Domestic Terror: The Worry About Homegrown Plots

It is still too early to tell what exactly motivated Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan to open fire on fellow American soldiers earlier this month, but the massacre came on the heels of a series of foiled terrorist plots involving Americans. In light of revelations that Anwar al-Awlaki, an extremist American cleric based in Yemen, had e-mailed with Hasan, it is worth asking whether America faces a growing threat from domestic terrorism, and to what degree those involved in terrorism are becoming radicalized not in some far-flung locale, but right here in the United States.

In the years after 9/11, Muslims in the United States were widely assumed to be less sympathetic to Islamist radicalism than their European counterparts. This has been attributed to the high skill level of many Muslim immigrants, their relative economic success, the peaceful form of Islam being preached in nearly all American mosques, the American principles of free speech and religious pluralism, and the melting-pot culture of the United States. And, indeed, the danger from homegrown terrorism in the years after 9/11 was less acute in the U.S. than in Europe, where many more serious plots were disrupted.

But recent events suggest that things may be changing. As Mitchell D. Silber, the director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, "U.S. authorities have uncovered a significant and increasing number of radicalized clusters or individuals intent on committing violent jihad either in the U.S. or abroad," and that arrests during the last 12 months and intelligence gained by the U.S. government "indicate that radicalization to violence is taking place in the United States."

In the last six months there have been nine cases of Muslims in United States allegedly becoming involved in Islamist terrorism. On June 1, in what some have called the first post-9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S., Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, an American Muslim convert upset by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, allegedly opened fire on soldiers standing outside a military recruiting station in Little Rock with a semiautomatic rifle, killing one. According to court documents, he had "recently viewed a video pertaining to subversive activities which spurred him to commit this act."

In July it was announced that Bryant Neal Vinas, a Muslim convert, had pleaded guilty to involvement in a plot by Al Qaeda to target the Long Island Rail Road in New York, and the FBI arrested seven American Muslim men in North Carolina in connection with an alleged plot to attack the Quantico Marine base in Virginia. In September the FBI broke up what it says was a Qaeda plot to bomb New York (allegedly orchestrated by a group of longtime American residents), and conducted successful sting operations against two Islamist extremists in Springfield, Ill., and Dallas. And just last month, FBI agents arrested two Chicago-area residents of Pakistani descent suspected of being involved in an Al Qaeda-linked plot to target a controversial Danish newspaper.

Before the recent spike, the incidences of terrorism and national security charges against American residents publicly linked to jihadi groups were actually on a downward trajectory, according to a database maintained by the NYU Center on Law and Security (with which I am affiliated). There have been more than 60 people convicted in the United States on such charges since 9/11.

Obviously, the Muslim individuals involved in alleged terror plots make up a tiny, unrepresentative fraction of America's Muslim community as a whole. A 2007 Pew poll found that the estimated 1.5 million adult American Muslims are "largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world." Nonetheless, the same poll also found that a higher percentage of U.S.-born Muslims look kindly on Al Qaeda than do non-U.S. born Muslims. According to Pew, 7 percent of American-born Muslims held a "favorable" view of Al Qaeda in 2007, compared with only 3 percent of foreign-born Muslims who did, with 51 percent of American-born Muslims having a "very unfavorable" view of the terror group, compared with 63 percent of foreign-born Muslims who felt that way.

There is also some evidence that radical Islamist preachers are becoming increasingly active in the United States, and that, as the NYPD's Silber testified, "the Internet has become an even more important venue and driver for radicalization" of American Muslims. In Britain, a decade of proselytizing since the mid-1990s by a number of pro-Qaeda preachers radicalized a small but significant number of young British Muslims. Since 9/11 more than 200 individuals have been convicted in the U.K. on terrorism and terror-related charges. In the late 1990s, a number of radical British preachers traveled across the Atlantic to the United States. One of them was Anjem Choudhary, then the deputy leader of Al Muhajiroun, a British pro-Qaeda support group. Earlier this month, Choudhary told me that in 1999 and 2000 he spent time in several parts of the United States, including New York, where he helped set up an American wing of his organization, which was disbanded in 2004. In the U.K., his leader, the firebrand Syrian-Cockney cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, had already been preaching to hundreds of young British Muslims for more than half a decade.

Until the late 1990s, most pockets of extremism in the U.S. had been associated with Arabic-speaking clerics such as Omar Abdel-Rahman, the "blind Sheikh," who in the early 1990s briefly took over the Al Farooq mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y. Leaders of Al Muhajiroun proselytized in English, making Al Qaeda's ideology accessible to second-generation Muslims and converts who could not speak languages such as Arabic and Urdu. Although Al Muhajiroun was formally disbanded, Choudhary says that dozens of Americans tune into the online lectures of Bakri Mohammed, now based in Lebanon, every day.

Al Awlaki, the Yemen-based preacher who had contact with Fort Hood shooter Hasan, developed ties to Al Muhajiroun when he lived in Britain after leaving the United States, according to former members of the organization in the U.K. Awlaki, who as a preacher in a Virginia mosque had contact with two of the 9/11 hijackers in the months before the attacks, has in the past several years emerged as an online guide to a generation of radical-leaning young Muslims in the United States. Like American Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, he translates the group's ideology into a vernacular that radical-leaning Muslims in the United States can understand through video sermons posted on his Web site. One of those suspects arrested for plotting to attack the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey in 2007 decided to move forward with the plan after viewing one of Awlaki's videos, according to the testimony of an informant. Until very recently, Awlaki continued to preach online from Yemen; he praised the Fort Hood shooting just hours after it took place. Awlaki's Web site went down shortly after that, replaced with an Islamic greeting and this message: "The Web site will be back to normal with a few days time."

Other American radical preachers have been active closer to home. The founders of Revolution Muslim, Yousef Al-Khattab and Younus Abdullah Muhammad, regularly preach and leaflet outside New York–area mosques about the need for Muslims to "rise up" against a United States engaged in a "war on Islam." While they say they don't encourage attacks in the U.S., neither do they hide their admiration for Osama bin Laden. "I love him more than I love myself," Khattab told CNN in an interview earlier this month. The founders of Revolution Muslim appear to be fans of Awlaki. In October they posted a statement from him on their blog that warned, "America cannot and will not win. The tables have turned and there is no rolling back of the worldwide Jihad movement."

Fortunately, America's Muslim community is largely immune to such messages. But, as in every Western country, there are some who feel alienated and frustrated, and who may be susceptible to radical ideologies. The recent experiences of some European countries suggest that the United States may have a problem if radical preachers continue to be able to proselytize on these shores. Consider the different cases of Britain and France. Young Muslims in Britain are arguably as well, if not better, integrated into society than their French counterparts and have better economic opportunities, but according to European counterterrorism sources, Al Qaeda's violent, extremist ideology has significantly more followers in Britain than across the English Channel. Perhaps that's because until recently, British authorities tolerated the presence of radical preachers, while France took a zero-tolerance approach, expelling extremist preachers from mosques and deporting foreign radical clerics from the country.

After the 2005 London terrorist attacks, Britain adopted tougher laws on radical preaching and arrested or banned from the country several extremist clerics, including Bakri Mohammed. (Clearly, concerns about civil liberties in the United States make restricting certain types of speech more difficult than it might be in France or Britain, which have less lenient free-speech regulations.)

It would be a nightmare for U.S. counterterrorism officials if what happened in the U.K. in the years before the London bombings were now playing out in the United States, especially because the growth of radical Web sites has made it much more difficult to counter extremist preaching. Could the United States simply be lagging behind in terms of domestic radicalization? That is what Anjem Choudhary, the U.K.-based extremist preacher, believes. In an interview with CNN's Nic Robertson earlier this month, he said, "I do believe that the Muslims in America are five or 10 years behind in terms of the struggle they are engaging in." If true, there's still time for Americans, of all faiths, to fight the extremist movement.