Defense Media Network

Entering the Era of Homegrown Violent Extremism: Interview with Erroll Southers

The April 15, 2013, terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon has raised many questions about the evolving threat from homegrown terrorism. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev planned their attack in secret, using online media to inform their extremist beliefs and build the simple yet devastating pressure cooker bombs. A “lone wolf” attack has long been feared in the United States, largely because despite massive investments in security technology and processes, as well as digital intelligence gathering, a motivated individual acting alone or as part of a small, autonomous group is exceedingly difficult to detect. Indeed, few people could have anticipated the death and destruction the Tsarnaevs perpetrated, particularly the unassuming and outwardly genial younger brother, Dzhokhar.

As the United States enters another chapter in the ongoing effort to protect U.S. citizens and assets, the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism is likely to take center stage, requiring a new approach and perspective toward homeland security. This is the subject of Homegrown Violent Extremism, a new book from counterterrorism expert Erroll Southers. I spoke with Southers to get a better sense of the changing nature of the terrorist threat in the post-4/15 security environment.


Justin Hienz: What are some of the security lessons and revelations immediately apparent from the Boston bombing?

Erroll Southers: There were a number of lessons-learned. First is the realization that homegrown actors can successfully attack a U.S. target with little or no resources. We have always known this was a possibility, but Boston reminded us of the adaptive nature of the threat we face. The Tsarnaevs chose to attack a marathon – a particularly difficult target to secure. This speaks to the issue of soft targets and their relative vulnerability, and the fact that violent actors seek out public gatherings that, by their nature, cannot be made totally secure. However, the fact that the suspects were identified and apprehended or neutralized in little more than 100 hours is a credit to the systems we have in place. Also, the Boston attack evidenced the resiliency American cities have developed since 9/11, inasmuch as the Boston community worked in concert with a multi-agency law enforcement effort.


In America’s homeland security efforts – as well as in media coverage and government policy – there seems to be a persistent focus on what you call Muslim Identity adherents. Are Muslim Identity actors the most active threat or are they simply attracting the most public attention?

Muslim Identity adherents are an active threat; however, they are not the only active threat. The fact that Muslim Identity is in the spotlight in terms of counterterrorism efforts fits into our notion of what we might call “otherism.” It is a comfort level we embrace based on the assumption that our adversary presumably belongs to a social segment or group outside the mainstream. In this instance, the foundation is based upon religion. However, there are some facts worth considering. The Center for American Progress reported that since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, 56 percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots in the United States were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, whereas 30 percent were perpetrated by eco-terrorists and just 12 percent by Islamic extremists.

Securing a democracy is challenging, but there is a widespread, and I’ll add, erroneous, view that democracies are particularly vulnerable to terrorism and because of that, we must curtail our rights to defend our nation. Abandoning our principles at the first sign of adversity says to our adversary that we have a double standard – one for ourselves and one for “others,” whoever that may be.

There is also the issue of what constitutes “violent extremism.” There are incidents in America every week involving assailants who embrace a diverse collection of ideologies, engaged in so-called “hate crimes.” These instances fail to reach the threshold of being classified as domestic terrorism or homegrown violent extremism (HVE). This goes back to the core challenge of defining the term “terrorism,” as well as “violent extremism.” Having completed that task, it would be instructive to include all incidents meeting the essential elements of the definition, regardless of racial, religious or issue-oriented ideological foundation. It is time to call domestic terrorism what it is. This includes white supremacist Michael Wade Page’s shooting at a Sikh temple, anti-Semite James von Brunn’s shooting and killing of a Holocaust Museum security officer, Sovereign Citizen Andrew Joseph Stack III’s suicide plane attack on the federal office complex in Austin, Texas, and Floyd Lee Corkins’ attack at the Washington conservative think tank Family Research Council.


There are numerous security efforts that have recently raised public concern, such as NSA data collection, TSA’s security technology and VIPR teams, and even New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” tactics. To prevent HVE, must we rely on approaches to security that seem to tread on privacy and liberty? Are these necessary sacrifices for securing a free society?

These are a diverse collection of tactics used to detect and defend against crime generally and terrorism specifically. These countermeasures are most effective when the public understands – to the degree information is not classified – what they are intended to achieve, how they will be implemented and the metrics for success. Risk-based strategies, such as TSA’s VIPR teams, may become more efficient and effective if deployed in a more random, game-theoretic design. The concept is simple – it forces the adversary to guess when and where the security countermeasures are deployed. This disrupts their attack-planning process and increases the potential for detection.

Regarding “Stop and Frisk,” I do not support the practice as it has been implemented. That said, “Stop and Frisk” tactics are concepts of selective enforcement, which employed in other ways can be successful. These strategies can work if the most important stakeholders – the community – are part of the development, implementation and periodic review of the program. I am responding from the unique perspective of one who has engaged in selective enforcement when I was a gang officer in Santa Monica and also as an African American, having been subjected to profiling on numerous occasions throughout my life. Law enforcement can be successful in using these strategies if the people detained are treated with respect and the “stop” is based on experience and expertise, weighing factors such as the time of day, location, personal knowledge of the detainee, etc. Employing selective enforcement in this way goes a long way toward engendering public support, the same public that deserves and wants a safe community. This is one of those times when we need to build a bridge instead of a wall.

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Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...