Given the raw number of terrorist plots this year, it shouldn't come as a surprise that 2009 is ending with an attempt to blow a commercial airliner out of the sky.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed bombing plot stands out in part because it appears to have been designed and launched from abroad.
Homegrown American Islamist terror became impossible to ignore this year: Two fatal attacks on the U.S. military — one killing an Army recruiter, the other a mass murder of soldiers; an intercepted plot considered the biggest domestic threat since 9/11; and a series of conspiracies to blow up synagogues, office buildings, and other targets made 2009 the year homegrown American Islamist terror became a clear, serious threat.
An American stands accused of playing a key role in scouting targets in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 170 people. Five college students gave up promising futures to try to join the jihad against American soldiers in Afghanistan. And two young men were convicted for working with Pakistani militants in plots at home and abroad.
The Nov. 5 Fort Hood massacre was the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. Six months earlier, Muslim convert Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad shot and killed Army recruiter William Long in Little Rock, Ark. Muhammad told police "he was mad at the U.S. military because of what they had done to Muslims in the past," and that he would have shot more people if he had seen them outside the recruiting office.
This spike in violence and planned attacks got the White House's attention. President Obama noted in his speech at West Point explaining the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan: "In the past few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cited the case of Najibullah Zazi (a U.S. resident charged with planning to detonate a weapon of mass destruction who allegedly trained with al-Qaida): "We are seeing young Americans who are inspired by al-Qaida and radical ideology. We are seeing increasing links" between al-Qaida and American citizens "for purposes of planning terrorist attacks."
These and other recent arrests of Islamist terror suspects on U.S. soil should debunk a popular illusion: that the United States has been so successful at integrating Muslims into American life that it need not worry about homegrown radicalization, said Zeyno Baran, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Eurasian Policy.
"I think there was always a little bit of denial here," Baran told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "People have been repeating the mantra that 'America is different' " from Europe.
Baran warned against exaggerating the potential benefits of integrating Muslims better into American culture to prevent radicalization. She noted, for example, that the British doctors who attempted to carry out a series of car bombings in London and Glasgow two years ago appeared to be well-integrated medical professionals. But the outward signs of professional and social success masked the reality that they had become devoted jihadists.
And FBI counterterrorism chief Steve Pomerantz expressed skepticism about the idea that better integration of Muslims would reduce the jihadist threat. "You only become integrated if you want to," he said during an interview.
Noting that many of the Muslims who immigrated to Europe in recent decades showed little interest in integrating themselves, Pomerantz said the United States needs to accept the possibility that American Muslims may follow the European model. He believes the jihadist danger in the United States is likely to worsen.
"There is this radical Islamic ideology that has spread and metastasized" around the world, he said. U.S. policymakers would be foolish "not to act on the assumption that it could get worse."
Echoing that sentiment is Walid Phares, director of the Future of Terrorism Project with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who said radicalized Muslim youths "are filled with notions that they are persecuted; that there are conspiracies against their community and that they need to do something about it.
"The radicalized individuals are influenced by the demonization of the U.S. government which triggers decisions in their own head," Phares said. "When you convince individuals that the government is after their community and you apologize for jihadists worldwide, you end up contributing to the psychological incitement for violence inside the U.S. as well."
In short, Baran said, Democratic societies must confront the challenge Islamism poses.
Recent statements from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) acknowledging the existence of homegrown radicalism are a positive development, Baran said. But it needs to do more than just condemn acts of violence.
"Muslim leaders have to say that [the United States] is not in a 'war against Islam,'" she said.
They have been doing precisely the opposite for years. In 2007, the New York Police Department issued a detailed report on homegrown radicalization and terrorism in the West, Baran said. CAIR attacked the report, asserting that it would lead to discrimination against Muslims.
If CAIR and others are serious about playing a constructive role in fighting radicalism, they should change their rhetoric and behavior in other ways, she said.
The case of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Muslim military psychiatrist who carried out the Fort Hood massacre, illustrates the danger that can result from someone exposed to a steady diet of America-bashing, Baran said.
"For many years, they refused to address the problem of radicalization," she said of national Islamist groups. By evading the issue, they behaved like "people who say they are dealing with an alcoholism problem, but. . . never get around to dealing with it."
Although U.S. law enforcement scored numerous successes in thwarting terrorist plots, two jihadists carried out lethal attacks on U.S. soil this year. The attack on the Little Rock recruiting center is considered a "lone wolf" attack. But Muhammad is believed to have traveled to Yemen, a hotbed of terrorism, where he may have studied under a radical Islamist cleric before the shooting.
"Lone jihadists may really be alone as persons, but they are part of a production of jihadists with the same ideology, outlook, and engagement logic," Phares said.
Hasan's case illustrates Phares' point. The Army major's Nov. 5 rampage at the Texas base was one of three this year in which jihadists opposed to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan targeted American military personnel on U.S. soil.
Serious questions were raised about Hasan's professional competence before the Fort Hood attack. Hasan remained in the military despite evidence of his radical ties, including efforts to contact al-Qaida. In addition, he delivered a presentation that seemed to justify jihad and gave a lecture that led his colleagues to conclude he thought nonbelievers should be condemned to hell, beheaded, and set on fire.
One official reportedly told colleagues that Hasan might leak secret military information to Islamic terrorists, while another worried he might be capable of committing a crime such as the Fort Hood attack.
With all these misgivings, why wasn't Hasan removed from his duties or forced to undergo a mental health evaluation? In interviews with NPR, officials cited a number of reasons, including the fact that expulsion is a cumbersome process possibly involving expensive legal battles. Officials also worried that they might be perceived as discriminating against Hasan because of his faith.
Part of the problem is that some experts advise the government not to identify and counter radical Islamism when it finds it, Phares said in response to a question about the role of "political correctness" in preventing a vigorous investigation of Hasan. Short of catching Hasan physically preparing to commit a terrorist act, military authorities and law enforcement were unable to move against him.
The United States is "without any defense when it comes to radicalization," Phares said. Terrorists go "undetected until they start preparing for the physical act or until they perform it."
The recent news that five Washington-area Muslim men were arrested in Pakistan, allegedly while on a mission to join the Taliban in fighting against the United States, served as a jarring reminder of the progress that jihadist recruiters have made in targeting Americans since 9/11.
Those arrests came two days after Chicago resident David Coleman Headley (already charged with planning attacks against the facilities of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten), was charged with playing a pivotal role in the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks in which six Americans were among the more than 170 people killed. The government now alleges that Headley, an American citizen, conducted surveillance of sites targeted in the Mumbai attacks.
It is a myth to think that there is a correlation between the level of Muslim integration and the terrorist threat to the United States, Phares said. European societies such as Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands have had more liberal cultures and generous social benefits for immigrants than the United States. But they have had much more potent jihadist movements as well.
"What happens in Europe is simply a prelude to what is happening here," Phares said. The argument that "America is different" is actually "an argument advanced by jihadi propagandists for strategic reasons."
They want "to cover up for the gradual expansion of the jihadi ideology before it reaches a critical mass comparable to Europe's," he told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
To read more about the major terror cases of 2009, click here
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