Incompetent Terrorists, Courageous Airline Passengers, Vengeful Wives

Professor Risa Brooks is entirely correct in her conclusion that alarmist claims of a growing Muslim-American “homegrown terrorism” threat are overblown, and that this deliberate exaggeration distorts the counterterrorism policy debate and encourages enforcement activities that damage the social fabric of a nation founded on principles of individual liberty and religious freedom. Even without challenging the dubious methodology used to produce the annual number of terrorist incidents often cited, which the ACLU, Muslim Advocates, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council do here (pdf), and Dr. Brooks does here (pdf), the data showing an apparent rise in Muslim-American domestic terrorism in 2009 was belied by subsequent drops in 2010 and 2011, and overall the numbers reflect historically low levels of domestic terrorism. As Brian Michael Jenkins has previously pointed out, more Americans were killed by domestic terrorism incidents in the 1970s than in the decade after 9/11.

So I am concerned by the time Dr. Brooks spends attempting to account for the rise in terrorism arrests—a rise that doesn’t exist—and particularly her hypothesis that “greater investment in screening and latitude in investigations may be increasing the amount of terrorist activity uncovered by the authorities.” Her statement that the United States presents an “impermissive security environment” for a would-be terrorist might lead a casual reader of her article to infer that the vast and expanding post-9/11 security measures are necessary and effective in keeping us safe from would-be terrorists, though I don’t believe this is necessarily her intent.

In fact, the available evidence points to the opposite conclusion: despite the increasing scrutiny of Muslim-Americans and the still expanding counterterrorism intelligence gathering authorities, a small number of actual terrorists continue to slip through the cracks while tens of thousands of innocent people become ensnared in the surveillance dragnet. Making this point is crucial in this discussion, because the motive behind the drumbeat of fear-mongering about a growing homegrown threat is to justify continuing expansion of the surveillance industrial complex, even as we see the degradation of al Qaeda and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down. While an honest evaluation of the threat would argue for a reduction in security budgets and a normalization of police and intelligence powers, in March of this year the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) re-wrote its guidelines to remove traditional protections for U.S. personal information, even where no terrorism connection exists. This change, which authorizes the NCTC to ingest entire databases belonging to other federal agencies, regardless of the countless innocent Americans impacted, comes closer to realizing Admiral John Poindexter’s dystopian dream of Total Information Awareness than any previous single change in policy. Whether it will help NCTC become any better at finding terrorists is doubtful according to a 2008 National Research Council study of the feasibility of data mining technology for finding terrorists.

Dr. Brooks references changes to FBI investigative guidelines made in December 2008, which removed the requirement of a factual predicate before starting investigations, in arguing that these relaxed rules may lead to the identification of more terrorists. In fact, while the number of these suspicion-less investigations called “assessments” skyrocketed—over 82,000 were conducted from March 2009 through March of 2011—the number of terrorists indicted dropped significantly over that period. Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina reported (pdf) that twenty Muslim-Americans were arrested for participating in attempted terrorist plots in 2011, almost exactly the average of 19.3 per annum since 2001, and down from 26 in 2010 and 49 in 2009. And the drop in terrorism indictment rates is only more dramatic when the analysis includes material support for terrorism cases, which Kurzman shows have steadily declined in both number and significance, with the 8 cases registered in 2011 representing the lowest number since 2001.

The 82,325 assessments the FBI conducted found information sufficient to justify initiating more thorough preliminary or full investigations only 3,315 times, which is shocking considering the evidentiary standard for opening such a preliminary investigation is only “information or an allegation” that a crime may occur in the future. Yet the more than 79,000 innocent people subjected to these assessments, which may have included tactics like FBI interviews of neighbors and work colleagues and intensive physical surveillance, will have their personal information bound up in FBI files essentially forever. The high rate of declined prosecutions in FBI terrorism cases further shows that even full investigations most often fail to find significant evidence of criminal activity.

Meanwhile, Carlos Bledsoe, Nidal Hasan, and David Headley, were able to accomplish their deadly goals even after being investigated by the FBI. And it is not just the FBI’s driftnet approach that fails to identify real threats among the ocean of information being collected. Despite its intensive and indiscriminate surveillance of Muslim-American communities throughout New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, the NYPD failed to identify Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators, or would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, as journalist Marcy Wheeler details here, here, and here. That both Zazi and Shahzad were able to travel to Pakistani terrorist training camps, then back to the U.S., then get explosives into New York City is an unmitigated failure of our national security enterprise, regardless of the fact that Zazi chose to flush his explosives down the toilet after realizing he was under surveillance, and Shahzad’s Rube Goldberg device failed to explode.

Former NCTC Director Michael Leiter’s suggestion that Shahzad’s poor construction was necessitated by a desire to stay clear of national security tripwires is as much an attempt to make a purse out of a pig’s ear as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s claim that an airline passenger’s subduing underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was evidence that the “system worked.” Indeed, a Maine white supremacist targeting the Obama inauguration was able to order all the ingredients necessary to make a radioactive dirty bomb over the Internet, completely undetected. Police only discovered the plot while investigating a domestic dispute that ended with his wife shooting and killing him, raising significant questions about the effectiveness of these purported tripwires. Of course, if the tripwires only apply to Muslims buying these materials, this incident is yet another example of the risks of using racial, ethnic, or ideological profiling in national security programs.

The current state of the discourse over the scope of Muslim-American terrorism only further distorts the nature of the threat. Categorizing all violence by disparate Muslim terrorist groups, nations, and individuals with very different methods, interests, and goals as all fitting under one umbrella defined by their common religion is as wrong and misleading as it would be to include violence by the Ku Klux Klan, the Irish Republican Army, anti-abortion murderers, and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army under a banner of “Christian terrorists.” Treating an alleged assassination plot by Iranian intelligence agents (Manour Arbasiar), a planned firecracker attack against a Shia Mosque (Roger Stockham), an online threat to the South Park creators (Jesse Curtis Morton), and acts by individuals with clear mental health issues (Emerson Begolly and Jose Pimentel), as examples of a like kind of threat can only mislead policy makers and confuse intelligence agents and law enforcement officers who are already laboring under a flood of factually flawed and biased anti-Muslim training materials. It’s no wonder our anti-terrorism policies and practices too often target innocents instead of focusing on real threats.

In the end, we have too often had to rely on incompetent terrorists, courageous airline passengers, and vengeful wives as our defense against terrorism. This is a clear indication that it is long past time for a thorough evaluation of the effectiveness of the broad powers and fat budgets we’ve given the national security apparatus, from the USA-PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendments Act, to state and local intelligence fusion centers, to the new NCTC guidelines. The mercifully small number and scope of terrorist incidents in the U.S. last year is not evidence our national security establishment is working well; by that measure we would have to have given it high marks for effectiveness on September 10, 2001. A continually expanding national security state that soaks up resources even as it abuses our rights is not the best way to address a small and diminishing threat, particularly, as Dr. Brooks points out, when the anti-terrorism measures actually create more hostility and distrust between the government and the communities they serve.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • An Exaggerated Threat by Risa Brooks

    Risa Brooks argues that the threat of homegrown jihadist terrorism has often been exaggerated. U.S. Muslims have generally shown little inclination toward terrorism. The small minority who feel differently have proven themselves startlingly inept. The Muslim community has proven itself eager to report suspected militants, and many plots would never have progressed beyond fantasy without the “help” of FBI sting operations. Worrying too much about this threat diverts resources from other valuable FBI endeavors, foments suspicion in the Muslim community, and erodes our civil liberties.

Response Essays

  • Jihadist Recruiting Is Widespread by Douglas Farah

    Douglas Farah draws our attention to the recruiting efforts and propaganda of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is profoundly violent, anti-western, anti-Semitic, and pro-terrorist. The group’s propaganda is widespread in American mosques, he warns, and the Muslim Brotherhood exerts significant influence over Islam in America. Although American Muslims may not generally be inclined to violence, it is clear that some of them are, and we should not underestimate the threat when we can see it so clearly stated in the available recruitment and propaganda literature.

  • Getting the Threat Right by Brian Michael Jenkins

    Brian Michael Jenkins examines American jihadism and concludes that it’s largely an Internet phenomenon. Sympathies for jihad run wider than they are deep. The 2009-2010 uptick in arrests can partly be explained by Somali reactions to the 2007 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Jenkins finds that national and clan ties likely have more motivating power than al Qaeda’s ideology. Still, because Americans unrealistically expect 100% security, he voices concern that even a single terrorist success could provoke panicked overreactions.

The Conversation