American nightmare: Al Qaeda at home
- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -
It has been a recurring nightmare of American counter-terrorist officials for years — growing numbers of home-grown al Qaeda recruits drawn from the Muslim-American community, plus blue-eyed, blond-haired would-be suicide bombers travelling on American passports.
That notion clashes with the widely-held belief that Muslims in the United States are not nearly as prone to being seduced by Al Qaeda propaganda as their co-religionists in Europe. But a series of recent terrorism cases involving American citizens have challenged old assumptions and thrown question marks over a host of surveys meant to show the American Muslim communities’ resistance to radicalization.
Incidents spiked in 2009 and included the arrest of five U.S. citizens in Pakistan, where they allegedly tried to link up with extremists, and the arrest of Daniel Boyd, a white convert to Islam who was accused of plotting to attack soldiers at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Early in the year, Bryant Vinas, a Hispanic American convert, pleaded guilty to having trained with al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Now, the lure of al Qaeda’s murderous ideas is seen as a real threat. “The group seeks to recruit American citizens to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States,” according to John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “These Americans are not necessarily of Arab and South Asian descent,” he wrote in the preface of a Jan. 20 report from his committee on al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia. “They include individuals who converted to Islam in (an American) prison or elsewhere and were radicalized.”
“The prospect that U.S. citizens are being trained at al Qaeda camps in both countries deepens our concern…” not least, apparently, because an American official in Yemen told committee investigators that American converts living in Yemen included “blond-haired blue-eyed types.” That echoes then CIA chief Michael Hayden’s 2008 warning that al Qaeda was training “operatives that wouldn’t attract attention if they were going through the customs line at (Washington) Dulles airport.”
How many have done so is anyone’s guess. A January study by researchers from Duke University found that in the eight years following the September attacks, 139 Muslim-Americans had committed acts of terrorism-related violence or were prosecuted for terrorism-related offenses involving violence.
That’s a small number – 17 per year on average – in a country that recorded 136,000 murders from Sept. 11 to the end of last year. It is also a small number compared with an estimated 2.35 million Muslim-Americans. But then, how many people are needed to bring down an airliner or trigger a suicide bomb killing dozens?
In mid-December, after a Muslim-American army officer, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 13 people in a shooting spree at the Fort Hood military base, the Pew Research Center drew attention to its wide-ranging 2007 survey of the Muslim-American population that found that the vast majority rejected extremism.
The Pew survey, like a global Gallup poll in the same year flagged as the largest study of its kind, can be read two ways. Pew found that 78 percent of Muslim-Americans thought suicide bombings or other forms of violence against civilians could never be justified. But eight per cent thought it was (sometimes or often) justified. In terms of absolute numbers, that translates into more than 100,000 people – a sizeable pool of potential recruits for al Qaeda. Five percent of those questioned had a favourable view of the organization.
More strikingly, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, 28 percent flatly disbelieve that Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.
ALIENATION FROM THE MAINSTREAM
Polls such as those by Pew and Gallup paint only part of the picture, according to Geneive Abdo, author of Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11. “The real story of American Muslims is one of accelerating alienation from the mainstream of U.S. life, with Muslims in this country choosing their Islamic identity over their American one,” she says. “This is particularly true of the younger generation, those under 30.”
Growing up in America does not provide immunity to the influence of radical preachers on the Internet and of chat rooms which provide ideological justification for what al Qaeda calls the war against Jews and Crusaders. Videos glorifying violence against them serve as recruitment tools, and by many expert accounts, al Qaeda is using them more nimbly than the U.S. and its Western allies.
Undermining al Qaeda’s ability to recruit clearly is as important as the military pressure that has killed many of its leaders, diminished the organizations presence along the Afghan-Pakistani border and driven extremists to new havens in Yemen and Somalia.
The problem with undermining al Qaeda’s credibility, and thus its recruitment, is not that the West lacks ideological ammunition; it’s how effectively it is using it. One recent study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the U.S. military academy, for example, is a powerful counter-argument to al Qaeda’s portrayal of itself as the vanguard of the global Muslim community, committed to defending Muslims against Western forces waging war against Islam.
Drawing exclusively from Arab newspapers to avoid the standard extremist accusation of bias from Western news outlets, portrayed as no more than propaganda tools, the West Point researchers documented that al Qaeda attacks from 2004 to 2008 killed 3,010 people.
Just 15 percent of them were Westerners, the rest were Muslims. How widely is that known?
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)