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Ohio State attack suggests terrorist threat evolving

This August 2016 file photo provided by TheLantern.com shows Abdul Razak Ali Artan in Columbus, Ohio. (Kevin Stankiewicz/TheLantern.com)

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack that wounded 11 people at Ohio State University on Monday, and if the suspect was motivated by the group’s propaganda, it will be the latest example of a challenging and evolving national security threat.

Since Abdul Razak Ali Artan was killed by police, the claim may prove difficult to verify, but Artan’s reported social media posting before the attack does suggest he was motivated by anger over mistreatment of Muslims around the world.

“I am sick and tired of seeing my fellow Muslim Brothers and Sisters being killed and tortured EVERYWHERE,” a Facebook post believed to be authored by Artan said, according to CNN. “Seeing my fellow Muslims being tortured, raped and killed in Burma led to a boiling point. I can’t take it anymore.”

The Facebook post referred to radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as “our hero” and claimed America can only prevent future lone wolf attacks by agreeing to stop interfering with other countries.

Artan also stated in an August interview with the OSU student newspaper that he was afraid to practice his faith in public because of perceived prejudice against Muslims caused by the media.

A posting by the Amaq news agency Tuesday called Artan a “soldier of the Islamic State.” Investigators have not confirmed any direct connection, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Artan “may have been motivated by extremism and may have been motivated by a desire to carry out an act of terrorism.”

The attack, in which Artan drove his Honda Civic into a group of pedestrians and attempted to stab people with a butcher knife, resembles a mass stabbing incident at a Minneapolis mall in September that ISIS also claimed responsibility for.

It followed a recent ISIS appeal for supporters to carry out attacks using weapons like knives that will be difficult to detect.

Monday’s attack itself, a low-tech assault that could have been perpetrated with minimal planning or coordination, would have been difficult and possibly even impossible to stop in the moment. Therefore, some counterterrorism experts are focused on what can be done earlier in the radicalization process or after an attack begins to save lives.

“We were able to stop this attacker in very short order,” said Anthony Roman, a counterterrorism analyst and president of global investigation and risk management firm Roman & Associates.

He attributed the quick and effective response to local and campus police training for potential attacks, a trend he has seen elsewhere as well. Local law enforcement offices are also increasingly working with state and federal agencies to prepare.

Roman pointed to New York City, where marathons, parades, and New Year’s celebrations have gone on peacefully since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as an example of a jurisdiction that has been successful in maintaining security despite a heightened threat environment. This is the result of a multi-faceted approach that includes close collaboration with federal authorities and provides “layer upon layer of protection,” a strategy that is now being seen in many smaller cities.

“We are in a very good place right now,” Roman said. “That said, there is always an evolution of terror, a changing of tactics to try to defeat what we have prepared to prevent.”

Terrorists will find a way to cause harm if that is their goal. Security measures that prevent them from bombing or hijacking planes may lead to mass shootings. New firearm regulations might prevent shootings, but they would do little to stop an attack with a knife.

“You are never going to prevent the criminal or terror element from having access to some type of weaponry,” he said.

This makes proactive response and vigilance prior to an attack even more important.

“There are a number of indicators that are out there,” said John Iannarelli, a retired FBI agent and author of "How to Spot a Terrorist."

Artan’s social media postings or even the grievances he raised in his interview with the school paper were the kind of thing that could have led to stricter law enforcement scrutiny if others recognized that his behavior was unusual and reported it.

“It’s very difficult to prevent something like this unless you have some advance warning that this person might be an issue,” Iannarelli said.

This is not to say the national security situation is hopeless. John Cohen, former Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism coordinator, said many jurisdictions have set up programs to identify individuals who exhibit behaviors of concern and intervene before violence occurs.

“People need to come to understand that it’s not the ideology; it’s the psychology of the individuals,” he said.

A portion of the population is predisposed to violence and is particularly susceptible to what they see in the media and online. With questions still swirling around Artan’s specific motive, Cohen suggested the focus on his personal ideology is a distraction from the imperative to stop these people from reaching the point of action.

“We’ve already seen that this is an individual who had expressed anger regarding from his perspective the mistreatment of Muslims in the United States and around the world,” he said. “Whether his particular crime fits the elements of the federal terrorism statute is kind of beside the point.”

Often, the national conversation about an attack quickly devolves into a fight over terminology, whether to call it terrorism, and the role of Islam. If the aftermath of the OSU attack sticks to that pattern, Cohen said, “the public debate that we have will have absolutely no impact on our ability to prevent terrorism in the future.”

There are lessons to be learned from every terrorist attack suffered in the U.S. and elsewhere, but Cohen fears they are not always being heeded by the people in positions to do something about it.

“There are those in law enforcement and mental health who understand more about mass casualty attackers than at any time in my 32-year career,” he said. However, he added that there is resistance to focusing on the psychological and behavioral patterns that have emerged.

“There are those within the federal government today who have been unwilling to incorporate this knowledge into the programs and protocols used to identify specific threats,” he said.

President-elect Donald Trump has promised his policies will stop terrorist attacks like this, but experts are skeptical that his proposals would actually accomplish that goal.

In the past, Trump has called for surveillance of mosques, questioned the commitment of Muslims to preventing terrorism, and proposed immigration restrictions that would keep Muslims out of the country. He has at times walked back those statements, but his cabinet appointments so far include a proposed national security advisor who says it is “rational” to fear Islam.

It is unclear if anything Trump has proposed would have prevented Monday’s attack. Artan is a Somali refugee who moved to the U.S. with his family from Pakistan in 2014 and became a permanent legal resident. A ban on Muslim immigration, if deemed constitutional, might keep someone in his circumstances out, but exactly when he became radicalized and what screening he went through before entering the country is not yet known.

Since Trump’s national security team will be responsible for the country’s response to terrorist attacks from the day he enters office, Cohen said it is “critically important” that the president-elect appoint people who understand the nature of the current terrorist threat or are willing to learn about it.

Singling out one religion or one community for scrutiny may only feed into the narratives that terrorists use to recruit Muslims to their cause.

“It tends to push communities away from cooperating with law enforcement,” Cohen said. The suspects in these attacks often are not the ones hanging out at the mosques anyway.

Demands to crack down on Muslims are often more political than practical. Constitutional protections prevent the FBI and police from acting without some degree of probable cause.

“Law enforcement doesn’t change the script. If they’re going to be looking at someone, they have to have a reasonable suspicion for doing so,” Iannarelli said.

Weeding out potential terrorists in the immigration screening process is also a problematic solution.

“Singling out a whole group of people is not only unreasonable, it’s not possible,” Iannarelli said. If there is no clear evidence of a potential immigrant or refugee’s terrorist ties or extremist beliefs, little can be done to identify them.

Instead, he advocates law enforcement staying engaged with Muslim communities in the U.S., building relationships, and encouraging them to work with investigations.

Iannarelli also suggested stepping up efforts to counter and curtail ISIS propaganda online with more proactive military and law enforcement responses against those who create and disseminate it.

“They are essentially committing acts of war,” he said.

Even the most effective counterterrorism tactics will inevitably fail to prevent every attempt. When another attack does occur, civilians need to realize that an officer being present to quickly neutralize the threat is highly unusual.

“Law enforcement generally responds to crime,” Iannarelli said. “They are reactive. It’s important to be able to take care of yourself until help can arrive.”

In such cases, the advice tweeted by Ohio State Emergency Management moments after the attack Monday still stands: run, hide, or fight.

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