They are named David. They are clean-shaven dental students and attendees of community colleges. They study hard, play sports, and open Facebook accounts. Their friends call them "normal Joes." And they're being arrested in ever-growing numbers, would-be terrorists plotting to kill their fellow Americans and conduct "holy war" at home and abroad. Wednesday's arrest in Pakistan of five Muslim-American men attests to a growing phenomenon: the radicalization of young American Muslims on American soil.
When the New York Police Department first issued a 90-page report in August 2007 asserting that what it called "homegrown radicalization" was destined to become a major terrorist threat, many of the nation's civil libertarians, self-proclaimed Muslim spokesmen, and even law enforcement officials were outraged. Civil libertarians warned that the NYPD's conclusions would lead to religious and ethnic profiling in policing. Muslim groups demanded and got meetings with senior NYPD officials. FBI analysts and officials disputed the NYPD's findings in interviews and congressional testimony.
But the department stood its ground, and police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly backed his troops. The department's intelligence division continued its research, and the report gradually found supporters in Washington. With the arrest of the five young Americans in Pakistan, and with the charges filed last month against recruiters from al-Shabaab alleged to have enlisted Somali teens in Minnesota to fight in the Somali civil war, the report's once-controversial conclusions appear to be all too true.
At a Tuesday conference for Operation Shield, an NYPD program that shares intelligence and security tips with local businesses and private security firms, Mitchell D. Silber, the NYPD's director of intelligence analysis, outlined his analysts' updated findings. His bottom line hadn't changed, he told the audience of over 200. While al-Qaida remained a vital source of "inspiration and an ideological reference point," the more insidious terrorist threat was younger Muslim men between the ages of 15 and 35 who had no direct al-Qaida connection but who had become radicalized by exposure to extreme interpretations of Islam. The NYPD had seen nothing that would mitigate its concern that members of New York's diverse Muslim population of 600,000 to 750,000 people—about 40 percent foreign-born—might be vulnerable to radicalization.
What was new, Silber said, was the department's understanding of the growing importance of the "spiritual sanctioner"—a religious figure who provides justification for violence, often through mosque lectures or radical websites. A prime example, he said, was Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Sunni imam who had preached at Dar al-Hijrah in Falls Church, Virginia in 2001 and 2002. The 9/11 Commission concluded that two of the 9/11 hijackers—Hani Hanjour and Nawaf al-Hazmi—had worshipped at that mosque in spring 2001. So, too, did Major Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist whom the government has charged with the murder of 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas last month. Silber added that al-Awlaki's radical tracts had been linked to plotters in three other terrorist schemes: plans by six radical Islamists in 2007 to attack the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey; the 2006 plot to blow up multiple jet aircraft in flight; and the plot by the so-called "Toronto 18" to detonate powerful truck bombs in downtown Toronto in 2005 and 2006.
Silber said that the key plotters in 30 of some 33 plots that the NYPD had examined, or 90 percent, had been radicalized in the West and were targeting the country in which they had been radicalized. In the past year alone, Silber went on, U.S. authorities had uncovered nine plots that had elements of homegrown radicalization, indicating that radicalization was an ongoing problem in the U.S. In half a dozen of these cases, he said, people who had contemplated traveling abroad to carry out violence decided instead to try to do it within the United States. This kind of threat "is substantially greater than what we have seen in the past," Silber said.
I was reminded of a Pew poll of American Muslims three years ago that showed that a third of American Muslims between the ages of 18 and 29 said that they supported suicide bombings.
Still, there may be some good news buried in the NYPD's graphs and charts. First, the number of al Qaida-inspired, homegrown terrorist plots against the West peaked in 2004 (experts are still hotly debating why that year saw such a high number – perhaps as a reaction to the 2003 Iraq invasion). Second, almost none has succeeded. Except for the case of Major Hasan, who may or may not have had links with a militant Islamic group, there have been no lethal terror attacks in the West since the bombings of the London Tube and train stations in July 2005.
Consider the five Muslim Americans arrested in Pakistan this week. Pakistani officials said that the five had used their American passports to travel to Pakistan to meet with representatives of Jaish-e-Muhammad, a banned Pakistani militant group with links to al-Qaida. The young men were said to be seeking training to conduct jihad in northwestern Pakistan and against American troops in Afghanistan. One had even recorded a farewell video to his family. Their overtures to terrorist groups were rejected, Pakistani officials said, because they lacked the requisite references from trusted militants.
What's encouraging is that the families of the five had reported them missing to law enforcement officials, and that a Muslim-American group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which itself has been accused by Steven Emerson and other terrorism analysts of helping radicalize American Muslims, encouraged the families to contact the FBI. And Nihad Awad, CAIR's cofounder—who had previously been reluctant to acknowledge that the Muslim-American community had a problem with potential radicalization—finally acknowledged as much this week. The incident in Pakistan should remind us that in addition to the intelligence-led policing efforts of the NYPD and the FBI, our most powerful defense against Islamic radicalization and terrorism is the efforts of mainstream Muslim-Americans to help prevent extremists from carrying out their plots.