Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Keeping a Lid on Homegrown Terror

| October 5, 2009

TERRORISM DRAMATICALLY regained the headlines recently, as US authorities revealed the details of three unrelated plots they foiled.

Authorities in Illinois arrested Michael Finton, a 29-year-old convert to Islam in an alleged plot to blow up a federal building in Springfield. The next day a 19-year-old Jordanian national was arrested for allegedly hatching a similar plot against a Dallas skyscraper. Finally, in what has been called by authorities the most serious attempt to strike the US homeland since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, authorities indicted Najibullah Zazi, a longtime US resident of Afghan descent who had allegedly planned to carry out bombings with chemicals he had purchased in beauty supply stores. These events seem to confirm what authorities have been saying for the last few years: while the overwhelming majority of the American Muslim community abhors terrorism, a small segment is not impermeable to radicalization.

European authorities have long struggled with the same issue, as hundreds of European Muslims have been involved in terrorist activities. Over the last few years US authorities have questioned whether the emergence of large numbers of radicalized Muslims could also take place here.

Of course, there are differences between the United States and Europe. The first is related to the significantly better economic conditions of American Muslims. While European Muslims generally languish at the bottom of most rankings that measure economic integration, American Muslims fare significantly better. Although economic integration is not always an antidote to radicalization, it is undeniable that radical ideas find a fertile environment among unemployed and disenfranchised youth.

Geographic dispersion, immigration patterns, and tougher immigration policies have also prevented the formation of extensive recruiting and propaganda networks as those that have sprung up in Europe.

Finally, there is the fact that large segments of the American Muslim population belong to ethnicities that have traditionally espoused moderate interpretations of Islam.

While all these characteristics still hold true, they no longer represent a guarantee. A 2007 report by the New York Police Department stated that "despite the economic opportunities in the United States, the powerful gravitational pull of individuals' religious roots and identity sometimes supersede the assimilating nature of American society."

Factors such as perception of discrimination and frustration at US foreign policies could lead to radicalization, irrespective of favorable economic conditions. Recent cases have also shown that radicalization can touch communities where extremism is rare, such as the Albanian and the Iranian American.

Moreover, the fact that no organized group has an extensive network in the country is no longer a guarantee that radicalization cannot reach America's shores, as the Internet has replaced the need to have operatives physically spreading the propaganda on the ground. A search of jihadist chat rooms and even of subgroups in "benign" social network sites reveal the presence of many American-born youngsters who glorify Al Qaeda's ideology.

In response, aggressive counterterrorism tactics and improved intelligence sharing have allowed US authorities to dismantle cells and keep the country safe. At the same time, though, the United States seems to be lacking a long-term strategy to confront the threat. Authorities have been unable to conceive a policy that would preemptively tackle the issue of radicalization, preventing young American Muslims from embracing extremist ideas in the first place.

Various intelligence law enforcement agencies have reached out to the academic community to better understand the social, political, and psychological causes of radicalization. But the limited understanding of the issue, coupled with the overlap of jurisdiction between often competing federal, state, and local authorities, has prevented the implementation of a systematic, nationwide program to combat radicalization.

Keeping in mind that there is no silver bullet that can stop all individuals from embracing radical ideas or violence, there are measures that the United States can adopt. Several cases have shown, for example, that prisons are a potential breeding ground for radicalism, a place where a well organized supply (radical inmates or imams) meets a large demand (disenfranchised and angry men). While respecting the inmates' religious rights, authorities must make sure that radicalization does not spread in American prisons.

The Internet is another weak spot. Policing the Web is obviously impossible, but authorities in various Muslim countries have begun infiltrating known jihadist chat rooms in order to undermine their radical views and influence their less-hardened visitors. This sort of involvement in key battlefields of the so-called war of ideas is sorely lacking in this country.

Solutions are exceptionally hard to find. Europeans have long struggled with the same issue and are only now attempting to put in place coherent programs to fight radicalization, the success of which is still to be verified. Equally challenging have been efforts, on both sides of the Atlantic, to find reliable and representative organizations within various Muslim communities to be employed as partners in anti-radicalization activities.

But recent events clearly show that the issue needs to be addressed in America. Even the most aggressive counterterrorism tactics cannot stop all acts of violence. Therefore, the United States needs to make long-term plans to stem the ideas that lead people to resort to terrorism in the first place.

Lorenzo Vidino is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and a peace scholar at the US Institute of Peace.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Vidino, Lorenzo.“Keeping a Lid on Homegrown Terror.” The Boston Globe, October 5, 2009.

The Author