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Counterterrorism Experts Face Challenges Recognizing 'Lone Wolf' Terrorists

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While the White House has condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric as divisive, the administration is also worried such talk will hurt antiterrorism efforts. With ISIS continuing its call for attacks on the West, Jeh Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security called for American Muslims to report people they know who appear to be turning towards violent extremism.

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JEH JOHNSON: If you see something, say something. This is more than a slogan. If you see someone turning toward violence, say something. Say something to law enforcement or to one of you in your community.

CORNISH: That's the DHS secretary in Virginia at one of the country's largest mosques. So what are they asking people to look for? To talk more we turn to John Horgan. He's a professor at Georgia State University's Global Studies Institute. Welcome to the program.

JOHN HORGAN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Your work is focused on how ISIS inspires supporters, right? What do these people have in common? Is there some kind of profile?

HORGAN: There is no profile. That is the sum total of the research that has been done to date on ISIS. And it probably is the summation of about four decades of research on terrorist psychology. The one lesson we can take from all of that research, however, is a picture of diversity, different kinds of people becoming involved for different kinds of reasons and in very different sorts of ways.

CORNISH: You have been doing some research about people's behaviors, how they change as they become involved in terrorism, right? What are some of those behavioral shifts?

HORGAN: There are a number of indicators we can identify from looking at individual cases. The real challenge here is that it tends to lose all meaning when we try to look for patterns. And radicalization tends to be quite an unreliable diagnosis. I can certainly point you to cases where young people have become withdrawn. They report a sense of alienation. They start to acquire radical views. But other people become involved in different sorts of ways.

CORNISH: You know, you're telling us that there aren't signs or behaviors. But we're also hearing about this idea of, like, foreign fighters, right, people going overseas and becoming radicalized, coming back - you know, the idea of, like, maybe people have an increased interest in weapons. I mean, isn't there something here (laughter) that we need to acknowledge?

HORGAN: There is one thing here. In a study of lone actor terrorists that we concluded a few years ago for the Department of Homeland Security, we found that a very significant percentage of those offenders told friends and family members and co-workers about their intent. This wasn't...

CORNISH: That's a pretty big sign, John Horgan.

HORGAN: Well, it is a big sign, but again, it is something that we were really quite puzzled by because I think much of the media coverage about lone-wolf terrorism, you know, suggests that we can't see this coming. I think our research has shown that in many cases we actually can see it coming. The critical question here is if people are aware of intent and have specific knowledge about plots, they're clearly seeing something. Why aren't they saying something?

CORNISH: So to that question, why don't people come forward? I mean, if you have a sign as big as someone saying they'd like to commit violence, why don't people come forward?

HORGAN: In the research that we've done, we surveyed so many young people and those kids basically told us quite bluntly, no, you know, even if I did see that I probably wouldn't report it because A - I don't really know to whom I would report it. And B - I'm afraid. I'm afraid of the police. I'm afraid of what might happen to me if I report it. I'm afraid of what might happen to my friend. And what if I'm wrong? What I've, you know, misread the signs?

CORNISH: All right. John Horgan - he's a professor at Georgia State University's Global Studies Institute. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

HORGAN: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.