By Paul R. Pillar
What is one to make of the spate of Americans getting involved in violent Islamist extremism? The arrest in Pakistan of five young Muslim Americans from the Washington suburbs—who had traveled to South Asia to fight against U.S. forces—is the most recent of several cases in the past few months with the apparent common thread of Muslims in America turning to violent jihad. Some of the cases, such as the recently arrested quintet, may have never gone beyond unrealized aspirations to kill. Others, such as the Chicagoan David Headley, allegedly played supporting roles in terrorism overseas. In one case, that of Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, the killing was real, direct and inside the United States.
A common, and thoughtful, response to this pattern has been to question the long-held belief that Muslim American communities are not as fertile a breeding ground for extremism as Muslim communities in Europe. The questioning is healthy in that there has indeed been some complacency about the nasty religiously inspired turns that some Muslim Americans might take. The basic belief about the differences between Muslim communities in Europe and the United States is still valid, however, notwithstanding the recent cases. American Muslims really do tend to be better integrated into their national society than their co-religionists in Europe.
The recent cases involving Americans do not say much about community integration. Neither do some of the cases involving Muslims in Europe. The perpetrators of a botched car-bombing campaign in Britain in 2007, for example, were not impoverished denizens of a Muslim ghetto but instead seven physicians and a medical technician. That case, the shooting rampage by the psychiatrist Hasan, and the fact that the alleged ringleader of the Northern Virginia five is a dental student, are almost enough to make one ask whether the medical professions are as fertile a breeding ground for terrorism as are the most deprived banlieues.
The recent cases do offer lessons, but not primarily ones about the status of Muslim Americans and the communities in which they live. Instead, they are lessons about terrorism and terrorist threats generally. They are worth thinking about, whether or not the incidents that happen to have become known during the past few months constitute a trend.
The cases are a reminder that terrorist threats, including ones that could involve significant harm inside the United States, are not primarily the work of any one group, be it al-Qaeda or any other. That reminder is contrary to much current discourse about terrorism, which posits al-Qaeda as the enemy. The specter that seems to haunt most discussion of terrorism within the United States is the al-Qaeda sleeper cell, even though neither the raft of cases over the past few months nor anything else has uncovered such a cell. The American jihadists have either had no connection with any foreign group or have turned to other organizations such as the Somali Al Shabab or the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The centrality of al-Qaeda in the common discourse has led to a division between terrorist plots and incidents we worry about and ones we don’t, according to whether there are any “links” to al-Qaeda. This is somewhat analogous to hate-crimes legislation, which places higher importance, and imposes heavier punishment, on some criminal acts than on other acts with identical physical harm, according to the motivation or ideology of the perpetrator. The rationale for specially identifying hate crimes is that some hateful ideas can cause damage to the social fabric, going beyond the immediate physical harm.
The apparent rationale for getting especially concerned about anything with a link to al-Qaeda is that this group is presumed to be more capable than any other of perpetrating sophisticated and highly damaging operations. The vulnerabilities of the United States to terrorist attack, however—especially given the security measures erected since 9/11—discount substantially any such advantage in sophistication. The principal vulnerabilities are to low-tech, low-organization violence such as Nidal Hasan’s shooting spree. His slaying of thirteen people made him a more efficient killing machine on a victim-per-group-member basis (counting Hasan as a one-person group) than anything al-Qaeda has accomplished, even with its off-the-charts spectacular in September 2001.
Another lesson of the domestic cases is the need to be more precise than the common discourse about what links to a group do and don’t mean. The usual tendency is to highlight any such links, as if they necessarily indicate instigation or initiative by the group. But they do not. A pattern in the recent cases is that, to the extent that links were established with a terrorist organization (or with another font of radical ideology, such as Hasan’s imam Anwar al-Aulaqi), it was the individual Americans reaching out to the group rather than the other way around. In his speech at West Point announcing his surge in Afghanistan, President Obama stated, without further details, “In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror.” What we actually have seen in the last few months has been the opposite: people within our borders (such as the Northern Virginia five or an earlier arrestee, Najibullah Zasi) sending themselves to the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The phenomenon of Americans injecting themselves into transnational terrorism points to the need to get away from the usual spatial way of thinking of terrorism in terms of some state territories that are havens and others that are targets, and of radicalism spreading across boundaries like the imagery of oozing red paint or falling dominoes that heavily influenced thinking during the Cold War. President Obama used spatial imagery in his speech at West Point. Mixing metaphors of earthquakes and disease, he described Afghanistan and Pakistan as “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda,” and declared that “we are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country.” The recent cases give scant support to the idea of an Afghan epicenter having special importance not shared by other unstable countries to which radicals can go. A group of Somalis in Minnesota were heading to Somalia to help Al Shabaab. Al-Aulaqi set up shop in Yemen. Headley, who is accused of scouting targets for Lashkar-e-Taiba’s attack in Mumbai in November 2008, was focused not on the conflict in Afghanistan but, like most Pakistanis, on confrontation with India. The Northern Virginia five were trying to get to Afghanistan, but only because U.S. forces were there, not because of a spreading cancer.
The inability of the Northern Virginia five to attain their goal of joining the anti-American jihad in Afghanistan (despite the reported assistance of a Pakistani radical with whom they had come into contact via YouTube) offers another lesson, one about the difficulty of penetrating terrorist groups. A common reaction after each news story about an American getting involved in a foreign extremist group—going back at least as far as the capture of John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan in 2001—is: “If guys like this can get into groups like that, why can’t our intelligence and security services penetrate those groups?” The answer is that groups such as al-Qaeda are extremely wary of exactly that sort of penetration and consequently are impervious to anyone whom existing trusted members cannot vouch for with certainty. The Northern Virginia five encountered that type of barrier, even though realization of their goal would not even have brought them into the inner circles of a terrorist group but instead would have made them, like Lindh, merely common fighters on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Should we be concerned about radicalized Americans getting wrapped up in foreign violence and violent groups? We should, but not for the usual reason of worrying about that proverbial al-Qaeda sleeper cell. One concern is that at any moment any one of these individuals can, like Major Hasan, cross over the fine line between anger and action, to deadly effect.
Another concern that ought to get far more attention than it does is that the actions of these Americans constitute an export of terrorism and violence from the United States to other nations, sometimes involving heavy costs to the latter. The Mumbai attack for which David Headley allegedly provided scouting services claimed at least 173 lives and wounded more than 300.
This latter concern has broader implications for U.S. policy toward the governments of other countries from which violence emanates. The United States has been quick to label other regimes as sponsors and to pin responsibility on them for actions taken on their territories or by their citizens, with little effort to identify exactly what the regime could be expected to control. An extreme example of this was the Bush administration’s pointing to the sojourns in Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as evidence of an alliance between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda, even though there was no indication that the regime had any contact with Zarqawi or even knew where he was. A less extreme but still influential example has been the continued blaming of Damascus for the infiltration of militants into Iraq—even after this had become less a matter of Syrian unwillingness than of lack of capability to stop the infiltration. Yet another example has been acquiescence in the Israeli habit of blaming the Palestinian Authority (or in Gaza, Hamas) for any violence coming out of the territories these Palestinian entities supposedly control, whether or not they in fact totally control them. Unless Americans are willing to have their own country branded a sponsor of terrorism because of the actions of homegrown American radicals, a less rigid and more realistic attitude toward some of those corresponding situations overseas would be in order.
The principal lesson to draw from the recent cases is that terrorism, either generally or specifically the Islamist variety is not solely or even primarily a matter of states, sponsorship, havens, and well-known groups. It is at least as much a matter of angry individuals, angered primarily by certain salient conflicts. It is more a matter of such individuals, already radicalized, seeking out groups than of the groups being Pied Pipers luring the individuals. The United States reduces the problem to the extent that it can help to resolve the conflicts. It exacerbates the problem, and risks becoming more of a terrorist target itself, to the extent that it escalates conflicts and makes them even more salient.
Source: Copyright © 2006 The National Interest All rights reserved
Paul R. Pillar is director of studies of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
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