America’s Homegrown Terrorists of the 21st Century: A Case for Profiling

Oct. 5, 2009

Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma April 19, 1995

Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma April 19, 1995

Advanced, sophisticated profiling could prevent the next Columbine or Virginia Tech

by James Ottavio Castagnera

While the “War on Terror” typically is taken to designate the actions, foreign and domestic, directed at Al Qaeda and its allies (e.g., the Taliban), and although the attacks of September 11, 2001, were and remain unprecedented, America’s homegrown terrorists pose a far more serious threat to public safety and the commonwealth.  These native sons and daughters fall into three principal categories:

--Disgruntled individuals with an ax to grind.  They are exemplified by the government scientist who the FBI now believes perpetrated the Anthrax attacks, which followed close on the heals of 9/11, in 2001;

--The obsessed, represented by the radical animal-rights activists.

--The mentally disturbed, characterized by those who have committed individual acts of murder and mayhem on college campuses, most notably the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007.

The threat posed by these homegrown terrorists to plague our democracy, challenging our ability to remain a free and open society, will remain long after radical Islam has been eradicated or otherwise pacified.  To better understand these three varieties of domestic terrorists, they may be viewed as comprising three breeds within a single species.  If that is a fair assumption, then preventative measures, found to be effective in one arena, may be applicable in all.  These may include advanced profiling procedures.

The Anthrax Attacks

In the weeks, months, and, inevitably, years following the 9/11 attacks, Rider University was impacted by the resulting War on Terror in a wide variety of ways, as was all of American higher education. The first such impact was felt as early as September 18, 2001, when letters postmarked from Trenton-area post offices and containing anthrax spores arrived in the offices U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle, and several news media organizations, ultimately killing five people and making another 17 or so ill.

The FBI visited the biology labs on every college campus along the Route One corridor between New York and Philadelphia, including Rider’s single science building.  Nothing suspicious was found there.  Nor was anything suspicious found in any other university lab in the region.  However, the nearby Hamilton post office, which had handled some of the letters, was closed, not to reopen until three-and-a-half years later.

The FBI also intensely investigated Uncle Sam’s own bio-weapons facilities, including Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland.  The investigation proved to be one involving needles and haystacks, but eventually FBI suspicions focused on a bio-weapons researcher named Steven Hatfill.  Indeed, after years of investigating, the agency’s only “person of interest” was this Fort Detrick alumnus.  Although never indicted, Hatfill’s scrutiny was enough to make him a leper to his profession, essentially unemployable.

After pursuing the wrong suspect for some six years, the government finally admitted it was trailing the wrong guy.  In June 2008, Hatfill received a $5.85 million settlement.

With Hatfill off the (exceedingly short) FBI hit list, old leads were reviewed, witnesses revisited, and a new suspect emerged.  On July 29, 2008, amidst rumors that this time indictments would be forthcoming, another Fort Detrick denizen, 62-year-old Bruce E. Ivins, killed himself.  Attorneys representing Ivins in the government investigation, put their client’s death down to a fragile personality that succumbed to pressure.

“The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people,” Bethesda criminal-defense attorney Paul Kemp commented of the client he had represented for more than a year.  “In Dr. Ivins’s case, it led to his untimely death.”

The publicly available evidence against Ivins was circumstantial but somewhat compelling.  Of some 33 years as an Army scientist, Ivins’s last 18 were spent at Fort Detrick and apparently were devoted in large part to anthrax.  Between December 2001 and April 2002, Ivins secretly swabbed and bleached some 20 work areas that he claimed had been contaminated with anthrax by a sloppy lab technician and then kept his cleanup under wraps.  When those illegal activities came to light, he claimed he couldn’t recall whether or not he had gone back to re-swab the contaminated spots to insure that no spores remained.  A former, unnamed co-worked commented in the media, “That’s bull.  If there’s contamination, you always re-swab.  And you would remember doing it.”

If Ivins was guilty, one irony in the case is that he had earlier helped the FBI analyze the anthrax sent to the senators’ offices. The newspaper reports indicated that the second round of FBI investigations benefited from better genetic technology that made a match between the spores sent through the Postal Service and those with which Ivins had worked, but unless the Department of Justice has some direct evidence yet to be made public, it can’t be certain that Ivins’sdeath closes the case.  What, for instance, may have been his motive?  Reports read by this author to date don’t seem to say.

On the contrary, the Washington Post reported on August 1, 2009 that in 2003, “Ivins and two of his colleagues at the…U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick…received the highest honor given to Defense Department civilian employees for helping solve technical problems in the manufacture of anthrax vaccine.”  That doesn’t sound like the same man whom five years later the DOJ was ready to indict.  And yet, added the Post, prosecutors were considering including a request for the death penalty.

Closure of this case, which is older even than the war in Iraq, would add a note of finality to at least one ugly incident in the eight-year-old War on Terror. We probably aren’t there yet, but if Ivins is guilty as charged, two motives may explain his mad acts, at least as to the extent that they were directed at Senators Leahy and Daschle:

--He believed they were bad Catholics because of their pro-abortion stance, and

--He blamed them for blocking funding for work on an anthrax vaccine.

The Animal Rights Radicals

Expert David DeGrazia identifies three gradations of standards subscribed by activists:

  • Sliding-scale model:  “Animals may be used in research only where their use is consistent with giving their interests appropriate moral weight in view of the animals’ cognitive, emotional, and social complexity.”

Utilitarianism:  “Animals may be used in research only where their use is likely to maximize the overall balance of benefits – factoring in likelihood of success – over harms, where all parties’ (including animals’) interests are impartially considered.”

  • Strong animal-rights view:  “Animals may be used in research only where (1) their involvement does not harm them or (2) their involvement is in their overall best interests (therapeutic research).  This view might also permit animals to be used in research where (3) their involvement poses only minimal risk to them.”

Clearly, the third level is the most demanding.  Indeed, the definition proffered by DeGrazia masks the extreme nature of this last position.  The devil, as they say, is in the details.  For example, whether what a scientist does to his animals harms them or not depends entirely on the definition of the word “harm.”  If one includes under harm the mere caging of an animal, then it is virtually impossible for a research scientist to work with animals in his lab.  Similarly, if one deems the anxiety caused to an animal by the mere handling of that animal to be “harm,” then, once again, the definition would make it well-nigh impossible for a researcher to work with any such animals.

On February 24, 2008, a U.C.-Santa Cruz breast-cancer scientist and her family were enjoying a birthday party, when a loud knock came from their home’s front door.  The researcher’s husband responded and was greeted by six masked visitors, one of whom smacked him on the hand before they got back into their car and drove off.  This was not the first such incident at Santa Cruz, where the cancer researchers use mice in their labs.   Earlier intrusions included graffiti, such as “murderer” and “torturer,” and strewn garbage in front of other scientists’ homes.  Similar assaults were reported in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.

UCLA’s Dr. Edythe D. London, who uses primates to study addiction, has been a particular target of ALF adherents.  Her house has been both firebombed and flooded.

UCLA’s Center for Neurovisceral Sciences and Women’s Health describes Dr. London’s work as follows:

Dr. London's research has advanced the study of substance abuse and the development of new approaches and probes for studies of brain function. She has edited several books and authored over 200 original research articles and over 60 reviews. Her most recognized accomplishments involve PET scanning of human subjects who suffer from addictions. Dr. London's group was the first to show a relationship between drug craving and activity of brain regions that link memory with emotion. She also showed that drug abusers have structural abnormalities in prefrontal cortex and deficits in decision-making tasks that depend on prefrontal cortex function. Her work influenced other researchers to look toward the frontal lobe for an understanding of the compulsive self-administration of drugs despite detrimental effects, which characterizes drug addiction. Most recently, she and her colleagues have developed new probes for external imaging of those receptors in the brain where nicotine binds to produce its behavioral actions.

By contrast, on March 13, 2008, the Animal Liberation Front website ( posted the following anonymous notice:

At the start of last week, in Irvine, Calif., a van owned by UCLA went up in flames. For all of those affected you have the UCLA primate vivisection program to blame.

It is unacceptable for us to see, hear, and know what is going on in our animal labs without taking action. Every time we pass someone like Arthur in the hallways and have to witness his stomach churning grin or watch Joaquin double checking the door locks on his little red Mercedes we have to choke back a crippling amount of disgust and hatred. It is becoming almost impossible to hold back. Then we hear the monkeys wailing and screaming and we find the strength to stay put.

We are driven to show the world the compassionless support that UCLA gives to these monkey killers and to do anything we can to end the needless suffering that the primates are forced to face.

The end of UCLA vivisection is coming. We urge you to start switching over to non-animal protocol without haste.


The Mentally Ill: the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre

In the Virginia Tech killer’s case, future mass-murder Seung-Hui Cho set off numerous red flags at the university prior to becoming the single deadliest killer in U.S. history on April 16, 2007 when he murdered 32 people and wounded 17 others before taking his own life.   In the fall of 2005, a Virginia Tech poetry professor had Cho removed from her class.  Nikki Giovanni told media after the massacre that she found the young man’s poetry so intimidating and his presence so menacing that, when two students who shared her anxiety stopped attending class, she moved to remove Cho.  Describing Cho as “mean,” Giovanni told CNN, “I knew when it happened that that’s probably who it was.”

In November 2005, following up on an harassment complaint lodged by a female student,  Cho, a South Korean citizen with permanent U.S. resident status, was directed to the university’s Office of Judicial Affairs.  The complainant declined to press charges, saying that Cho’s unwelcome attentions were merely annoying, not truly harassing.

A month later another female student filed a complaint against Cho with the campus police.  Shortly after the campus police interviewed Cho, another student called to claim that Cho appeared to be suicidal.  This call resulted in issuance of a detention order.   The troubled young man was subsequently evaluated at Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Health, an independent mental-health facility.  Following this counseling intervention, say police, they received no more student complaints about Cho.

These facts beg the questions:  In the fall of 2005 should Cho have been removed from more than just Giovanni’s poetry class?  Should he have been kept in custody – institutionalized – when he was taken to the mental-health facility?

A May 8, 2007, editorial in the Roanoke Times complained of “No Teeth in Mental Health Laws in Virginia.”  The piece went on to contend that Cho’s fall 2005 release from custody was inappropriate because he was diagnosed as “depressed and imminently dangerous.”  In eerie emulation of the 1966 University of Texas tower-massacre, where a University of Texas  psychiatrist’s had suggested that tower-sniper Whitman make an appointment for the following week, Cho was ordered to pursue outpatient treatment and then released.  As with Whitman, the 23-year-old Cho’s next appearance on the radar screen was with guns in hand.

Is Profiling One Answer?

Is it possible to identify those individuals who are primed to become the next Ivins, freelance Animal Liberation Front sympathizer, or Cho?  Our justice system takes a dim view of profiling. When the police use profiling, it’s condemned as racist. When customs service does it, it’s similarly assailed as discriminatory and unconstitutional. Still, it’s being done. Travel & Leisure Magazine reported in January 2007, “The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently began rolling out a new security program, Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), at dozens of airports around the country.”  Time Magazine explained, “TSA employees will be trained to identify suspicious individuals who raise red flags by exhibiting unusual or anxious behavior, which can be as simple as changes in mannerisms, excessive sweating on a cool day, or changes in the pitch of a person's voice.” Although such techniques invariably arouse the ACLU, should those charged with protecting our campuses from domestic terrorism be encouraged to adopt them?

Some experts have emerged who claim to be capable of raising profiling to a new level of sophistication and reliability.  For example, Consultant Dan Korem’s book, Rage of the Random Actor: Disarming Catastrophic Acts and Restoring Lives,makes the following claims on its dust jacket:

In the early 1990s, Dan Korem, a critically acclaimed investigative journalist and author, identified the Random Actor profile.  He used it to solve the riddle of why there were mass shootings as the Post Office, but not at UPS.  And why mass company shooters work in accounting or on an assembly line, but not in the art department.

In the mid-1990s, he used the same profile to predict student-led terrorist incidents in American schools.  He even identified Denver suburbs as a candidate for a bombing massacre two months before the attack.  After Columbine, he warned that adult-teen Random Actor killer cells would appear; in 2002 the Muhammad-Malvo “sniper” duo opened fire in DC and Maryland suburbs. He also believed that suicide bombers had the Random Actor profile, and he was right.

Mr. Korem’s book presents in great detail his carefully considered method of identifying potential terrorists of the “mad” variety such as Cho.  The depth and breadth of his study illustrates the sophistication to which profiling may aspire. While an article of this length cannot adequately capture techniques that Korem devoted some 500 pages to explicating, a few of his indicia can be ticked off here:

  • Potential “Random Actors” often threat to and/or attempt suicide.
  • “Random Actors” only rarely are African-American or female.
  • “Random Actors” are often into the “bunker syndrome,” shutting themselves off from the people and society around them.
  • Many “Random Actors” are the products of broken homes.
  • Obsession with weapons is a common characteristic of “Random Actors.”
  • Some “Random Actors” have claimed adherence to a fabricated or “hinky” religious doctrine.
  • And some have been pedophiles.

Can we afford to ignore tools of such sophistication and potential?

Recognizing that the major types of campus terrorists have much in common, campus security experts are increasingly answering “no.”

For example, many colleges and universities, making an about-face from their pre-VTU passion for student privacy, have organized cross-divisional committees charged with tracking troubled members of their student bodies.  Borrowing a page or two from Korem, they monitor students who have isolated themselves in their dorm rooms rather than mixing with friends outside the classroom; have engaged in cutting and other self-destructive behavior; have admitted to college counselors or psychologists that they are having violent thoughts or impulses; or who have had either classroom or other campus confrontations bordering upon violent outcomes.

In short, they are profiling in an attempt to make their campuses the safe havens they should be.

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