From Influence to Action

Thank you to my colleagues for the opportunity to discuss these critical issues related to homegrown terrorism in the United States.

A few points in reaction –

First, in response to Douglas Farah’s essay, I agree it is abhorrent to think about militants of any ideological disposition—whether they be Muslim extremists or those associated with other religious or ideological extremes on the left or right—advocating ideas that could inspire others to attack their fellow Americans.

However, it is unclear that the presence of those advocating fundamentalist ideas translates clearly into an enhanced threat of terrorism in the Untied States, for at least two reasons. First, even if some radicals do supply the rationale for engaging in terrorism, there have to be converts willing to take up the call to action. If the efforts to spread radical ideas in the United States are as comprehensive and dangerous as Farah suggests, the small number who have actually engaged in terrorist activity is surprising. That these temptations to violence are limited is underscored by Brian Michael Jenkins’s comments about Al Qaeda’s concerted, yet largely failed, campaign to exhort Americans to take up arms in the United States.

Indeed, there are good reasons to be cautious about expecting that if individuals are influenced by fundamentalist ideas, that they will actually act on those ideas. Such an argument posits a faulty connection between attitudes and behavior, suggesting that violent action is a natural, if not inevitable outgrowth of extremist beliefs. As scholars of radicalization have long observed, however, knowing when any single individual will turn to violence, let alone in what incidence radicalizing individuals will actually take the step of engaging in terrorism, has proven extremely difficult. Given that an individual’s willingness to act seems to depend on a complex and variable cocktail of ideological and psychological factors, we should resist drawing direct lines between exposure to radical ideas and terrorist action.

Second, since the issue was raised by all my colleagues, let me clarify why I contend an increase in terrorism arrests does not mean more terrorist activity is occurring in the American population. Changing FBI guidance, the use of assessments or preliminary investigations, and other prerogatives provide authorities more tools to dig up signs of potential terrorist activity at its early stages. This means that people who may have thought about or taken some initial steps toward some incarnation of terrorist activity but who would have abandoned the effort if left to their own devices, are instead detected by law enforcement. Before the investment in grassroots counter-terrorism initiatives (which has increased in recent years), the same number of people could have contemplated terrorist action. The difference is now they are caught before they abandon their terrorist ambitions. The problem is somewhat analogous to cases in which individuals are sickened by a particular disease, but recover before going to a doctor; increased screening efforts might reveal these illnesses, upping disease incidence rates, despite the fact that the disease is no more common than it was prior to the investment in screening—a common issue in medical epidemiology.

Essential also to understanding how law enforcement increases terrorist activity is the large number of sting operations that involve very incompetent terrorists. There are good reasons to suspect that because these individuals lack co-conspirators, skills, resources, and self-discipline, their plots would have remained aspirational without law enforcement’s involvement during the plot’s operational advancement. By providing all those assets in the course of sting operations, the FBI is actually generating serious plots, which are counted in terrorism statistics, where there otherwise might have been few.

Finally, Michael German is right that I do not intend to say that we need to spend more on law enforcement to ensure that homegrown terrorism remains a small threat. In fact, a key basis of the impermissive security environment observed in the United States is the resilience of Muslim communities and their demonstrated willingness to self-police and deter and expose militants in their midst. Too much or wrongheaded expenditure actually threatens to undercut that key pillar of the security environment, as the controversies associated with NYPD actions demonstrate. What is needed is a balanced discussion that is not just quantitatively focused on how much to spend, but qualitatively oriented on how best to spend and invest in domestic counter-terrorism initiatives. More might be done, for example, to explore and build community outreach programs, which could both prove cost-effective and have the added benefit of working in support of the maintenance of civil liberties rather than at their expense.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Michael German calls attention to the civil liberties violations that have sprung up as a direct result of our antiterrorism policies. Federal agencies have investigated tens of thousands of innocents and collected data on many more; the surveillance industrial complex has grown enormously, and traditional privacy protections have been removed. Meanwhile, we still often stop terrorists through a combination of their own incompetence, courage on the part of ordinary civilians, and plain good luck. This suggests that our surrender of civil liberties has done us little good, if any.

  • 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.