Southers, the director of transition and research deployment for the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), responded to questions from Bostic, the director of the USC Bedrosian Center on Governance, in the latest installment of the Price Research Center Collaborative. Attacks at a magazine and kosher supermarket two weeks earlier killed 12 in the deadliest act of terrorism in France in more than 50 years.
“The massacre in Paris raised many issues about how to govern and maintain security in an increasingly interconnected world where there are many seeking to spread chaos and violence,” Bostic said. “Erroll is a preeminent expert on terrorism issues and an eloquent voice on the realities in this realm… this was an excellent opportunity to discuss governance and security with an eye towards what we can and should be doing to prevent terrorists from being successful.”
The Paris incident is an example of a new trend in which people born in Western European countries such as France, Germany, and Great Britain travel to places such as Syria, where they can get terrorist training, and then return to their countries of origin to operate as freedom fighters.
Southers said the big question is whether this is an organized effort with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS having command and control to operationalize cells. One attacker in Paris claimed to be directed by AQAP, but the group waited until the attackers were killed to claim responsibility.
“We would have thought as it was unfolding they would have said this is ours, and they would have owned it,” Southers said. “They didn’t, so we’re not really sure.”
ISIS is developing as a particular threat because it is acquiring territory, controls resources and has an incredibly complex media arm. By swearing allegiance to the organization, opportunists interested in becoming freedom fighters can get the training, logistics, and communications to enhance their operation in a way few were ever able to get from bin Laden.
“It’s a war against a terrorist army as opposed to a terrorist organization,” Southers said. “They are very organized, very sophisticated, and they are built for sustainability. We’ve already found out that if you take out a leader in a drone strike this afternoon, tomorrow he’ll already be replaced and not missed.”
Southers is working with a national initiative from the Obama Administration and the Department of Homeland Security called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). He is the CVE Theme Leader at CREATE and said they know people have left the United States to fight in Syria, and it would be naïve to think that they haven’t returned. But, the homegrown threat is as troubling as returning foreign fighters.
“These organizations are not importing their operators anymore,” Southers said. “If they want to hit a target in L.A., they want an Angeleno. They want someone who has probably grown up here.”
Southers emphasized the importance of improving relationships in immigrant communities — which can be vital to help identify people who have grown up locally and been an average kid, up until they start to radicalize. He noted how one of the brothers in the Boston bombings was ejected from his mosque when he challenged the imam’s decision to celebrate MLK Day.
“If we marginalize and alienate the people in the mosque and these kinds of things happen, then we won’t know about it until after they’ve done something significantly worse,” Southers said. “When an imam could have said, ‘We have a problem here; we just ejected this guy from the mosque and maybe he’s somebody you can take a look at.’ We can’t marginalize the community that we need to work with.”
About 50 students, faculty and community members attended the event.
“It’s interesting that homegrown terrorism is becoming more of an issue, and I think Dr. Southers raised a lot of good points about what we need to focus on, such as working with the community, to find solutions,” said Justine Dodgen, a first-year master of public administration student at USC Price.