U.S. Ponders How To Stop Homegrown Terrorism A series of American Muslims have been arrested for their alleged roles in terrorist plots or groups. The incidents reveal how little is understood about how terrorists get radicalized — and how to intervene in America's Muslim communities before it's too late.
NPR logo U.S. Ponders How To Stop Homegrown Terrorism

U.S. Ponders How To Stop Homegrown Terrorism

A spate of incidents where homegrown militants allegedly plotted or committed acts of terrorism has a growing number of officials, lawmakers and experts worried about how to prevent more incidents of radicalization in America's Muslim communities.

The most recent case involves five young American Muslims from Northern Virginia who were detained in Pakistan earlier this month, accused of seeking to join up with militants operating in that country's tribal regions.

But there's also David Headley, a Pakistani-American arrested in Chicago and accused of attending militants training camps in Pakistan, plotting attacks in Denmark and scouting possible targets for the group that staged the 2008 Mumbai siege. And there's Najibullah Zazi, a Queens resident whom the FBI has charged with plotting attacks in the U.S. and who is also believed to have attended training camps in Pakistan.

"In these cases, terrorist organizations not only successfully recruited Americans, but they provided the requisite training for those Americans to carry out attacks," Rep. Jane Harman, a Democrat from California, said Tuesday during a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing that she chaired. "We don't have too many more chances to get this right."

Harman used the hearing to warn that more prevention efforts are needed urgently. "The next attack," she said, "could provoke a shredding of the Constitution, which none of us want."

Many Republicans say the recent cases demonstrate why Congress needs to renew several provisions of the Patriot Act that expire at the end of this month, including ones that authorize certain kinds of domestic electronic surveillance.

Path To Radicalization: The Mentor Scenario

But even as the threat of homegrown extremists becomes more apparent, U.S. intelligence officials and outside terrorism experts alike concede that they still don't understand the process by which a tiny number of Muslims become radicalized toward violent acts.

"Research suggests that no single pathway towards terrorism exists, making it somewhat difficult to identify overarching patterns in how and why individuals are susceptible to terrorist recruitment, as well as intervention strategies," Kim Cragin, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. think tank, said at the hearing.

One thing that is clear is that the process usually involves outside, active forces, and that they are rarely so-called self-radicalizations, where people become violently militant merely by absorbing Internet postings.

"Overwhelmingly, there is a mentor involved in the radicalization process," Cragin said.

U.S. intelligence officials agree with both of those conclusions, which is one of the reasons the Fort Hood rampage, in which Army Maj. Nidal Hasan allegedly killed 13 people, is being investigated so closely.

While Hasan's exact motives remain unclear, he was in close contact with a radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric living in Yemen. Investigators are still trying to understand what role the cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, might have played in Hasan's decision-making.

New Look At America's Muslim Immigrant Communities

Either way, the larger set of incidents is starting to puncture the notion held by many experts in recent years that the U.S. was less vulnerable to the potential radicalization of its Muslim immigrant communities than European nations, which have long eyed their Muslim populations with more suspicion. The notion is based on the belief that because Muslim immigrants in the U.S. are better integrated into mainstream daily life, fewer of them become so alienated that they are likely to turn violent.

"America is different in concept and reality," James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, said at Tuesday's hearing. But, he added, "some alienated young men from these communities have become susceptible to radicalization."

It is not clear, however, that this trend is all that new. Leah Farrall, a former counterterrorism analyst with the Australian Federal Police, points out in her blog, All Things Counter Terrorism, that Zazi was allegedly at a terrorist training camp in 2008, which means he was radicalized before then, and that Headley's militant involvement apparently dates back to 2001.

In another case, two Georgia men were sentenced on Monday to more than a decade in prison each for videotaping American landmarks and delivering the footage to militant contacts overseas. One man even allegedly went to Pakistan in an unsuccessful attempt to enter a paramilitary terrorist training camp. These events took place in 2005.

"Just because a case comes to public notice this year, it does not mean that what underpins that investigation is new or novel," she writes. "Perhaps instead of fretting about the 'newness' of the threat, we would all be better served recognizing that as cases continue to emerge, we still know very little about radicalization trajectories."

Battling Radicalization On The Ground

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been studying radicalization, but a number of experts say that prevention efforts have to be focused on the local level with outreach programs and community policing.

"No government entity exists that is committed to sponsoring this research," said Stevan Weine, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois, referring to "investigations into the family and community dimensions of violent radicalization in the United States."

Weine has been working with Somali communities in Minnesota, where at least 20 young Somali refugees disappeared; they returned to Somalia and joined a militant group there. Of the 20 known Somalis, seven have been killed, four are in custody, and seven are at large, believed to be in Somalia, according to Weine.

"Somalis are not our only concern," he said in a prepared statement for the hearing. "Our concern should include all of those from failed states that house extremist militant movements. At present, that includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran."

The Early-Intervention Dilemma

But even if experts could identify which communities or individuals are most at risk of becoming radicalized, there are some big barriers to preventing it.

"Our research suggests that it would be best to intervene before the individuals depart the United States for training camps abroad, because experiences in those camps tend to harden their commitment towards al-Qaida and associated movements," Cragin said. "Yet, in many instances, individuals have not engaged in illegal activities prior to their departure."

This dilemma is coming to the forefront of the Fort Hood investigation, where FBI and U.S. military officials are being criticized for missing warning signs when it came to Hasan's apparent radicalization.

Investigators assigned to an FBI joint terrorism task force examined Hasan's communications with Awlaki, the radical cleric in Yemen, but concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Separately, many of Hasan's military colleagues, who worked with him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or at Fort Hood, had expressed worries about his radical beliefs, but there was never any official inquiry.

"The military has well-developed policies for reporting individuals who have been approached by foreign powers, for example," Sen. Susan Collins told reporters on Tuesday after a closed-door hearing on the Fort Hood investigation. "In addition, the Army has well-developed policies to deal with white-supremacy groups. But it does not appear that the military has reacted quickly enough to the pre-eminent threat of today, and that is Islamic extremism."

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