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Q&A: Dr. Joshua Sinai, Professor of Practice for Counterterrorism Studies

The Capitol Technology University Blog sat down with Dr. Joshua Sinai, Capitol Tech's Professor of Practice for Counterterrorism Studies, to talk about his field and the BS in Counterterrorism and PhD Counterterrorism programs offered by the university. Dr. Sinai also discussed his recently published article titled "Assessing the Active Shooter Attack Against YouTube Headquarters, on April 3, 2018, and Prevention Measures"1 on the YouTube shooting which took place on April 3, 2018, a significant event in counterterrorism studies, which can be read here.

 

Question: What occurred during the YouTube shooting incident? How does this relate to counterterrorism?

Answer: On April 3, 2018, Nassim Aghdam, age 38, made her way to the outdoor patio at the entrance to YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California. She took out her semi-automatic pistol and shot randomly at the employees, wounding three of them, with one of them dying from the wounds. She then killed herself with a self-inflicted gunshot.

In terrorism studies, while a terrorist attack is generally defined as a politically-driven violent attack, one could argue that Aghdam, who was an extremist animal rights activist in San Diego, became filled with rage when YouTube decided to censor the gruesome animal rights videos that she posted on her YouTube channels, which she perceived as discrimination against the ideology of animal-rights groups. Her violent rage against YouTube, therefore, could qualify the attack as politically motivated, since some of those who have engaged in terrorism in the past were extremist animal rights activists who attacked medical laboratories where animals were being tested as part of the effort to develop drugs and vaccines. 

 

Q: Could you summarize what your article discusses?

A: The article discusses Aghdam’s personal background, her role as a YouTube “vlogger” (video blogger), YouTube’s decision to remove her gruesome animal rights videos from her channels, and her decision and preparation process in carrying out the attack in early April 2018. It also examines her family’s earnest but unsuccessful attempt to have her stopped by law enforcement during her two-day long drive north from San Diego to YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno. Also discussed are some of the threat prevention measures  for social media corporations to implement to prevent violent attacks against them by some their aggrieved vlogger contractors who depend on royalty payment for the popularity of their videos for their income.

 

Q: Why did you want to focus on this incident? What made this event a good case study?

A: Aghdam’s rage-filled and vengeful shooting against YouTube’s employees was so horrifically tragic – for her and for her victims – that I wanted to understand her psychological and ideological motivations for carrying out such a premeditated attack, and how she went about planning and preparing to carry it out.

This attack also made for a good case study because it enabled me to apply a diagnostic tool to map Aghdam’s progressively escalating trajectory into carrying out her violent attack. This is also a good case study to examine the early warning pre-incident signals that law enforcement and YouTube’s security department could have picked up for effective preemption.

 

Q: What is your process for writing an article to be published in a journal?

A: As an academic, there are two types of journals to write for. One is academic, where the objective is to formulate an interesting and important central hypothesis and apply a qualitative or quantitative methodology to test it with evidence that is backed up by sources. The length of such articles is usually 5,000 words or longer.

A: A second type is a “popular” journal, such as “The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International,” where my article was published, that is read by public safety practitioners, in which the writing style is expected to be more journalistic and with few footnotes, the articles are shorter in length, and they still cover the subject in a way that useful for the readers to understand how to go about analyzing such issues in their daily work.

In my publishing career, I’ve written for both academic and “popular” journals (including newspapers), and find that for all of them it is important to write clearly and in an engaging manner, so that whatever is a journal’s audience they will find the articles interesting and useful.    

 

Q: You mentioned that you wrote this as an investigator would. What does it mean to be an investigator?

A: I’ve worked alongside law enforcement investigators and they have asked me to provide them with conceptual frameworks they could use in their investigations, for instance, to figure out the progressively escalating phases and threshold points to identify if their subjects under surveillance are “talkers, or about to go operational.” In another aspect of investigations, following an attack, investigators will attempt to reverse engineer the phases of the attack in order to figure out significant intervention points that could have been identified for effective preemption by law enforcement authorities at the earliest phases prior to the attack.

 

Q: Please describe what it means to “use a pre-incident trajectory into violence phases model” and how was this adapted from what is used in the field?

A: In this article, the trajectory into violence model consists of mapping the attack’s pre-incident triggering, planning, preparation, targeting, and executing (TPPTE) phases. This differs to some extent from a widely used pathway to violence model developed by Frederick Calhoun and Steve Weston in 2003, which is based on the five pre-incident phases of grievance, violent ideation, research & planning, preparation, and probing and breaching, which culminate in the sixth phase of an attack. In my model, as opposed to Calhoun’s and Weston’s, I combine the grievance and violent ideation phases into a single triggering phase (which also includes a traumatic crisis of various sorts experienced by such individuals), that, once consolidated, leads to the next four attack phases. My model, I believe, is a more streamlined way to map a trajectory into violence process by such susceptible violent actors – but it could not have been developed without the original framework by Calhoun and Weston.

 

Q: What does it mean that our programs are practitioner oriented?

A: In our counterterrorism, critical infrastructure protection, and cyber security programs we aim to provide our students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, a state-of-the-discipline knowledge in the theoretical components of these subjects as well as expertise in applying the methodologies and software-based tools to analyze these subjects. This is one of the reasons that our students take courses in subjects such as computer science.

Our counterterrorism studies program is working closely with our colleagues in computer science, critical infrastructure protection, and cyber security (and other technology disciplines) to ensure that our courses are coordinated in a way to ensure for our students the best possible integrated curriculum.

We are also engaged in several joint departmental laboratory-based projects, such as an open-source database on the number of terrorists around the world, that will engage our students in continuously updating and expanding the database and applying software tools to operationalize it in order to generate a host of important and interesting findings that will contribute to advancing  the state-of-the-discipline on these issues.

Such an integrated and interdisciplinary approach will help develop practitioner-oriented capabilities that will position our students as attractive candidates to work at government agencies and private sector companies.

Resources:

  1. “Assessing the Active Shooter Attack Against YouTube Headquarters, on April 3, 2018, and Prevention Measures” article for The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International, Volume 26, No. 2 (December 2020), pages, 32-34.

Dr. Joshua Sinai is a Professor of Practice, Counterterrorism Studies, at Capitol Technology University. His more than 30-year career in Washington, DC, has included working as a contractor at the Department of Homeland Security’s National Operations Center (when it was first stood up) and DHS’s Science & Technology Directorate, as well as at the FBI’s Foreign Terrorist Tracking Force (FTTTF) and the Federal Protective Service’s (FPS) Training Branch. He also serves as Book Reviews Editor of the online bi-monthly academic journal “Perspectives on Terrorism,” for which he writes the “Counterterrorism Bookshelf” review column.