Obama's Dilemma: How to Battle Homegrown Terror

President Obama meets with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in the East Room of the White House. Charles Ommanney / Getty Images

The car bomb was a dud. But if Faisal Shahzad had taken just a few more hours of lessons in the art of bomb making, available on the Internet, there might still be a crater in Times Square. Law-enforcement officials are worried that the next homegrown terrorist will be a little smarter and luckier. "Somebody's going to get through," says a former undercover cop who has worked closely with counterterror operations in New York (and, like other police and intelligence officials quoted in this article, refused to speak for the record). Since the beginning of 2009, at least 25 American citizens have been arrested on federal charges related to Islamist extremism. "These cases clearly suggest that an increasing number of U.S. citizens, both native-born and naturalized citizens, appear to be getting involved in the terrorist cause," says Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. "It's not an encouraging trend."

In New York City, there is a palpable sense of impending danger, if not inevitability, among senior law-enforcement officials. In Washington, national security officials already are worrying about the overreaction that could follow a terrorist attack. Politicians will demand severe new laws—and revenge—and accuse the Obama administration of going soft on terrorism. The cycle of repression and violence will beget more violence, and the "long war" against terrorism will enter a new and darker phase, which is just what terror organizations want.

All of which raises a dilemma for Obama and his advisers: how do you aggressively fight terror at home and abroad without exacerbating the very conditions that fuel the jihadist cause? This problem is particularly acute at a time when many new jihadists are "self-recruiting." Some alienated Muslims decide to join a terrorist outfit after reading or listening to English-speaking Qaeda ideologues on the Internet, or after downloading videos showing the effects of American military actions. Yet most Muslim Americans have no interest in extremist ideology and don't want to be stereotyped. The very act of spying on them, or treating them as potential enemies, could make matters worse.

Overseas, the Obama administration clearly has no inclination to stop trying to kill Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or even in Yemen or Somalia.

During Obama's 17 months in office, the CIA and the military have launched nearly 100 drone attacks against targets in the wilds of Waziristan and other Taliban and Qaeda hideouts. The total is more than twice as many as President Bush ordered during his entire second term. Attacks on remote sites have also killed civilians: a cruise-missile strike in Yemen in December eliminated 14 terrorists but also killed 41 other people, including 14 women and 21 children, according to Amnesty International. But along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, "targeted killing" by drones has become increasingly effective. Anyone serving as the No. 3 in Al Qaeda, working under Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, has particular cause for concern. American drones have killed several of these Qaeda operations chiefs, most recently (in late May) Sheik Saeed Al-Masri, one of the founders of Al Qaeda and the terror organization's top financial officer.

The Enemy Within: 25 American terror suspects. Click on image to view photos. Andrew Evans / U.S. Army-Getty Images

Nonetheless, there is some evidence that these remote-control attacks risk what the intelligence community calls "blowback." Both Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi, an earlier American-resident terrorist who was arrested last year for plotting to bomb the New York subways, told investigators they were at least partly motivated by a desire to seek revenge for drone strikes. Any military action in a foreign country produces new incentives for the enemy. Jihadi sources in Afghanistan told NEWSWEEK's Sami Yousafzai that the Taliban had no interest in attacking America directly—until the U.S. military started taking out their leaders (and sometimes their families). "The Americans are attacking us in our country, our villages, and our houses, so why shouldn't we attack them in their country?" asks a senior Taliban intelligence officer, who did not want to be named for security reasons. Taliban chat rooms claim to be receiving hundreds of offers from Western Muslims seeking to bring jihad to America.

Revenge is only one motivation, and may not be the most important one, for jihadist wannabes in the United States. Investigators interviewed by NEWSWEEK, as well as court affidavits, suggest a familiar pattern in the evolution of a self-recruited terrorist. The process usually starts with second or third generation Americans of Muslim descent or more recent converts (rarely first-generation immigrants, who tend to be patriotic about their new country, although Shahzad is an exception). They are disaffected, usually middle-class, but often have trouble finding or holding a good job, and they're sometimes eager to show up or rebel against their more successful fathers. They encounter a charismatic Islamic fundamentalist and begin cruising the Internet, where there is no shortage of propaganda videos showing Muslims suffering at the hands of wicked Americans—and brave young jihadists fighting back. The videos are becoming slicker—and sicker. Here's one from Assadullah al-Shishini, an Internet balladeer believed to be living somewhere in Pennsylvania, delivered rap style:

When the Jew's blood reds my knife
Then my life is free of strife
Hiding behind rocks and trees
I'll find them with greatest ease
Throw them in the ovens hot
Soap and lampshades sold and bought
Mercy's something I have not.

The two New Jersey men arrested two weeks ago and charged with plotting to kill and maim people outside the United States are vivid case histories. Mohamed Alessa, 20, of Palestinian descent, and Carlos Almonte, 24, a Muslim convert from a family of Dominican immigrants, were often in trouble in high school (where Alessa, for one, talked about mutilating homosexuals, subordinating women under the name of Islam, and blowing up the school). They began collecting combat gear like night-vision goggles and training with paintball guns, while listening to the Internet raps of Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, the Alabama-born spokesman for Al-Shabab, a jihadist group in Somalia. After a tip, an undercover New York City cop befriended the men and began recording their conversations. They vowed to go to Somalia and become martyrs—or possibly to bring jihad back to America. "Only way I would come back here is if I was in the land of jihad and the leader ordered me to come back here and do something here. Ah, I love that," Alessa allegedly declared in one bugged conversation.

At the center of the debate over how to counter Islamic radicalization is a longtime intelligence mandarin, John Brennan, the president's top counterterror adviser. A former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, Brennan has been warning against going overboard in the war on terror by undermining the American judicial system.

After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underpants bomber, was read his Miranda rights and retained a lawyer, a hue and cry went up from conservatives. Not a few lawmakers are demanding that terror suspects be locked away and interrogated for a few days or weeks before getting to see their lawyers. At the urging of the White House, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has suggested expanding an exception to reading terror suspects their rights as soon as they're detained. But other administration officials, including Brennan, are pushing back, wary of denying anyone their rights under the Constitution. "Brennan and others are keenly aware of the dilemma between aggressive offensive action and not taking steps that could create new [homegrown terrorists]," says a senior administration official, who did not want to be named discussing White House deliberations.

Of course, top officials know what will happen if a homegrown terrorist strikes inside the United States. The Obama administration will come under tremendous pressure to hit back (somehow, somewhere) while cracking down at home. The FBI may begin routinely bugging mosques. But finding self-recruited terrorists in America's scattered Islamic community is very difficult. All the experts emphasize that law enforcement needs to work with the local Muslim citizenry to head off potential terrorists.

The Obama administration is very sensitive to avoid alienating Muslims. In a draft of a report sponsored by the State and Defense departments and the RAND Corporation on dealing with the terrorist threat, the title was changed: the term "radical Islamism" became "violent extremism." Obama officials even resist having a formal public strategy for dealing with Islamic radicalization because they don't want to label the Muslim community as a security problem.

In a recent speech, Brennan all but predicted that the United States would be attacked soon. "We must be honest with ourselves," he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies on May 26. "No nation, no matter how powerful, can prevent every threat from coming to fruition." He added that the risks are greater in the U.S. because the terrorists could take advantage of America's free and open society and rely on lone wolves and self-radicalized terrorists. But if an attack comes, said Brennan, we have to "resist succumbing to overreaction." Americans have been down that road before; it will be hard for them to resist going there again.

With Dafna Linzer and Sebastian Rotella from ProPublica, Christopher Dickey in New York, Daniel Klaidman, Michael Hirsh, John Barry, and Michael Isikoff in Washington, and Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau in Islamabad