on security

What We Can Learn From a Young, Grassroots Jihadist in Pittsburgh

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READJun 25, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Police respond to the site of a mass shooting at synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A mass shooting at Pittsburgh synagogue left four dead in October 2018. The shooter surrendered to authorities and was taken into custody.

(Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
  • A recent case involving an attempted terrorist attack on a Pittsburgh church provides a potent illustration of the persistent, low-level threat posed by grassroots jihadists.
  • The FBI has done a laudable job identifying grassroots jihadists and establishing communications with them before they can conduct attacks. 
  • Most grassroots attackers lack sophisticated terrorist tradecraft and are unable to conduct complex attacks against secured targets.
  • But soft target locations, such as houses of worship, nonetheless remain in the crosshairs of homegrown jihadists, which is why it's important to remain vigilant for signs of attack planning. 

The long and brutal civil war in Syria all began in March 2011, when the arrest of 15 young men in the southeastern city of Daraa spurred a cascade of escalating protests against the government. The city was then bombed, besieged, starved and squeezed for nearly a decade, until the Syrian army and its allies finally reconquered what little of it remained in July 2018. During the years of peak violence, many residents fled to nearby Jordan, where they were placed in camps alongside the Syrian border. While many remain in those camps to this day, a fortunate few were able to apply for refugee status and receive resettlement in third countries.

The Big Picture

The loss of the Islamic State's physical “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq has helped tarnish — but has not completely diminished — the allure of its utopian ideology, as the group continues to make new recruits around the world. Some of these recruits live in places where it's more difficult to join militant groups, such as Europe and the United States, which forces them to operate by themselves or by joining clandestine cells. These Islamic State adherents (who Stratfor commonly refers to as "grassroots jihadists") operate under a leaderless resistance model, and have conducted a number of deadly attacks across the West.

A young man from Daraa, who I will intentionally not name here, was among the lucky ones. Upon being granted refugee status, he and his family were flown to the United States in August 2016, where they were resettled in a public housing development in Pittsburgh's Northview Heights neighborhood. The man, now 21 years old, graduated from high school on June 8. However, it appears his thoughts never strayed far from the conflict in his homeland, or the alluring ideology of the jihadist militant groups operating there — leading him down a precarious road that would eventually end in his arrest on June 19.

Joining the Caliphate From Pittsburgh

According to the criminal complaint filed on June 20, the suspect first caught the attention of the FBI in April 2018 after he established contact with a woman in Wisconsin who was an avowed and vocal online supporter of the Islamic State. Using a variety of social media accounts and online platforms, the suspect actively communicated with the 46-year-old mother of seven, who not only distributed Islamic State propaganda in an effort to recruit converts, but shared bombmaking instructions to help facilitate attacks. The woman was subsequently arrested and pleaded guilty to a charge of material support of terrorism on April 22.
The complaint also notes that in March 2019, an undercover FBI employee made contact with the man by posing as an Islamic State supporter living outside the United States. The two communicated using a number of social media platforms, during which the suspect stated that he had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, sending a video of his vow as proof. He also offered to provide information on potential targets in the Pittsburgh area, including Yazidi refugees, and asked the jihadist group to supply him with a suppressed handgun and a means of secure communication. He asked to be put in contact with Islamic State adherents living in the United States as well, and expressed his desire to help conduct a terrorist attack.

In response to these requests, the FBI arranged for an undercover agent and a confidential informant to meet with the suspect posing as fellow Islamic State militants on April 16. During the first meeting, the FBI undercover team provided the suspect with a burner cellphone loaded with encrypted messaging applications for the subject to use to communicate with his "Islamic State" co-conspirators in a secure manner. The suspect also reportedly again suggested targeting Yazidi refugees, along with a mosque used by Shiite Muslims living in the Pittsburgh area. He then reportedly maintained almost daily contact with the FBI undercover employee.
During a second meeting on April 25, the suspect then told the undercover FBI team that he had surveilled the Shiite mosque he had initially mentioned as a potential target, but found it to be too difficult for them to attack due to access controls on the door and security cameras around the building. He also said that he had seen Sunni Muslims worshipping there as well, further lessening its appeal. However, he stressed that he still wanted to conduct an attack in the United States before returning to Syria to fight on the ground for the Islamic State.
In a third meeting a week later, the suspect told the FBI undercover team that he had identified a church in north Pittsburgh where many Nigerians worshipped that would be a better target than the mosque because it had less security. He said the attack would be in support of the Islamic State West African Province, which is currently waging an insurgency in northeastern Nigeria. He then provided the FBI team with the plan he had concocted (in his own handwriting) to bomb the church using a device placed in a backpack, which he would leave inside and detonate from a remote location using a timer (he did not intend to die in the attack). Under the belief that they were skilled bombmakers, he asked the undercover FBI team what supplies he needed to buy for them to construct a bomb for the attack. The suspect then purchased the requested bomb materials, which he had expected to provide the FBI team during their next scheduled meeting on June 19. But little did he know that meeting would instead result in his arrest — thereby ending his plot. 

Key Takeaways   

The FBI's success in preempting attacks: It's important to note that this case is just the latest of a long list of cases in which aspiring grassroots jihadists have attempted to establish contact with professional terrorists, only to wind up embroiled in an FBI sting operation. However, this recent case is a great illustration of how grassroots jihadists continue to pose a low-level threat in the United States and elsewhere in the West. The FBI (and European security services) have done a laudable job of identifying grassroots jihadists and establishing contact with them before they can get in touch with real terrorist facilitators. But while these proactive efforts have helped to mitigate the threat posed by grassroots operatives, they have not eradicated it. The case also illustrates how the jihadist ideology continues to attract new followers. Thus, it's only a matter of time before one of them is either able to get in touch with a genuine terrorist facilitator (like the perpetrator of the botched May 2010 Times Square attack), or decides to go it alone (like the perpetrator behind the June 2016 attack against the Pulse nightclub in Orlando).  

The recent arrest of a radicalized Syrian refugee illustrates the pull of the Islamic State's ideology — and the drawbacks of relying on grassroots operatives for attacks.

The limits of grassroots terrorism: The good news in this is that the limited tradecraft possessed by these individuals makes them easy to detect as they progress through the terrorist attack cycle — especially as they conduct pre-operational surveillance and acquire weapons for the attack. But they can only be detected if someone is watching for them. And because of this, they are often able to complete their attack cycle without being detected. 

Places of worship as soft targets: The fact that the attacker appears to have focused most of his plans on houses of worship (first the Shiite mosque, then the Nigerian church) fits with a larger global trend we've been watching. By their very nature, houses of worship are soft targets: not only are attacks on holy places more likely to yield a high body count, but they can serve as a polarizing force that generates additional attacks in retribution. That said, there are several simple and effective steps that can be taken to protect such buildings, and hopefully prevent them from ever being considered for an attack, which brings me to my next point. 

The effectiveness of security measures: The Pittsburgh case also illustrates how security measures can successfully deter unskilled attackers from attacking a potential target. The access controls on the entrance door to the Shiite mosque, as well as the building's surveillance camera system, caused the suspect to refocus his plans on a presumed "easier" target. But as I've stressed before, it's important to recognize that access controls are not an effective solution by themselves and that in order to help prevent or limit an attack, they must be part of an integrated security program.

The importance of staying aware: Sadly, however, one doesn't have to be a master terrorist to kill people. As we have seen in past attacks, it is surprisingly easy to kill people if one has the desire to do so and is willing to die in the process. Because of this, soft target locations of all types will remain in the crosshairs of even the most amateurish aspiring terrorists. It's thus critical to be on the lookout for any object or person that seems out of the ordinary when visiting houses of worship or other locations that could be targeted, by practicing what's called "situational awareness." By being smart and prepared, you can always be ready to take action and protect yourself, as well as those you love, from a potential attack by a grassroots jihadist. 

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