‘Homegrown terrorism’ is one among many recent terms to enter the terrorism studies lexicon, and similar to the concept and definition of terrorism, it remains ill-defined, and frustratingly ambiguous.
The use of the term ‘homegrown terrorism’ emerged in the mid to late 2000s in response to the 2004 terrorist attacks in Spain – although Reinares (2012) has recently suggested that al-Qa’ida may have had a role – and in 2005 in the United Kingdom. Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, there was a perception that terrorist activity associated with al-Qa’ida was, “commandos coming from the Middle East to attack the West in reaction to conflicts that set aflame the region” (Roy 2011:19). With the Madrid and London bombings there was a realisation that these attacks had been planned and executed by individuals who were living in the west and who had had little or no contact with the historic al-Qa’ida organisation. Previously, the terrorist threat had been conceived as exogenous (coming from outside) whereas following these attacks, it had become endogenous (arising from within). Precht (2007:9) has stated in relation to ‘home-grown terrorism that, “the threat of terrorism no longer solely comes from foreign centrally organised groups like Al Qaida, Hezbollah or Jamaah Islamiyah. Today self-radicalized and self-organized domestic groups composed of persons who have had their upbringing and cultural influences in the Western world pose a growing threat to Western societies.”
The term has been employed some 1800 times in the mainstream United Kingdom press. An early use of the term was to describe Richard Reid, ‘our homegrown “traitor” and “fanatic”’ (Seaton 2002, January 2). As the term has become common currency and short-hand for describing one aspect of current terrorist activity in the west, academics have begun define the term and to set out what constitutes ‘homegrown terrorism’.
The debate around ‘homegrown terrorism’ is about understanding how individuals who have ties to the west and may even be citizens, and in some cases indistinguishable from the majority are transformed and become willing to use violence against those around them. The issue is further clouded by the fact the motivating ideology or grievance is perceived as foreign. As noted by Roy above, there was an early perception that al-Qa’ida terrorism was linked to ‘Arabs’ and in the case of the UK, North Africans from Algeria, Libya and Morocco, who were generally perceived as somehow more foreign to the UK than the Pakistani community.
Starting in 2007 studies began to define “homegrown terrorism”. Kirby (2007:415) refers to “self-starters”; groups that have little or no affiliation with the original al-Qa’ida network, made up of individuals who have never attended a formal terrorism training camp and whose attacks occur seemingly spontaneously, without orders or support from a member of the known al-Qa’ida leadership. Precht writes of “acts of violence targeting western countries in which the terrorists were born or raised” (2007:9). Nesser (2008:234) describes it as “jihadi terrorist cells consisting of Muslim immigrants born and raised in Europe (and also some European converts)…inspired by Al Qaeda global jihad ideology… relatively autonomous: self-recruited, self-radicalized, and self-trained, inside European countries, utilizing the jihadi Internet as a ‘‘virtual training camp.’’ Garstenstein-Ross & Grossman posit that it is “terrorist attacks perpetrated by individuals who were either born or raised in the west” (2009:11). King & Taylor write that “homegrown terrorism is characterized by perpetrators who are born and raised in the very country they wish to attack” (2011: 603). Other analysts are less clear in their discussion leaving the term as a catch-all (Thachuk, Bowman & Richardson 2008:2-4).
Western analysts are not the only ones to have analysed contemporary forms of terrorist organization and activity. Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian national and mujahidin strategist, has addressed the issue in his 2004 work “Global Islamic Resistance Call”. He describes different forms of ‘jihadi’ warfare 1) the “Tanzim’s”, the traditional hierarchical and secret organisations like Egyptian Islamic Jihad, 2) “open fronts” which are armed insurgencies in areas like Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia and 3) “the jihad of individual terrorism” meaning acts by small autonomous cells. Al-Suri believes that the time of the first type of warfare has passed and that resources should be concentrated on the second two forms of warfare. Al-Suri states that there should be a system not an organization to drive activity (Lia 2009:12-13). Some western analysts have made the claim that al-Suri is the principle architect of post-9/11 al-Qa’ida structure and strategy and the turn to ‘individual terrorism’ (Cruickshank & Ali 2007:8-9).
It is not enough to simply define ‘homegrown terrorism’, there is also a need to construct an understanding which results in a relatively well-defined and bounded model. Crone & Harrow (2011:521-536) in their discussion of ‘homegrown terrorism’ attempt to move the discussion forward from case-study based descriptions of ‘homegrown terrorism’. They address two issues; how to determine if someone ‘belongs’ to the west and secondly if the terrorist activity is ‘autonomous’ of an external group or entity. This leads them to develop a four-field typology of terrorist activity;
- Internal autonomous: The dynamics of terrorist activity are exclusively in the west;
- Internal affiliated: A high degree of belonging to the west but external contacts;
- External autonomous: A low degree of belonging to the west and independent of external groups;
- External affiliated: A low degree of belonging to the west and connections to external groups.
In a similar effort, Genkin & Gutfriand (2011) also approached what they term, ‘ homegrown self-starter terrorism’ (HST) from what they termed a ‘search and assembly’ problem (200:5). Their goal being to examine how people radicalise with attention to belief acquisition and relationship acquisition. They used social network theory and computational modeling to arrive at four categories; Lone wolfs; Wolf packs; Trapped wolfs; and Trapped wolf packs. They found that an individual’s ability to radicalise was connected to their ability to link with other like-minded individuals. They suggest that, what they term radicalisation ‘magnets’ play an important role, places where individuals meet, whether it is a bookshop or paintball game.
Of the two typologies above, only Crone & Harrow conducted quantitative analysis of both cases and individuals involved in terrorism in the west between 1998 and 2008 to test their typology. Crone & Harrow measured whether terrorism in the West had become a) more internal and b) autonomous. Using a number of indicators and data on both incidents and individuals, they concluded that terrorism in the west had become more internal; ‘85% of those involved had grown up in the West’ however a minority, 44%, are born in the west. In terms of autonomy, they found that there was an increase in autonomy but that in 37% of plots one person trained abroad and in 30% the group had contact with some form of external militant context (group, person). In concluding they state that only 27% of plots are ‘strictly internal’ (2011:532-533).
The on-going intent of individuals and groups with varying levels of capacity to carry out attacks with ensuing physical loss of life and destruction as well as the psychological impact make ‘homegrown terrorism’ an on-going issue of concern to counter-terrorist entities. However, an important element of the perception of the threat from ‘homegrown terrorism’ is the difficulty of society to comprehend how those who live among them want to cause harm motivated by an ‘alien’ ideology.
Crone, M. and Harrow, M. (2011). “Homegrown Terrorism in the West.” Terrorism and Political Violence 23(4): 521–536
Cruickshank, P. and Hage Ali, M ( 2007). “Abu Musab Al Suri: Architect of the New Al Qaeda.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30(1): 1–14. (full article)
Gartenstein-Ross, D. and Grossman, L. (2009). “Home Grown Terrorists in the UK and the US.” Foundation for the Defense of Demoscracies.
Genkin, M. and Gutfraind, A. (2011). “How Do Terrorist Cells Self-Assemble: Insights from an Agent- Based Model of Radicalization.”
King, M, and Taylor, D. M. (2011). “The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence.” Terrorism and Political Violence 23(4): 602–622.
Kirby, A. (2007). “The London Bombers as ‘Self-Starters’: A Case Study in Indigenous Radicalization and the Emergence of Autonomous Cliques.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30(5): 415–428.
Lia, B. (2009). “Global Jihadi Strategic Theory.” Presentation at US Naval War College, Newport, 15-16 September 2009: 1–15.
Nesser, P. (2008b). “How did Europe’s Global Jihadis Obtain Training for their Militant Causes?.” Terrorism and Political Violence 20(2): 234–256.
Precht, T. (2007). “Home grown terrorism and Islamist radicalisation in Europe: from Conversion to Terrorism.” Danish Ministry of Justice.
Reinares, F. (2012). “The Evidence of Al-Qa’ida’s Role in the 2004 Madrid Attack”. CTC Sentinel Vol.5 (3).
Roy, O. (2011). “Al-Qaeda: A True Global Movement.” in Coolsaet, R (ed) Jihadi Terrorism and the Radicalisation Challenge: European and American Experiences 2nd Ed. Ashgate; Farnham and Burlington.
Seaton, M. (2002, January 2). “My Son the Fanatic.” The Guardian.
Thachuk, K. L., Bowman, M. E., and Richardson, C. (2008). “Homegrown Terrorism The Threat Within.” Center for Technology and National Security Policy National Defense University.