There's a pattern to recent terror attacks in the United States: Americans — either citizens or residents — have been behind them. In the past two years, dozens of American citizens and residents have been arrested on terrorism charges.
In some cases, the suspects were young Muslims traveling overseas to train for violent jihad. In others, they're accused of actually trying to launch attacks. Attorney General Eric Holder said homegrown terrorism is one of those things that keeps U.S. officials awake at night.
Now there is someone new at the National Security Council who won't be getting much sleep: He's a former Rhodes College professor named Quintan Wiktorowicz, and he's an expert on, among other things, how some people decide to become terrorists.
"A number of years ago, before he went into government, he did some of the most path-breaking work not only on who was susceptible to being radicalized, but most importantly, who was the most resistant to being radicalized," says Christine Fair, an expert on terrorism and radicalization at Georgetown University. "And the findings that he came up with based upon his work really shattered some of the stereotypes we have about Muslims and radicalization."
As part of his research, Wiktorowicz interviewed hundreds of Islamists in the United Kingdom. After compiling his interviews he came to the conclusion that — contrary to popular belief — very religious Muslims were in fact the people who ended up being the most resistant to radicalization.
Fair, who has done a great deal of work on radicalization in Pakistan, said Wiktorowicz's work stayed with her forever. "It really was revelatory for me," she says.
Revelatory because, as it turns out, Wiktorowicz found that it was people who did not have a good grounding in the religion who were the most likely to be attracted by radical Islam.
Peter Neumann is the director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College, London. He got to know Wiktorowicz in London three years ago. Wiktorowicz was at the U.S. Embassy there, studying how the British dealt with radical Islamists and then finding ways to apply those lessons to the United States.
While in the U.K., Wiktorowicz reached out to a wide range of Muslim leaders — from moderates to extremists — and that set him apart from scholars who had preceded him, Neumann says. "He very successfully mobilized a broad coalition of very different people in London that all came together in order to oppose extremism and terrorism. No one else before has accomplished that."
It is also on this point that Wiktorowicz apparently ran into trouble. His coalition of Muslims was controversial because it included people some conservatives in Britain found too extreme. As Neumann sees it, that was part of the strategy: "Wiktorowicz's approach has quite deliberately been: 'I want the tent to be as broad as possible. ... As long as they are opposed to extremism and terrorism, I want everyone to be part of the coalition.' "
At the White House, Wiktorowicz's title will be senior director for global engagement at the National Security Council. He's seen by terrorism experts as bringing so much to his new job that he could fundamentally change the way the Obama administration deals with Muslims in America.
Right now, counterradicalization in the U.S. largely depends on law enforcement — on things like FBI outreach to Muslim communities. The sheer volume of homegrown terrorism cases in the U.S. over the past two years makes clear that isn't enough, Neumann says.
"One of the important things about counterradicalization is that about perhaps 10 percent of it is law enforcement and intelligence, 90 percent of it are things that have relatively little to do with that," he says. "Counterradicalization also has to include things like politicians visiting Muslim communities, messaging" and beefing up education about Islam among Muslims themselves, so they can better resist radical recruiters.
How Wiktorowitz will apply what he learned in Britain here is unclear. His first official day of work at the White House is Monday.