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The highly charged debate over the proposed Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan has attracted the attention of young Muslims who visit Islamic Web sites and post messages in jihadi chat rooms.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports some experts worry the controversy plays into the hands of extremists.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: As originally conceived, the idea behind the Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan seemed simple enough.

Ms. DAISY KHAN (Executive Director, American Society for Muslim Advancement): Well, there will be a 500-seat auditorium. There will be a swimming pool. There will be athletic facilities. There will be cooking classes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Daisy Khan on ABC's "This Week." She's the wife of the imam in charge of the proposed center. She envisioned the 13-floor building like a YMCA, except it would be Muslim and would include a small mosque.

Ms. KHAN: Education, forums, conferences, and it's basically become a place where ideas can be exchanged, but tolerance, mutual respect can also be extended.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Instead, what Daisy Khan got was this...

Unidentified Man: I mean, we will never, ever allow this mosque to be (unintelligible)...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Dueling demonstrations on Sunday outside Park 51, the proposed site for the center.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) hands and knees and (unintelligible). When it comes to respect (unintelligible).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hundreds of people showed up. Families of the 911 victims called the center an affront to what they considered hallowed ground. Construction workers vowed not to help build it. Civil liberties groups chanted about religious tolerance. And the police did their best to keep the two sides on opposite sides of the street.

That's how the debate is playing out publicly. Out in the blogosphere, in password-protected Web forums run by extremists, there's a different view. All this controversy is welcomed. Extremists and radical clerics - including one who has become kind of a bug-light of sorts, attracting young American jihadis - have posted a stream of I-told-you-so messages. They've long claimed that Islam was under attack by the West. The violent reaction to the center, they say, now proves it.

Mr. EVAN KOHLMANN (Flashpoint Global Partners): This, unfortunately, is playing right into their hand and, as such, they are encouraging it, with glee.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Evan F. Kohlmann tracks jihadi websites and chat rooms for Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York-based security firm. He says that extremists couldn't have scripted events any better, and they've made clear that they hope the debate rages on.

Mr. KOHLMANN: It's their sense that by doing this that Americans are going to alienate American Muslims to the point where even relatively moderate Muslims are going to be pushed into joining extremist movements like al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that worries law enforcement. There have been a record number of homegrown terrorist plots in this country since late last year. Officials say the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have moved some young Muslims to join the fight. So far this year, the FBI's intercepted nearly a dozen young American Muslims allegedly on their way to terrorist training camps in Pakistan or Somalia. And in nearly every case, the young men said America's so-called war on Islam was one of their reasons for leaving.

And intelligence officials say that every young Muslim they've intercepted this year has claimed to be inspired by one man, an Internet cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki.

Mr. ANWAR AL-AWLAKI (Internet Cleric): To the Muslims in America, I have this to say...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Awlaki, the radical cleric linked to the Fort Hood and Christmas Day attacks, made a direct appeal to American Muslims earlier this summer.

Mr. AWLAKI: How can you have your loyalty to a government that is leading the war against Islam and Muslims?

Mr. BRIAN FISHMAN (Counterterrorism Research Fellow, New America Foundation): I am Brian Fishman. I'm a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Fishman has been tracking Awlaki for years, and he says the latest controversy over the Islamic Center has made Awlaki look prescient.

Mr. FISHMAN: Over the past nine to 12 months, Anwar al-Awlaki has tried to promote this notion that the West, and particularly the United States, will turn on its Muslim citizens. And some of the anti-Islamic tone that has been going on around the country in connection with the mosque debate feeds into this notion that people like Anwar al-Awlaki can take advantage of.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Given the highly charged environment, that notion is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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