Center for Strategic Communication

Spotting the warning signs of radicalization among U.S. or partnered troops is difficult. Photo: Flickr/soldiersmediacenter

These are some warning signs that that you have turned into a terrorist who will soon kill your co-workers, according to the U.S. military. You’ve recently changed your “choices in entertainment.” You have “peculiar discussions.” You “complain about bias,” you’re “socially withdrawn” and you’re frustrated with “mainstream ideologies.” Your “Risk Factors for Radicalization” include “Social Networks” and “Youth.”

These are some other signs that one of your co-workers has become a terrorist, according to the U.S. military. He “shows a sudden shift from radical to ‘normal’ behavior to conceal radical behavior.” He “inquires about weapons of mass effects.” He “stores or collects mass weapons or hazardous materials.”

That was the assessment of a terrorism advisory organization inside the U.S. Army called the Asymmetric Warfare Group in 2011, acquired by Danger Room. Its concern about the warning signs of internal radicalization reflects how urgent the Army considers that threat after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed 13 people at Ford Hood in 2009. But its “indicators” of radicalization are vague enough to include both benign behaviors that lots of people safely exhibit and, on the other end of the spectrum, signs that someone is so obviously a terrorist they shouldn’t need to be pointed out. It’s hard to tell if the group is being politically correct or euphemistic.

Around the same time, the Asymmetric Warfare Group tried to understand a related problem that now threatens to undermine the U.S. war in Afghanistan: “insider threats” from Afghan troops who kill their U.S. mentors. In another chart, also acquired by Danger Room, an Afghan soldier or policeman ready to snap could be someone who “appears frustrated with partnered nations”; reads “questionable reading materials”; or who has “strange habits.” Admittedly, the U.S. military command isn’t sure what’s causing the insider attacks, but it’ll be difficult for an American soldier who doesn’t speak Pashto or Dari to identify “strange habits” among people from an unfamiliar culture.

A selection from a U.S. military chart on “Radicalization Into Violent Extremism.”

The Asymmetric Warfare Group didn’t purport to identify every factor leading to insider threats, from either Americans or Afghans, and cautions against using its assessments as “checklists.” But it takes a broad view of both the causes of radicalization and what might make someone at risk for it.

Among Afghans, “Cultural Misunderstandings,” “Civilian Casualties,” “Global Events” or “Political Speeches or Upheaval” are listed as potential causes of “Grievance-Based Action.” All of which seems intuitive, but it doesn’t help a commander, who may be preoccupied with the daily rigors of warfighting, from identifying which Afghans represent looming threats. The “observable” indicators of those threats run the gamut from an “abrupt behavioral shift” to “intense ideological rhetoric” to blinking red lights that shouldn’t have to be pointed out to people, like “mak[ing] threatening gestures or verbal threats.”

American behavior is easier for Americans to understand, but the Asymmetric Warfare Group’s list of red flags from American troops is also problematic outside context. Someone who “takes suspicious or unreported travel (inside or outside the United States)” could be linking up with a terrorist group. Or he could be hooking up with a lover, or a going on a road trip with friends, or anything else. Yet that’s an example of “Actions conducted by the subject that would indicate violent or terroristic planning activities that warrant investigation.” The unreported aspect of the travel might be its most blatantly problematic feature.

Similarly, some of the “Risk Factors for Radicalization” identified here apply equally to Normal Soldier and Ticking Time Bomb. Among them: “Youth,” which might be a difficult thing to mitigate against, unless the military wants to take former Pentagon official Rosa Brooks’ unorthodox recruitment advice. “Social Networks” is another, and it’s probably alarmingly coterminous with Youth. Still others: “Emotional Vulnerability,” “Personal Connection to a Grievance” and “Conflict at Work or at Home.”

To be fair to the Group, the bonds within a military unit can make it difficult to be alert to sketchy behavior, let alone the chain of command to it. And that disinclination to report something isn’t limited to the military: The FBI didn’t act on Hasan, even when he e-mailed the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki seeking advice on the legitimacy of murdering Americans. The Group repeatedly underscores the need to “notify the chain of command” about suspicious behavior, even about behavior as potentially benign as “chang[ing] type of off-duty clothing.” A “single reportable indicator is enough to report,” it cautions, listing internal Army websites and phone hotlines to report a suspected Hasan 2.0.

If underreporting suspicious behavior is a problem within the U.S. military, soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan probably won’t have a problem reporting their suspicious about Afghans now that over 50 U.S. and allied troops have been killed by their Afghan counterparts this year. Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, told 60 Minutes on Sunday that he’s “mad as hell” at the attacks, and while his troops are willing to sacrifice for the war, “we’re not willing to be murdered for it.” Woe to Afghans deemed “reclusive” or engaging in “peculiar discussions” in the eyes of troops who don’t share their culture.