Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 11/2014

Radicalization in the U.S. Beyond al Qaeda: Treating the disease of the disconnection

Clint Watts

August 2012

Foreign Policy Research Institute


The attacks of September 11, 2001 spawned a decade of al Qaeda inspired radicalization of disaffected Middle Eastern and North African youth and a handful of young Western men. Ten years later, foreign fighters to Afghanistan, Iraq and other jihadi battlefields appear to be declining while in contrast analysts have pointed to an uptick in United States (U.S.) based “homegrown extremism” - terrorism advocated or committed by U.S. residents or citizens. Despite recent notions of a spike in al Qaeda inspired homegrown extremism, 2011 brought al Qaeda persistent setbacks. Osama Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Operations forces presented al Qaeda its most debilitating blow since its inception. Bin Laden proved to be only the first of many key al Qaeda leaders eliminated in 2011 to include Ilyas Kashmiri, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, Anwar al-Awlaki and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. Al Qaeda’s most significant defeat, however, appears more ideological than operational. A string of Arab revolutions and uprisings beginning in Tunisia ultimately stretched to more than a dozen countries. Regimes designated by al Qaeda as apostate were toppled not by jihadis seeking an Islamic caliphate but by mostly peaceful uprisings seeking democratically elected governments. As of November 2011, small remnants of al Qaeda survive with their only operational hope for executing an attack in the West being the Internet radicalization of lone wolf operatives. Even with its recent setbacks, al Qaeda likely only needs one successful attack by either its organization or an inspired Western lone wolf to reinvigorate its extremism. Al Qaeda’s message, messengers, and Internet outreach currently present only a low-level threat to the U.S. More broadly, future radicalization in the U.S. will likely be symptomatic of the disease of the disconnected – the increased psychological and social isolation of the digital age - more than the appeal of al Qaeda. Radicalization of individual Westerners by al Qaeda or any number of extremist ideologies (domestic or international) will continue at a steady state. Detecting and interdicting these lone wolves will be challenging and requires the U.S. to develop a broad and flexible extremist detection approach promoting information sharing, electronic/Internet surveillance and community engagement from the national to the local level.