The Difficulty of Predicting ISIS and Al Qaeda 'Stay and Act in Place' Attacks

05/08/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

In February of 2015, Omar el-Hussein was hunted for thirteen hours and ultimately shot dead by Danish police after killing fifty-five year old documentary filmmaker Finn Noergaard at a free speech event and a thirty-seven year old Jewish guard, Dan Uzan at a synagogue in Copenhagen. El-Hussein was known to Danish police. He had a criminal history that included violence and weapons offenses. In fact he had only been released from prison fourteen days previously.

The speed by which today's terrorists radicalize into extremist mindsets and take lethal action is mind-boggling and presents a nightmare for today's security officials. The police chief in Denmark was fired in May, only months after the shootings--after being held responsible for not anticipating such action.

Sadly though, this type of attack is likely to continue in all Western countries and is very hard to predict. Thousands of disgruntled individuals log on to the Internet to find excuses to vent their anger. Youth in particular are searching for identity, purpose, significance and if they are angry about injustices--perceived or real--they gravitate to justifications and equipping to channel and express their rage.

Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are waiting and willing to provide for such individuals the other three elements of the four making up the lethal cocktail of terrorism that I identified in my four hundred interviews of terrorists and their family members and close associates (reported upon in Talking to Terrorists). These four elements are: 1) a group; 2) it's ideology that wrongly tries to justify striking out at civilians in violence; 3) social support for joining and believing the ideology and this all combines with 4) the person's own individual motivations and vulnerabilities.

El-Hussein had just been released from prison and had a violent background and access to weapons. He is also identified as being the son of Palestinian refugee parents, and may have already been exposed to violent ideologies promoting so-called "martyrdom" missions. These should have been red flags to police and if authorities were also aware of his radicalization--which there appeared to be clues too as well, these are all flags to his possibility of enacting terrorism.

Prison is a place where folks can easily be radicalized. Prisoners are generally bored and angered at being locked up, are surrounded by criminal thinkers and may be exposed to extremist thinkers and their ideologies. Many are vulnerable, long for belonging and may gravitate easily to a group that promises them some kind of future--even if it's only in the afterlife--and even more so if it offers protection in the here and now. A lot of extremist groups that work in prisons protect one another and if they are Muslim, pray regularly together, so there is a deep sense of belonging, sense of purpose and protection that may have been missing in childhood and adulthood.

We know now that terrorists are acting with less and less lead-time these days. Part of that is because troubled and lost people are getting radicalized over the Internet with the so-called "university of jihad" as my now deceased friend Reuven Paz liked to call it. Over the Internet, the potential terrorists, i.e. person with vulnerabilities and motivations to strike out in hate can find all they need to radicalize, equip themselves, and strike out. But even before ISIS and groups like them became so adept at social media we saw individuals volunteering themselves to terrorist groups--among Palestinians and Chechens for instance and enacting terrorism very quickly. This is because the ideology of "martyrdom" and violent propaganda has seeped into the wider culture and there has been a wider acceptance of terrorist violence as means for powerless people to strike out in anger against so called oppressors or in the case of Muslim groups against those who insult Islam. We saw a similar attack in Texas only days ago in the U.S., although we still need to learn the radicalization profile there.

The facts are that many people are angry and hurt and can easily expose themselves to a terrorist group and ideology that attempts to justify violent responses to their problems and by glorifying such actions offers them a sense of meaning, significance and purpose along with belonging, perhaps some protection and friendship it can channel all their anger and concern over injustices done to them over their lifetime into a focused hatred and terrorist action. And this can happen fast.

For Muslims who join extremist groups and who have low ego strengths, the unnecessary baiting and provoking actions of drawing the Prophet as a pig, or a terrorist, can also be an overwhelming insult that can trigger him or her to activate quickly into violence if an extremist group is behind them with the "justification" for violent action and suggestions for how to enact violence. In most of our open democratic societies the exposure to terrorist groups and their ideologies are readily available over the Internet and so are weapons that can be easily procured so they can move fast and act in a matter of days or weeks as el-Hussein did. Once a vulnerable person has taken on the extremist mindset and decided he doesn't mind dying for it he can activate and become lethal nearly instantly. The Internet these days makes finding information so easy, and guns are sadly readily available in many of our societies.

Denmark has been leading the way on trying to de-radicalize and disengage those who take on the ISIS ideology but here we see a case that was not recognized until the actor became lethal. It's horrible but just underlines the fact that we need to do much more on terrorist prevention--by delegitimizing the acceptance in all sectors of society, but particularly with youth, that using terrorist violence for any cause is ever justified and by identifying those who have taken on such ideologies and intervening in meaningful and effective ways before they act.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.