Mehdi Nemmouche, a French jihadist was arrested in Marseilles and named a suspect in the killings of four people at a Belgian Jewish museum.  The suspect had spent about year in Syria after becoming radicalized in prison. He made a video taking responsibility for the shootings. Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, an American from Ft. Piece, Florida, launched a homicide truck bombing targeting Syrian troops. Concerns have increased that large numbers of European and American radicals who are joining the jihad in Syria, could rely upon their training to stage attacks when they return to their respective homelands.

This is a not a new phenomenon. This radicalization process has been occurring for many years. The 9/11 terrorists and Ahmed Ressam, The Millennium Bomber, are examples of this mindset.  The Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hassan, embraced extremist views, which were expressed in his writings affirming his motives and his support of terrorism.

The NYPD Intelligence Division published a study entitled Radicalization in the West: Homegrown Threat, which identified four stages of the homegrown radicalized threat. The first stage was the pre-radicalization, which is the process of assembling like-minded individuals in a loose knit socialization structure. These individuals had moved from other countries or other parts of the United States in search of socialization and interaction with others with common interests. These interests could be based on common religion, political views, or recreational pursuits such as soccer.

This collection of individuals would start exploring the group and looking for a sense of meaning. This phase was called the self-identification stage. This is primarily the result of an external or internal crises caused by a religious, political, social or a personal catalyst, and the result of real or perceived stressors in their lives. These individuals could be described as feeling disenfranchised or suffering personal trauma, such as the death of a loved one, lost economic opportunity, and so forth.

The next stage is the indoctrination stage, which is the acceptance and embracing of a belief system that provides a sense of purpose and belonging. You can see this in many areas of life where we want a sense of belonging and acceptance. The NYPD report focused on the embracing of the strictest form of Islam, which ultimately influences the group to adopt the radicalization stage and final stage, which is the participation as a jihadist attack with a desired outcome.

Many people find empowerment when they adopt a common purpose, whether it is a political platform, a particular candidate, or a social cause from which individuals can form an identity. Many go through those first three phases with no nefarious intentions. The desire for acceptance, belonging, and love can be found in the sixteen basic motivational desires published by Stephen Reiss from Ohio State University. The last stage of radicalization is concerning where upon they accept the radicalization stage and those around the individuals notice a marked change in their behavior.

This study was based on Muslim extremists and the assertion that these extremists would find like-minded individuals and the jihadist stage would occur while attending daily prayers and activities at a mosque or a student association. That can still be the case today, but with the internet, you can essentially have a virtual mosque online. You no longer need the physical building of worship to attend and avoid possible scrutiny by law enforcement. They can now assemble online in chat rooms and on discussion boards on websites. Radical Imams can preach from the pulpit of YouTube. This interaction becomes a social community or group that becomes defined by this virtual house of worship.

One of the consultants for NYPD was Marc Sageman, a retired CIA case officer and forensic psychiatrist. Sageman studied over 500 Muslim extremist groups that engaged in terrorist attacks. Among the groups he studied were the Hamburg cell, which executed the 9/11 attack on America, the Madrid train bombing, and others. What he found in these groups was that most of the terrorists were in their mid to late twenties, were college-educated, married, essentially had no prior criminal history and minimal mental health issues, if any.

Dr. Sageman identified common traits among these groups: they all felt a certain economic or political exclusion, and they were in search of an identity resulting in the formation of these groups. Many of these individuals were not particularly religious to begin with, but now they had a sense of belonging. They found themselves attending daily prayer and congregating with their like-minded friends. Their networks were not hierarchal, as they were worshipping in a community and sharing moral outrage at their perceived mistreatment of Muslims by the West and attracted to the glamour of jihad.

Sageman described the three waves or phases of Jihadists. The first wave was Bin Laden and the first disciples. They were the elites, and well educated. They were devoted followers and trained mujahedeen. The second wave was primarily the expatriate community in non-Islamic countries. Most were students in higher education. The third wave is comprised of the “lone wolf” terrorists. They are essentially criminals and losers who are in search of an identity or affirmation of their beliefs. This last group is primarily comprised of younger more easily influenced jihadists.

There was evidence that the Fort Hood Texas shooter, Hassan and Boston Bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev both became radicalized via the Internet and not from attending extremist-based mosques. Anwar Al-Awlaki, the Yemeni cleric who was educated in the U.S., has been cited by a number of homegrown terrorists, including Hassan, as being an inspiration.

In 2009, a radicalized Muslim convert targeted a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas. Carlos Leon Bledsoe, aka Abdula Hakim Mujahid Muhammad, was raised in Memphis Tennessee. He worked at Chucky Cheese, played basketball, and raised in the Baptist Church. While attending college in Nashville, Tennessee, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Looking for a sense of identity in his life, he began to enter a religious self-examination and experimented with a number of different religions.

While listening to speeches by Malcolm X and reading the teachings of Louis Farrakhan, Bledsoe went through a religious conversion and became a Muslim. He attended a mosque in Nashville, which was administering to a large Somali community. To deepen his religious conversion, he moved to Yemen under the auspices to teach English.

Embedded in the Yemeni Muslim community, Bledsoe studied the jihad, married and remained in Yemen from 2007 until 2009. Bledsoe was inspired by the teachings of the former U.S. citizen and Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. In an effort to broaden his skill set, Bledsoe was told that he could obtain explosives training in Somalia.

His visa and immigration status were not in order, and he was jailed in a Yemen prison. He claimed that his true radicalization occurred in jail, as he listened to other jihadists continually espouse anti-American rhetoric and planted the thoughts that America had abandoned him.

After three months of detention, Carlos Bledsoe was released and returned to Tennessee. His father had initiated an expansion of a tour bus company in Little Rock, Arkansas, and hired his son to run the operation. While still in Nashville, Bledsoe was again interviewed by the FBI. Aware that he could be under surveillance and that his actions would be scrutinized, Bledsoe was careful in his movements.

Believing his attack was justified under Islamic Law, he began conducting research and surveilling possible target locations. He launched an unsuccessful Molotov cocktail attack on the residence of a rabbi in Nashville. His plans to attack another recruiting station in Kentucky were thwarted when he found the center was closed.

Standing in front of the Army Recruiting Center in Little Rock were recent basic training Army graduates, Privates Quinton Ezeagwula and Andy Long. They had returned home for a short stay as hometown recruiters and stepped outside of the recruiting depot to smoke a cigarette. Private Long’s mother, who had driven him to the depot, sat in her car in the parking lot reading her bible.

Bledsoe drove to the depot, opened fire on the unarmed soldiers, killing Long and critically wounding Ezeagwula. Bledsoe fled, but he was subsequently arrested a short distance away. In his post arrest interview, he made some startling statements. The first was, “What I had in mind didn’t go as planned but Allah willing He will reward me for my intentions.”  The second statement he made was, “Had I got this training my story would of (sic) ended a lot differently than it’s going to end now. My drive-by would of (sic) been a drive-in with no one escaping the aftermath!” The last statement was in response to his lack of explosives training. Those statements were made by a former all-American kid, who worked at the neighborhood Chucky Cheese but transitioned into a jihadist terrorist determined to kill fellow Americans. The tragic shooting united the father of the victim, Andy Long and father of Carlos Bledsoe to share their story in a documentary, Losing Our Sons.

Feeling rejected by society or consumed by their negative emotional vortex of life, they are in search of an identity or an affirmation for these feelings. This “virtual influencer” could be any political, religious or social cause that adds significance to their miserable lives. It does not matter if they are moved to action by their belief in an environmental movement, religious fanaticism, or political activism; they can use this belief system as substantiation for their path of violence.

Mike Roche has spent over three decades in law enforcement.  He began his career in 1989 with the Little Rock Police Department. He retired from the U.S. Secret Service after 22 years. In addition to being a liaison to the CIA and FBI, he was also assigned to the JTTF. He is a former adjunct instructor at St. Leo University teaching Behavioral Threat Assessments of Mass Killers and is now teaching the same course for the Alpha Group.  He is the author of nonfiction works, Mass Killers: How You Can Identify Workplace, School and Public Killers Before They Strike and also Face 2 Face: Observation, Interviewing and Rapport Building Skills: an Ex-Secret Service Agent’s Guide. He is also the author of three works of crime fiction.