America and Europe have experienced a string of terrorist attacks perpetrated by “homegrown” terrorists. But the term “homegrown” is often conflated with “independent”. There are in fact two types of homegrown terrorists: those with external support and guidance and those without. In recent years a clear pattern has emerged. Technically sophisticated attacks, such as the 7/7 attacks in London and the airline liquid explosives plot, have with almost no exception been carried out by terrorists who where homegrown, but had received substantial training and guidance from terrorist groups outside Europe, usually based in Pakistan. Terrorists who lacked the connections to established terror networks had to resort to more primitive methods such as shooting or stabbing.
This importance of hands-on training has been neglected in the hype surrounding “homegrown” terrorism. It turns out that it is more difficult than it was once believed to teach bomb making and other essential terrorist skills over the internet. One indication for this is that intelligence agencies still presume that there are only a limited number of proficient bomb makers within al-Qaida’s ranks.
The internet, however, does play a role in radicalization processes. In May 2010 British student Roshonara Choudhry tried to stab MP Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war. When interrogated by the police shortly after the crime, she said that video sermons by the radical preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki, who resides in Yemen, had prompted her to “punish” Timms. She had also consulted an Islamist website which had called on Muslims to “raise the knife of Jihad” against MPs who had voted for the Iraq war in 2003. There is no question that Choudhry was not radicalized solely by watching a couple of videos featuring Al-Awlaki, but it is reasonable to assume that these contributed to her decision to attack Timms.