A Growing Terrorist Threat?
March 8, 2010
Five events during the fall of 2009 thrust concerns over “homegrown” terrorism—or extremist violence perpetrated by U.S. legal residents and citizens1 —into public view:
- September 19: Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan citizen and U.S. legal resident, was arrested on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Zazi later admitted to traveling to Pakistan to receive explosives and weapons training and to planning an attack in the United States.
- October 27: Federal authorities charged U.S. citizen David Coleman Headley with planning to attack a Danish newspaper. In December, revelations surfaced that Headley may have conspired with operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist group, in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
- November 5: Major Nidal Malik Hasan, U.S. Army, allegedly killed 13 and wounded 30 at Fort Hood Army Base, outside Killeen, Texas. Early reports revealed that Hasan had previously communicated with a radical Yemeni cleric connected to al Qaeda.\
- November 23: Federal officials unsealed indictments against eight people charged in connection with the alleged recruitment of approximately two dozen Somali Americans to fight with an insurgent group in Somalia.
- December 9: Five young Northern Virginia men were arrested in Sargodha, Pakistan. U.S. and Pakistani authorities claim that the group traveled there to fight alongside Taliban militants in Afghanistan.
This rash of arrests has important implications for policymakers and officials in charge of counterterrorism and homeland security because U.S. legal residents and citizens are lucrative assets for global terrorist organizations. Facing comparatively few restrictions, U.S. legal residents and citizens can travel abroad, connect with terrorist groups to gain explosives or weapons training, and return here to plan and execute attacks. Particularly troubling are homegrown extremists who possess facility with both American and foreign cultures, including language skills. Such multi-cultural familiarity could allow them to operate freely both at home and overseas and to elude—far more easily than foreign nationals—U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials. Combating these tendencies requires action at the local, state, and federal levels. Local governments, supported by federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, must continue to build strong partnerships with Muslim communities. This type of cooperation is important because the friends and family of suspected extremists often are the best resources for law enforcement officials.
The federal government also must continue to support official partnerships among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Such efforts—embodied in Joint Terrorism Task Forces and fusion centers—are crucial to apprehending domestic extremists because they combine local expertise (knowledge of neighborhoods and communities) with federal expertise (national intelligence and counterterrorism tools) to form a comprehensive approach to the threat.
Policymakers and officials at the national level also must address two key issues that play heavily in the five cases discussed here. First, they must consider new ways to interdict the growing trend of “Internet radicalization.” Many of last fall’s suspects connected with transnational terrorist recruiters via the Internet; stopping this sort of activity is crucial to stemming domestic extremism in the United States.
Second, several of those arrested last fall seemed to harbor the belief that the United States is at war with Islam. This is a “narrative” that al Qaeda and other global terrorist groups actively promulgate; it holds that U.S. counterterrorism efforts signify a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam. The United States must continue to work to puncture this narrative. White House officials already have discarded phrases like “war on radical Islam.” But ultimately, the United States needs to go further than this, because al Qaeda seizes on more than just U.S. rhetoric to galvanize support for its agenda; the group also points to America’s military presence in Muslim countries as evidence for its preferred narrative. The United States, then, should consider how to balance the need to combat global terrorism with the drawbacks of large-scale, direct military intervention. Doing so will require the United States to forge stronger partnerships with states plagued by extremist violence.
1 “Homegrown” terrorism does not have any one, official definition. In a June 2006 speech, FBI Director Robert Mueller spoke of the threat posed by self-radicalized individuals living in the United States (See http://www.fbi.gov/pressrel/speeches/mueller062306.htm.) The “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007” defined homegrown terrorism, in part, as “the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a large group or individual born, raised, or operating primarily within the United States…in furtherance of political or social objectives.” (See http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_cong_bills&docid=f:h1955rfs.txt.pdf.) For the purposes of this study, we will define the term as terrorist violence perpetrated by U.S. legal residents or citizens.