Let’s start with all the usual caveats: while there may be, abstractly, a lot to like about Trump, in reality, he is proving to be a demagogue. Moreover, both he and his advisory team are painfully ignorant about Islam—and as a result, most of his policy proposals and rhetoric about Islamic terrorism have been ill-informed and counter-productive.
But for all that, Trump has repeatedly emphasized a point which many of his rivals and critics are perhaps a little too eager to gloss over—namely that in many instances, a would-be terrorist’s family, friends or religious advisors know that their loved one is heading down a dark path, but fail to report it.
Trump’s insinuation, of course, is that the reason friends and family fail to report it is because they are, themselves, sympathetic to ISIS or al-Qaeda and want to see terror plots succeed. And certainly, there are instances of this: the San Bernardino attacks were carried out by a husband and wife, the Paris attacks by two brothers and a couple they were friends with, the Boston Marathon bombings by the Tsarnaev Brothers. Often people travel to ISIS territory with their lovers, siblings or best friends, and typically people are brought into ISIS’ orbit by someone they know who has previously committed to the group.
Nonetheless, according to the New America Foundation’s records, 84% of disrupted jihadist plots were foiled as a result of someone “seeing something and saying something” (28% of the time information was volunteered by concerned family, friends, other community members; 47% of the time intelligence was provided by a paid informant; in 9% of cases authorities were given a tip by a stranger who observed suspicious activity). For comparison, only 42% of non-jihadist terror plots are disrupted by this kind of reporting—meaning the social networks of Islamic extremists are relatively more cooperative with authorities than those of non-Muslim extremists (about twice as cooperative, in fact).
However, these statistics just reflect the 330 Muslims (and 182 non-Muslims) who have been indicted over the last 15 years for supporting terrorism. There are thousands of other ISIS sympathizers within the United States—and law enforcement agencies are hungry for more fine-grained information to determine which of these are most likely to act on their convictions (or are actively plotting attacks). In order to close this intelligence gap, it is critical to understand why family, friends and associates who may be deeply concerned about a loved one’s trajectory are often also reluctant or unwilling to cooperate with authorities.
Only bad options
If one is forced to choose between losing their left arm or their right—it would be a horrible choice (because, of course, no one would want to part with either), but it would be an easy choice (left-handed people would sacrifice their right arm and vice-versa). Many concerned about their friends or family members gravitating towards extremism find themselves in a similar dilemma.
Often, would-be jihadists give plenty of warning signs: they suddenly become much stricter in the observance of religious rituals and codes, they espouse increasingly radical political views, and sometimes even outright declare sympathy for ISIS on their social media or in conversations. They become estranged from their normal social networks and grow closer to others who seem to share their new convictions. They often develop a sudden interest in guns, go target-practicing, or begin stockpiling weapons, ammunition, body armor, bomb components. They try to close out their unsettled business with family, friends or associates.
Those who witness a loved one undergoing this kind of transformation frequently do attempt to challenge their radical views, they encourage them to take a different path, or they seek help from others in the community. But they often choose not to alert the authorities.
On the one hand, they anguish over the possibility that by remaining silent they risk allowing the suffering of innocent people, bringing shame and suspicion upon their family and community, and losing their loved one should he or she commit to a terrorist act. However, they are held back by the sober reality that the outcome is often little better if they report:
Authorities or their paid agents will typically befriend a suspect, provide encouragement for their radical views, come up with a plot—often providing the tools and working out the logistics to carry it out—and then indict their mark for going along with the plan. Thereafter, even if a suspect pleads guilty and cooperates with authorities (as they usually do), and even if no one was harmed (most instances involve no casualties), those indicted tend to face a minimum of ten years in prison. And their life is virtually over (imagine, for instance, trying to explain to a prospective employer one’s decade-long gap in employment due to terrorism charges—he’d have a tough time even landing a job at McDonald’s). And for all that, a suspect’s family and community still face shame and suspicion as their loved one is villainized in the press and authorities look for other nodes in a possible extremist network.
And so people are forced to choose between definitely destroying the life and livelihood of their loved one (their child, their lover, the father of their children or the provider for their family)–and living with the knowledge that had they not tipped off the authorities, their loved one may never have carried out violence (in fact, most of those who fall into extremists’ orbit do not). Or else they can avoid law enforcement and hope that said loved one can be turned away from their unfortunate trajectory some other way.
For most, this is an easy choice: to avoid the certainty of a horrible outcome in the immediate future, they will tolerate the possibility for something worse down the line. If national security and law enforcement agencies want people to make “better” decisions, they need to be offered better options.
Reforming policies…and jihadists
And so here is where Donald Trump really loses the thread: he claims that the solution to getting families and friends to step forward is more surveillance and suspicion of Muslim communities and/or draconian penalties for keeping silent. Basically, he has things exactly backwards: people don’t need “incentives” to cooperate—they are desperate for assistance. But they need to know that if they reach out to the authorities to express concern about a loved one, they will actually receive help rather than having their lives destroyed. That is, what law enforcement needs is some alternative form of intervention.
The good news? Available evidence strongly suggests that family and friends of a would-be extremist can be much more than intelligence assets–they can play an important role in neutralizing threats if provided with tools and resources to help loved ones disengage from unhealthy networks and restructure their life around alternative communities and causes. The government can play an important role in facilitating these efforts, monitoring suspects’ progress, and then partnering with reformed jihadists to identify and reach out to others at risk. This would be a more healthy and sustainable approach.
The current strategy—entrapping and jailing scores of would-be extremists because we don’t know what else to do with them–is something we will certainly come to regret.