Threat of homegrown jihadists needs strong community response

Updated: June 11, 2010, 11:32 pm

Published: June 12, 2010, 6:38 am

The arrests of two more Americans as would-be jihadists recently, as they were trying to board flights from New York City to Somalia, is a warning that the face of terror may be changing. Threats not only come from abroad; they can be homegrown.

Domestic terrorism is not new … as this area, home to the late Timothy McVeigh, is all too aware. And the two New Jersey men unmasked by an undercover New York City police officer and arrested as they headed toward hoped-for terror training were just the latest episode in domestic arrests that started with the Lackawanna Six shortly after 9/11.

So far, there have been 49 cases of radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism within the United States, and 133 arrests. And so far, the would-be terrorists have proven, thankfully, inept.

But it only takes one. And America must not let down its guard.

"There is no long mile between the terrorist wannabe and the lethal zealot," Rand Corp. analyst Brian Jenkins testified May 26 before the House Homeland Security Committee.

America’s Muslim-American community plays a huge role in maintaining our guard. It has indeed been helpful … the local chapter of the Muslim American Public Affairs Committee has been recognized for its work with the FBI … but there must be no let-up in community condemnation of terrorism and the organizations that support it.

Studies show that jihadism has not gained a real foothold in America. But the same studies show that support for jihad is stronger among impressionable young Muslims, and that should be a cause of Muslim community as well as national concern.

A Rand Corp. study released in May found that a spike in domestic terrorism during 2009, 13 in that year alone, was caused by young individuals who mostly recruited themselves … drawn to the cause by factors as varied as personal problems to a desire for prestige and to be seen as a warrior in a global struggle. The study predicted a rise in domestic terror attempts in the future, finding that a key factor has been the growth of Internet sites and chat rooms.

The report also contrasts the domestic terrorists of the 1970s, who favored symbolic violence, with today’s terrorists who aim for high body counts.

The Rand study follows a survey done three years ago by the Pew Research Center, which found that 76 percent of American Muslims were concerned about the rise of Islamist extremism worldwide and 61 percent were concerned about its possible rise in the United States.

That survey also found that 78 percent believed suicide bombing in defense of Islam could never be justified while 8 percent thought it could, and that 5 percent favored the views of al-Qaida.

But the numbers for Muslim-Americans younger than 30 were more troubling: 15 percent said suicide bombing could be often or sometimes justified. And the pollsters were surprised to find that only 40 percent of American Muslims believed Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 ttacks.

The more recent Rand study concludes that public reaction … both in downplaying any jihadist "glamor" and detecting problems … is a key component of homeland defense.

Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of Muslims here are happy in this country and decry the violence that occurs. As Jenkins testified, the 133 arrests so far only show "a tiny turnout in a Muslim-American community of perhaps 3 million," and there are several thousand Muslims in our armed forces.

What we are seeing, he said, are "veins of extremism, handfuls of hotheads but no deep reservoirs…. Al-Qaida’s exhortations to violence are not resonating among the vast majority of Muslim-Americans."

But who is most likely to dissuade young Muslims from acting? Muslim leaders can look in the mirror for that answer. They wield community influence, and also can gain more support from the average American for U.S. Muslims. Continued strong statements by the leadership of Muslim organizations, repeatedly condemning violence, are called for. There should be a well-conceived campaign to meet this goals … and continued strong denunciation of would-be jihadists and of violence when it does occur.

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