Commentary Magazine


The Homegrown-Terrorist Threat

If 2001 was the year when international terrorism hit American soil, then 2009 was the year when Americans became the targets of domestic terrorism. In November, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, born in Virginia to Palestinian Muslim parents, killed 13 and wounded 30 in his one-man attack on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas. The massacre, which Senator Joseph Lieberman properly labeled “the most destructive terrorist act to be committed on American soil since 9/11,” capped a year of terrorist plots or conspiracies inside the United States, most of which were stopped by law enforcement in their planning stages. The notable fact about all these cases is that they are examples of so-called homegrown terrorism—meaning that they were planned by individuals either born or raised in the United States and executed without significant assistance from overseas networks.

In October, the American-born David Coleman Headley, who had changed his name from Daood Sayed Gilani to disguise his half-Pakistani origins, was arrested for planning an attack on the Danish newspaper that published cartoons depicting Muhammad in 2006 and for providing assistance to the Pakistan-based terrorist group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 170 were killed. Two days after Headley was charged, Pakistani authorities arrested five Muslim men born and raised in and around Washington, D.C., for planning to take up arms against coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Washington Five were all college students, “fun-loving, career-focused children that had a bright future for themselves,” in the words of a youth coordinator who knew them.

On June 1, 2009, a 23-year-old Army recruiter in Little Rock was shot and killed by an African-American convert to Islam who, upon his arrest, began complaining about American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. A week before that, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which coordinates some 40 local and federal law-enforcement agencies, arrested four men for attempting to shoot down military planes based at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, and detonate bombs at two synagogues in the Bronx.

Of the 30-odd attempted terrorist plots against the United States or American installations abroad that have been foiled since 9/11, roughly a third have been uncovered in the past year alone. What is new, and particularly frightening, about these recent attempts is that the budding perpetrators were initially indoctrinated inside the United States, with help from extremist websites or Islamic preachers. It was only after they had been brought some ways along the road to holy war that at least some of these would-be jihadists sought training and logistical support from al-Qaeda and others overseas.

This development has come as a surprise. It had become accepted wisdom that the openness of the United States and its acceptance of minority faiths and communities had helped to prevent the spread of the kind of Islamic radicalism that has gripped Western Europe over the past decade. Whereas European Muslims, many of them descendants of manual laborers imported from North Africa and the Middle East, comprise a ghettoized underclass and face great difficulty adapting to the rigid notions of European national identities, Muslims in the United States are, on average, better educated than most Americans and earn about the same amount.

In 2005, Spencer Ackermanof the New Republic trumpeted the seeming inoculation of American Muslims to jihadist enticement, concluding that “if the United States is looking for a way to win the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide, it ought to first look at what it has accomplished at home.” Five years ago, Ackerman’s assessment seemed accurate. Today it seems complacent. Radicalization, we now know for a certainty, is happening here.

Indeed, it is happening here among those who would theoretically provide the evidence for Ackerman’s claim—Muslims born abroad who make their home in the United States. In September, Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old native of Afghanistan and legal resident, was charged with plotting to set off explosives against high-profile targets in New York City. Both Zazi and Betim Kaziu, a Kosovar Albanian who became a U.S. citizen and was indicted in September for conspiracy to commit murder abroad and provide material support to terrorists, turned to jihadism on American soil.

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In August 2007, the New York City Police Department released a report on the process of radicalization that leads to terrorist attacks. The study described an intricate four-step progression by which individuals, most likely to be Muslim men between the ages of 15 and 35, are led from their status as “unremarkable” citizens to would-be perpetrators of atrocities.

The process begins at a stage of “pre-radicalization” during which they are initially exposed to Salafism, an extremist form of Sunni Islam that commits its followers to the murder of infidels or those Muslims deemed insufficiently devout (Shiites, for example).

Next follows “self-identification,” a period in which the potential terrorist, usually catalyzed by a specific event, begins to disavow previously held worldviews and embraces the legitimacy of violent jihad. The third step is “indoctrination,” when, with the support of radicals in his ambit (usually imams or extremist peers), the individual becomes estranged from his former life and fully accepts Salafist ideology as his guiding purpose. Finally comes “Jihadization,” the operational phase of the process, when the budding terrorist takes part in training activities and the actual planning of terrorist attacks against specific targets. An Islamic upbringing or even prior knowledge of Islam is not necessary; indeed, most terrorists begin their lives with next to no Islamic identity whatsoever. In testimony late last year to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the NYPD’s director of intelligence analysis, Mitchell D. Silber, stated that “the vast majority of individuals who end up radicalizing to violence do not start out as religiously observant or knowledgeable.”

At the time the 2007 report was released, the kind of homegrown terrorist plots that would surface with a vengeance in 2009 were few and far between—six men convicted of a plot in Lackawanna, New York, in 2002; another six outside Portland, Oregon, that same year; and the seven who sought to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey in 2007 most prominent among them. The 2007 NYPD report focused on attacks that had taken place in Europe, where homegrown terrorists committed mass atrocities on the Madrid and London commuter systems and murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

While they come from diverse ethnic and regional backgrounds, most of the men involved in homegrown plots fit a similar profile: they are middle class and well-educated. The same can be said of many, if not most, Islamist terrorists, whether it be the son of the former Nigerian finance minister who attempted to bring down a plane on Christmas Day near Detroit; the seven British doctors (and one medical technician) who plotted to carry out car bombings in 2007; or Osama bin Laden himself, whose family operates a massive construction empire worth billions of dollars. This reality contradicts the trendy, post-9/11 contention, as wrong then as it is now, that terrorism is caused by poverty.

In this sense, America’s homegrown terrorists resemble Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian-born cleric widely credited as the leading intellectual founder of contemporary political Islam and a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb, who gained prominence in the 1950s and was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in 1966, was radicalized not by his childhood experiences or encounters with American imperialism but rather by a two-year visit to the United States that commenced in 1948. It was there that he developed a hatred for what he considered to be the unparalleled materialism and licentiousness of American culture; he was particularly scandalized by a church dance in Greeley, Colorado. “Jazz,” Qutb wrote of the prototypical American, “is his preferred music, and it is created by Negroes to satisfy their love of noise and to whet their sexual desires.”

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To be sure, and it bears repeating, the murderous actions of Nidal Hasan and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (the murderer of the military recruiter in Little Rock) were not embraced by any appreciable number of American Muslims, and there is no reason to believe the terrorists’ actions enjoy even tacit support in that community. American Muslims have proved crucial to both domestic and international counterterrorism efforts and will continue to play a vital role in identifying extremist influences and thwarting future attacks. But if there is one lesson to be learned from the past year’s events, it is that the only prerequisite for a successful terrorist act—whether it be the shooting of a single military recruiter or the destruction of a major landmark—is a lone determined person able to elude law enforcement and the increasingly alert eyes of the general public.

Despite all the available evidence pointing to the destruction that homegrown terrorists can wreak on free societies, some seem to have drawn the completely opposite conclusion about their proliferation and potential. They have interpreted Hasan’s “loner” credentials as, in the words of Ezra Klein, a blogger for the Washington Post, “encouraging,” for it indicates that his killing spree was not connected to a larger series of plots designed and carried out by an extensive, international network, all orchestrated from remote, hard-to-target locations in foreign countries.

Given the obvious difficulties of carrying on military operations overseas—which, had Hasan been aided and abetted by a foreign government or terrorist group headquartered in another country, would have been the most likely American response to his attack—perhaps this is in some sense reassuring. Yet while there may be a level of cursory relief to be gained from this analysis, the implications of what Nidal Hasan managed to pull off, without the assistance of a state or subnational terrorist group, may be even more disturbing than if he had been a foreign agent. The only evidence unearthed of his connection to foreign sources is a series of e-mails he exchanged years ago with Anwar al-Aulaqi, a Salafist imam whose work Nidal Hasan found on the Internet. The imam himself was a visitor at the very mosque in northern Virginia frequented by the five Washingtonians who were in Pakistan late last year.

What the events of November 5, 2009, demonstrate is that it takes only a single, freelance extremist willing to give his life in the service of a murderous cause to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil. The perpetrator need never even establish formal contacts with al-Qaeda or any of its affiliated organizations. All he requires is a militant ideology and the necessary implements to carry out the murder of innocents, tools readily available in the United States to anyone disposed to commit such a crime. That person has nearly unlimited freedom of movement and action.

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How to combat the homegrown terrorism threat? The first step is to recognize the problem. And it is this condition that may prove most difficult. “It would be a shame—as great a tragedy as this was—it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well,” General George Casey, the Army chief of staff, said in response to the Fort Hood massacre. While it is no doubt important to welcome Muslims into the American military (given that we are fighting wars in two Muslim countries), this sort of remark indicates the atmosphere of political correctness that hangs over this issue like a dense fog. Despite the evidence that poured in over the days and weeks after the Fort hood attack, a variety of pundits and government officials refused to acknowledge that what motivated Hasan to kill was extremist Islam, explaining away the killings as the actions of a deranged recluse, no different from those of an unhinged postal worker.

Such remonstrations seem to follow every warning about homegrown terrorism. When the NYPD released its 2007 report, the Council on American Islamic Relations, one of the country’s most prominent and outspoken Muslim groups, stated that “its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community.”

The logic of this analysis—that America now faces a homegrown terrorism threat and that Homeland Security may have to increase its surveillance of American Muslims—has proved to be too onerous for many to bear. Predictably, some on the Left have argued that the best way to avert future terrorist attacks, whether foreign or domestic in origin, is to strike at the root of the problem: American foreign policy. Radically altering America’s role in the world has long been a signature cause of the Left, and the admonition that failure to do so may result in the deaths of innocent Americans ostensibly gives the argument more salience. This case was made most plainly by New America Foundation fellow Robert Wright in the New York Times. In a piece entitled “Who Created Major Hasan,” Wright essentially answered the question as a formulation of cartoonist Walt Kelly’s conservationist mantra, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” While conceding that Hasan is “crazy,” Wright wrote that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the opposition to those interventions by Muslims around the world, led him to see why “the hawkish war-on-terrorism strategy—a global anti-jihad that creates nonstop imagery of Americans killing Muslims—is so dubious.”*

Of course, terrorism against the United States began long before American boots ever landed in Afghanistan or Iraq; surely Wright is familiar with the chronology of 9/11 in relation to those two wars. Moreover, if Hasan and his ideological confreres were legitimately concerned with the fate of the Muslim umma, they would direct their anger toward the likes of al–Qaeda and the regime in Tehran, which are daily responsible for the deliberate and wanton slaughter of Muslim civilians. It is true, and terrorism analysts working with the NYPD and other government agencies readily admit, that the endless images of bloodshed in Afghanistan and Iraq provide Islamists with easy visual recruiting tools and that their task has become easier thanks to the Internet. But surely the worst thing the United States could do—after surveying the mayhem successfully, and potentially, executed by domestic Muslim extremists—is to decide that the way to solve this problem is to bow to their demands.

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One would think that the increase in successful and near successful domestic-terrorism plots over the past year would engender some sort of recognition on the part of people who think and write about current events that a very real threat exists. And, to be sure, reading the mainstream press and listening to elite pundits over the past year, it is clear that the peril of domestic terrorism does occupy their thoughts. But it is decidedly not Islamist terrorism that they consider to be the great danger facing the country but rather violent extremism of an altogether different sort: “right-wing” extremism.

The notion that the country is seriously threatened by right-wing terrorism picked up force almost immediately after President Barack Obama was sworn into office and opposition to his domestic and foreign-policy agenda crystallized. Not a day has gone by without manifestations of this disagreement, no matter how innocuous, being deemed “racist” or a danger to the general peace of the Republic. Initially a pastime of the administration’s defenders in the media, criticism of administration policy soon became a governmental concern. In April, it was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security had produced a report entitled “Right-Wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which acknowledged the radicalizing effect that the election of the nation’s first black president might have on far-Right domestic organizations.

The color of the president’s skin is no small thing, not only for what it says about the amazing progress this country has made in light of its tortured racial history but also in respect to the resentment and anger it has stirred in a very small segment of the American populace. What was irritating about the DHS report, however, was its attempt to conflate legitimate critics of the Obama administration’s domestic agenda, about which reasonable people can disagree, with those who would resort to violence out of their maniacal belief that a supposedly Kenyan-born Manchurian Candidate is leading the country to perdition. But despite mounting evidence over the past year that a domestic Islamist threat was growing, the Left could not draw its attention away from the specter of “right-wing” violence.

In September, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went so far as to draw a direct parallel between the “poisonous political environment that was interpreted by one right-wing Jewish nationalist as a license to kill [Yitzak] Rabin” in 1995 and today’s America. In September, liberals rushed to condemn, in the words of one of their more prominent writers, “Southern populist terrorism whipped up by the GOP and its Fox and talk radio cohorts,” after a federal census worker was found hanging from a tree in Kentucky with the word “FED” carved into his chest.

“The Next Generation of Lynching?” one popular left-wing blog asked, noting that “the levels of right-wing vitriol have reached psychotic new heights.” When it was later revealed that the man had killed himself, most likely in an attempt to have his family collecton a life-insurance policy, most of these bloggers were silent. The hysteria reached its height in September when, in a live Capitol Hill press conference, the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, tearfully invoked the 1978 murder of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk as an example of where conservative commentary about Obama and the Democratic Congress would inevitably lead.

Had these newfound watchdogs of political comity shown anything near such concern while the last occupant of the White House was in office, their complaints today might be more credible. But they seem to unearth this conscience only when conservatives are out of power. Never mind the series of known (in addition to the many, presumably unreported) assassination attempts against the previous president, so reviled by the same politicians and pundits who now decry the loss of political decorum, or that his murder had actually been delightedly fictionalized in both novelistic (Checkpoint, by Nicholson Baker) and cinematic (Death of a President) form. President Obama, the mandarins of the media assure us, has been the recipient of a hatred the venom of which has not been seen since the assassination of John F. Kennedy (whom, it is always worth pointing out, was murdered by a Communist). The not-so-subtle purpose of this campaign has been to associate the deplorable rhetoric of a handful in the right-wing fever swamp with the appreciable mass of conservatives, thus painting the president’s critics as racists prone to violence.

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Ultimately, there is little more that the United States can do to prevent homegrown terrorism, other than maintain the counter-terrorism policies enacted by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11, policies that proved so successful in preventing another terrorist attack on American soil. Given the rhetoric and actions of the present administration, which wants to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, prosecute CIA officers for using interrogation techniques disfavored by the American Civil Liberties Union, and generally approach the war on Islamic supremacism as a legalistic exercise, it is hardly certain that such a course will be followed. But the least we can ask of our nation’s political and intellectual elite is that they stop wailing about the phantom menace of “right-wing” terrorism and start paying more attention to the genuine article.

About the Author

James Kirchick, based in Berlin, is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to the New Republic.