First Amendment with the need for security.

And, obviously, it’s a very difficult balance to maintain there. The reality I that not everything can be prevented. And I think that’s very ugly to say, but it’s the reality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just one last question, Lorenzo. What are the questions that you have in mind right now that you think authorities are probably going to be trying to get answers to?

LORENZO VIDINO: I think it’s the contacts in the community.

I think it’s, who he was talking to, did he have a friend, was he part of a study group? Generally, what we see in terms of radicalization, even if we have lone wolves from an operational point of view, at times were interactive with other people both online and offline.

And maybe only one person in that little group of five or six like-minded individuals decided to act. But the others had the same kind of mind-set.

Maybe they stopped one step short of acting. Will some of them act? Was he talking to other people? Maybe he wasn’t. But, if he were, I think it’s very important to know who he was talking to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lorenzo Vidino, Juliette Kayyem, we thank you both.

LORENZO VIDINO: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, online, follow everything we know about the bombing so far. Plus, watch as science correspondent Miles O’Brien explores the difference between a pressure cooker bomb and a pipe bomb.

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