American nightmare: Al Qaeda at home

January 21, 2010

berndforblog– 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.

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?

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Killing uninvolved parties is one thing, but pro-Western Muslims are seen as enablers and collaborators. us_tullius_cicero_quote_b6ea

Posted by Mega | Report as abusive

your assumption that al qaeda terrorists from america would have to be seduced by al qaeda propaganda may be somewhat ‘off’. it might just be that any future blond blue eyed al qaeda terrorist just uses al qaeda to get back at america, for whatever reasons they might have. the logic being: an enemy of my enemy is my ally.

its quite conceivable that some future blond blue eyed al qaeda terrorist converts to islam and seeks out al qaeda just to right some perceived injustice (e.g., america’s unconditional support of anything israel does). also, as the ‘american dream’ fades into history our future terrorist might just be someone who sees no future for america.

this is the individual to truly fear as he (she) will have no ideological affinity to islam and only the loosest of associations with the islamic community. thus, trying to undermine whatever credibility you (we) may think that al qaeda has may be taking a wrong tack (although it’s probably something we should still do on general principle).

however, at this point in history, the american right-wing seems to hold the record on terrorism: church burnings and bombings during the civil rights era in the 1960s, murders of civil rights workers, lynching from the 1800s onward, assaults and beatings of minorities, kkk intimidation, ethnically cleansing black towns in the south, the murrah federal building, etc. they’ve probably killed tens of thousands of americans! add these guys into the mix and all you can say is the future looks somewhat dark. best of luck to us all!

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

The reason why the West is losing the propaganda war with extermist groups is, because of political correctness. The west, in general, is afraid to point the finger at Islam and all of Muslims as the problem, which they clearly are.

Muslims immigrants from all Muslim countries come to take advantage of jobs, resources and freedoms, but internally hate the value of the West, as they are “unislamic”. How is this, itself not extrememist?

Muslims tend to have trouble calling a right a right and a wrong a wrong. A fellow muslim is rarely wrong, they are always right, because they are muslim.

Why doesn’t everyone ask the question, why is the west always at conflict with “Islamist Extremist”?. It’s simple really, all of Islam is extreme.

We do not here of Hindu, Buddaists, Sikhs calling for the destruction of the west?

Posted by s9454a | Report as abusive

OK article, but you say:

“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”

Are you serious? Is it really widely-held? If so, can a nation survive a level of misconception presumably cultivated by political correctness? I like the idea of courtesy and respect, but it sure seems that political correctness has become about as useful as a blindfold while mountain climbing.

Posted by russdward357 | Report as abusive

I think that for now, muslim people need to either live in peace in the US or go back to their birth country.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

And the rate of serious mental illness is at least 1% in these US muslims. So Fanatic Muslims only need to find & brainwash this subset to go commit Jihad.
It is what happens in the madrassas in Asia. Hard core muslim Imams teach their brand of Sharia to mostly ignorant (spiritually) young people and 2-3% end up volunteering for Jihad. Those that do tend to be– 1. low IQ 2. mental disorder 3. grieving for lost family member. That low percentage gives you thousands and thousands of potential matyrs to support Dar Al Islam.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

Political correctness has nothing to do with why the US is losing “the propaganda war.” They are able to recruit people as is without “take ’em dead or alive” rhetoric fuming from the executive…they had for years before hand. It’s not a question of morality / the strength of ideas for those who find this message appealing, but as an answer to the concept of globalization. Rather than have a sanitized version of growth with consumerist overtones, a retreat to an idealized past is much more comforting.

I do enjoy that Bernd had an article a few weeks ago about the over-exaggeration of the terrorist “threat”, only to come full circle by joining the cocophony. Attempting to win the hearts and minds isn’t that horrible of a goal, but it has to be kept tempered by logic and the realization that there limits to any message. Additionally, keeping the military out of said message is important, for these are the same geniuses who burned a village to save a village many a time in the past.

Posted by postfattism | Report as abusive